For the Guardian, Amitav Ghosh writes about climate change in literary fiction; namely, the dearth of it. When fiction does bring up climate change, Ghosh writes, it is often relegated to science fiction, or cli-fi. Read Ghosh in partial below, or in full via the Guardian.
It is a simple fact that climate change has a much smaller presence in contemporary literary fiction than it does even in public discussion. As proof of this, we need only glance through the pages of literary journals and book reviews. When the subject of climate change occurs, it is almost always in relation to nonfiction; novels and short stories are very rarely to be glimpsed within this horizon. Indeed, it could even be said that fiction that deals with climate change is almost by definition not of the kind that is taken seriously: the mere mention of the subject is often enough to relegate a novel or a short story to the genre of science fiction. It is as though in the literary imagination climate change were somehow akin to extraterrestrials or interplanetary travel.
There is something confounding about this peculiar feedback loop. It is very difficult, surely, to imagine a conception of seriousness that is blind to potentially life-changing threats. And if the urgency of a subject were indeed a criterion of its seriousness, then, considering what climate change actually portends for the future of the Earth, it should surely follow that this would be the principal preoccupation of writers the world over – and this, I think, is very far from being the case. But why?
Why does climate change cast a much smaller shadow on literature than it does on the world? Is it perhaps too wild a stream to be navigated in the accustomed barques of narration? But the truth, as is now widely acknowledged, is that we have entered a time when the wild has become the norm: if certain literary forms are unable to negotiate these waters, then they will have failed – and their failures will have to be counted as an aspect of the broader imaginative and cultural failure that lies at the heart of the climate crisis.
Clearly, the problem does not arise out of a lack of information: there are surely very few writers today who are oblivious to the current disturbances in climate systems the world over. Yet, it is a striking fact that when novelists do choose to write about climate change it is almost always outside fiction. A case in point is the work of Arundhati Roy: not only is she one of the finest prose stylists of our time, she is passionate and deeply informed about climate change. Yet all her writings on these subjects are in various forms of nonfiction.
When I try to think of writers whose imaginative work has communicated a more specific sense of the accelerating changes in our environment, I find myself at a loss; of literary novelists writing in English only a handful of names come to mind: Margaret Atwood, Kurt Vonnegut Jr, Barbara Kingsolver, Doris Lessing, Cormac McCarthy, Ian McEwan and T Coraghessan Boyle. No doubt many other names could be added to this list, but even if it were to be expanded to 100, or more, it would remain true, I think, that the literary mainstream, even as it has become more engagé on many fronts, remains just as unaware of the crisis on our doorstep as the population at large.
*New York freezes in director Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow, via storiesbywilliams.com