Something like 20 years ago when I was a publishing newbie I came across a fascinating piece in The New Yorker about a rare disease in Africa that was positively biblical in its devastation. I was, of course, immediately obsessed with this gruesome hemorrhagic fever whose survival rate was statistically negligible. Frankly, and shamefully, I thought it was a great horror story and one happening far enough away that it posed no real threat to a young woman in New York City who wasn’t planning on traveling to remote parts of Africa any time soon. I desperately wanted someone to do a book about it. Jane, who was bemused by my weird enthusiasms (she’s grown accustomed to them in the two decades since), and I tried to contact a couple of journalists who might have direct access to information on the ground. But while we were casting about without the help of e-mail and Skype, it was announced that Richard Preston was working on The Hot Zone. We had been scooped.
Preston’s book became a huge bestseller and it spawned a successful film. Ebola entered the public’s consciousness much in the way it had for me, as something horrific that didn’t really affect us but which titillated us with the kind of fear a zombie movie might instill. Today, of course, the threat is far more real and, with our porous borders, far less “over there.” The world is quickly realizing that the spread of Ebola is a global health crisis and one that must be stopped in its tracks if we are to avoid even more catastrophic losses of human life.
So, as I obsessively read the headlines and listen to reports on NPR, I think, again, that a new book on the disease’s trajectory this time around is necessary and even imperative. Except that the more mature me is aware of the negative psychic and moral implications of capitalizing on tragedy in a way my much more clueless younger self was not. And so once again an uncomfortable aspect of our business rears its head. When is it too soon to write about tragedy? What is the correct way to hype a big book touching on the suffering of thousands? We in the publishing world, like journalists, are responsible for midwifing work that illuminates, enlightens, educates, and entertains. But, we’re not in the trenches risking life and limb to get the story and making money off tragic events is sometimes hard to stomach. So, do we pursue that book now or do we wait?
There are fascinating stories coming out of this current crisis and not just one book, I’m sure. Where do you guys fall on the subject? Should there be another Hot Zone?