You’ve pitched a piece to New York magazine about the dangers of covid-19 with the subject line “An expert’s account of how coronavirus takes over the body.” The pitch was accepted. You imagine a reader, bored already by mere coronavirus facts skipping over a dry, factual account of the ways the virus is transmitted. This piece needs to be, figuratively of course, infectious. So when you sit down to write, you choose the second person for your first-person coronavirus account in order to add a little Choose Your Own Adventure-style urgency.
The resultant, fictionalized account of a selfish, brunch gobbling Brooklynite Typhoid Mark conflates a few covid-19 facts with scary sentences like “You call up an ex, and she agrees to meet you for a walk along the river...In five days, an ambulance will take her to Mount Sinai.” It reads like a bootleg Michael Crichton, taking a plausible medical scenario and stretching into the most dire outcome for a thrilling bit of didacticism wrapped up in a tasteful amount of gore. You proofread and hit send, the essay is transmitted to the home office of your New York magazine editor. The publication, low on content because fresh angles on pandemic stories are running low, posts it immediately, and the essay circulates among the magazine’s 100 million readers instantly–then even beyond that, as it’s digitally transmitted from keyboard to keyboard, timeline to timeline, clickable headline contagious among those whose natural defenses are already weakened by minds sick with dread at the influx of bad news.
“For most people infected with the coronavirus, that’s as far as it goes,” your coronavirus polemic tells people quarantined at home, desperately attempting to self-medicate panic with knowledge from reputable news sources. “With bed rest, they get better. But for reasons scientists don’t understand, about 20 percent of people get severely ill. Despite your relative youth, you’re one of them.”
After the droplets of your idea gets drawn into the branching passages of your essay, the finished piece spews from your editor to the digital front page of an internationally-read magazine to 1.8 million social media followers, and finally, to the Slack chats of other news outlets, where your second-person coronavirus fanfic smears itself onto the screen of a blogger at a smaller, less-respected publication. She’s not in the high-risk group of those likely to be manipulated by worst-case, doomsday journalism, and she’s never read your book, Extreme Fear. But she was raised in an evangelical Baptist church and was forced, once a year for a decade, to sit through a play called Heaven’s Gates, Hell’s Flames about the dangers of alcohol and pre-marital sex. Her neural pathways light up like a switchboard when she sees the second person prose coupled with the extreme, overarching message of your piece: “The wages of breaking self-quarantine for brunch is death.” A connection is made. “You should have told us about Christ,” drunk, over-sexed teenagers recently hit by a train pled in her church play outside the silvery Party City wrapping paper-swathed gates of heaven back in 2001. Your reader remembers the play inspiring longing for Miller High Life and perhaps a lifelong immunity to overwrought fearmongering. In less than a year, she would be devirginized atheist, a hopeless sinner who could read Charlotte Temple and donate to Planned Parenthood without even a tinge of Baptist guilt or a tickle of brimstone fear.
“In the isolation ward, your EKG goes to a steady tone,” your New York magazine piece warns in 2020, causing your reader to once again wonder if it might not be time to commence drinking. “The doctors take away the ventilator and give it to a patient who arrived this morning. In the official records of the COVID-19 pandemic, you’ll be recorded as victim No. 592.”
Now no one pleading outside the locked gates of heaven can say you didn’t warn them.