‘Digital Connection Is All We Have’ – How COVID-19 Changed the Literary Scene
Have you been wondering how the literary community has changed during the lockdown? Denisa Vitova, a Creative Writing student and a member of The Letters Page editorial team, spoke to three women in the industry to find out. For more content on how writers deal with the current crisis, subscribe to our free newsletter here.
Digital connections have a bad reputation as a lagging, disruptive space easily invaded by internet trolls and susceptible to the whims of Wi-Fi. But while real-life connections take a backseat now, the writing community thrives online – a change Helen Bowell, Lizy Simonen, and Elspeth Wilson hope will last beyond lockdown.
Credits: Kashif Haque, Lizy Simonen, and Elspeth Wilson.
A version of this blog post was first published on our Twitter account as an interview thread.
The three poets, writers, and creative facilitators were paradoxically brought together by the Twitter-trending hashtag #StayAtHome. “Twitter’s been really good for the literary community in the past couple of months,” notes Elspeth Wilson, a researcher and writer specialising in nature writing. Indeed, she learned about many literary events organised in response to COVID-19 from Twitter, including the Stay-at-Home! International Literature Festival organised by Dr Carolyn Jess-Cooke. After leading a workshop on nature writing there, Elspeth got into contact with Lizy Simonen, an MLitt student at the University of Glasgow, who co-organised the Stay-at-Home! Fringe Literary Festival with her fellow students, Erin Gannon and Reiss McInally.
“My professor Carolyn Jess-Cooke went on Twitter and said we should do an online festival. Eleven days later it was happening,” remembers Lizy; she notes that even a small book festival normally takes about a year to plan. Lizy chaired some of the sessions at the “original” Stay-at-Home! event and the experience prompted her, Erin, and Reiss to launch their own festival with the support of the University of Glasgow. “It happened really organically. Just meeting a few different needs, I guess.”
In the writing and publishing community, the need for an alternative to the locked-down “traditional” festivals was immense. “COVID-19 disrupted the literature scene early on,” Lizy explains. As a librarian at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, where she specialises in children’s literacy, and assistant at the Wee Write, a children’s version of the popular Aye Write book festival, Lizy knows the workings of the industry well. “People were about to launch their novels or do book tours, and suddenly that’s all gone.”
What’s not gone are digital connections – they are not only resisting the crisis but also growing stronger. “It’s all we have,” shrugs Helen Bowell, a poet based in London. To the question whether it is possible to create a genuine sense of togetherness via screen, she replies: “I think that the connection really does work, even though you obviously can’t have that pre-workshop/post-workshop breaktime chat which is part of making a community.”
Under normal circumstances, Helen runs the Poets in Schools programme at The Poetry Society where she works as Education Coordinator; but since schools have been under lockdown as well, Helen’s daily tasks had also changed. These past months, she has been organising online poetry workshops at the Young Poets Network.
“The young people we work with are based worldwide – that’s the unique selling point of what we do,” explains Helen. “In the past, we never got around to doing workshops because of all the safeguarding and other technicalities. But because so much of our other work has stopped or changed, we wanted to offer something to young people who were stuck at home. So we did a series of online workshops poets all over the world could attend. It was a way to connect as well as to keep writing.”
One of these workshops was led by Elspeth Wilson. As a creative facilitator, Elspeth is passionate about providing easier access to literature, which is why she has been offering free writing workshops during the lockdown. “COVID-19 kind of democratised the literary scene,” thinks Elspeth. “The barriers to be able not only to go to workshops but also to run them have to some extent been removed. If you want to, you can just set up your own writing workshop online and see who shows up.”
Since Elspeth describes herself as a disabled writer, she sees the current digitalisation of literary festivals as a great opportunity for people with both physical and mental handicaps. “From mental health perspective, some people find attending workshops in person anxiety-inducing,” she explains. “I hope the lockdown lessons will continue to be taken forward by the arts community and we’ll see more live events accessible to people with disabilities who cannot travel to literary festivals that tend to be concentrated in major cities. But,” she adds. “I don’t think that’s just going to happen on its own. We will have to fight for that future.”
Lizy Simonen, who suffers from a chronic illness that makes travelling to literary events particularly challenging, shares Elspeth’s vision of online festivals existing alongside traditional ones. “Looking back, it’s bizarre that we didn’t do online festivals before. It doesn’t make sense. The extraordinary circumstances we are in right now are making us reassess a lot of stuff.”
According to Lizy, one of the things that needs to be reformed in the aftermath of COVID-19 is the publishing industry itself. “In publishing, things are often very traditional. We’re still coping with the idea that literary agents don’t have to live in New York City,” she points out. “We should recognise that we’re in an interconnected world; it doesn’t matter where you are as long as you can communicate with others.”
Elspeth also finds that the mindset of the publishing industry is rather restrictive; for example, she doesn’t appreciate that some literary agents attempt to police what writers should be writing about. “Many agents say that no one wants to read about pandemics, but I don’t think that’s true. People like reading what helps them to make sense of their situation. If there’s a massive event like the corona crisis and lockdown, art will look at it both retrospectively and at the time it’s happening. And I think that’s a good thing.”
Helen agrees: “I’ve seen publications tweet ‘don’t send us your COVID-19 poems’. But obviously people will – they have to! – write about it. It’s everywhere. Our lives have been completely changed by it,” she argues. “Writing is documenting how we have experienced this time.” She suggests following the hashtag #haiflu which gathers people’s daily haikus on their life during the pandemic. “They’re kind of like poetic diaries.”
While some publishers dismiss corona diaries as a fad, Helen believes that corona writing won’t disappear any time soon. “I think that much in the same way that AIDS literature is seen as its own separate genre, corona poems – that’s what they might be called – and other writing will be too. In a few years, people will ask ‘what was it like to live under lockdown, to stay two meters away from your friends and family?’ There will be an audience,” she insists. “There’s already an audience.”
The Letters Page also feels the COVID-19 impact: instead of letters, we are currently accepting email submissions. If you crave a unique digital connection, subscribe to our free newsletter and you will hear from our contributors worldwide and how they fare during corona.