back to

Climate-Change Fiction Challenges the Conventions of Literary Form


Anxiety about climate change has crept into nearly every area of popular culture, from movies to television to music. It has also crept into fiction, as evidenced by an emerging literary genre with a slightly annoying name: “cli-fi,” or climate-change fiction. In the New Yorker, Katy Waldman reviews a new online collection of cli-fi stories published by Amazon and entitled Warmer. Featuring stories by celebrated US authors like Jane Smiley, Edan Lepucki, and Jess Walter, the collection shows that the challenges of artistically representing or reflecting on climate change strain the established conventions of literary fiction. Here’s an excerpt from Waldman’s piece:

Taken together, the stories in “Warmer” raise the question of whether a poetics of climate change exists. As with gun violence, the crisis demands a form of literary expression that lifts it out of the realm of intellectual knowing and lodges it deep in readers’ bodies. Novels about mass shootings often incorporate black humor, the dispersal of meaning through repetition, and a flat or deadened tone. The works in this collection feel less consistent in mood or manner, but they are similarly occupied by a shared set of challenges: the bigness, the unknowability, of the looming transformations, and how surreal it all seems, and how the author or reader might chart a path between hope and hopelessness. (“It’s one thing to hear adults say there’s no Santa,” a college kid thinks, in Jess Walter’s story. “But to hear there’s no Future?”) Walter offers encouragement in the form of a student who suggests that “you shouldn’t give up hope until you’ve done everything you can.” Lauren Groff seems to counter that all we can do is still not enough. As a whole, the collection clears a space between these two poles, in which the meaning of “enough” deforms like melting ice. Perhaps, after the elephants and the whales all die, it is enough to forestall the drowning of Hong Kong. Perhaps it is enough to see snow. “Enough,” as the stories progress, keeps contracting: into the ability to walk outside; into a bowl of mint-chip ice cream; into “oil floating on top” of a polluted lake, forming “little rainbows, swirling away in delicate circles.”

Image via the New Yorker.