The Changing Climate of Literature: The Responsibility to Raise Awareness

“No time will be found in this book,” wrote Mark Twain as the first line of his 1892 novel The American plaintiff. “It’s an attempt to get a timeless book across.”

Intended as a joke at the expense of less able novelists who fleshed out
their work with endless descriptions of prevailing weather conditions, Twain’s once concise opening seems quaint these days. Weather,
this traditionally innocuous common ground between strangers, has become a charged topic in the age of climate change.

Even once you’ve ruled out the tedious deceptively equivalent discussions
whether it exists or not, climate change is the dominant problem facing
our world today, straw-coloured expanses of parched grass
currently covering most of these islands with recent deadly floods

If materiality were the only factor in newscasting, climate change would be the main story in every media outlet every day. Even the
the most optimistic predictions suggest that unless we change our attitude towards
the relationship we have with the planet, life as we know it will be anything but
unrecognizable in a few decades.

Getting this message across is a challenge. After all, the last two summers may have been a little sweaty, but hey, it only took a handkerchief tied over the head and a Raspberry Mivvi popsicle to get us through 1976, so we can handle that, is not it ?

Humans are notoriously reluctant to take a long-term view, especially when there are cash cows to milk for the foreseeable future. It doesn’t help that there were never any consequences for the privileged class, which also happens to be the most polluting. They have no reason to change their behavior.

Governments should focus on plans to ensure the planet is habitable for the next generation – but most can’t see past the next election.

An unlikely source of optimism can be found in literature and the growing genre of climate fiction. Last week, Emad Akhtar, director of fiction publishing at Orion, noted the growing number of submissions from agents and authors of fiction related to climate change.

“Cli-fi, as it is called or not, is definitely upping its slice of the pie in terms of submissions and books published,” he said. “Clearly, conversations about the environment are going to dominate art as well as politics and hopefully business in the coming year.”

It’s been six years since Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh published his literary manifesto The Great Disruption: Climate Change and the Unthinkablein which he calls on the world of books to play a greater role in raising awareness of climate change.

“At the precise moment when it became clear that global warming is in every sense a collective problem,” he writes, “humanity finds itself in the grip of a dominant culture in which the idea of ​​the collective has been exiled from politics, economics and literature. »

He saw that contemporary literature had an obligation to serve as a reflection of the times in which we live. “In a dramatically changed world, when rising sea levels have engulfed the Sundarbans and rendered cities like Kolkata, New York and Bangkok uninhabitable, when readers and museum-goers turn to art and literature of our time, will they not look, first and most urgently, for the traces and omens of the weathered world of their heritage? he wrote. “And when they fail to find them, what should they – what can they – do but conclude that ours was a time when most forms of art and literature were swept up in fashions concealment that prevented people from recognizing the realities of their plight?

If Akhtar is right, then maybe the writers finally answer Ghosh’s call. But how do you write a novel about climate change? On the one hand, no one likes to be harassed in the press, whatever the cause. Imagine how worthy a book like this could become.

Moreover, although it appears to be accelerating at a faster rate than even some of the most pessimistic forecasters had predicted, climate change is a gradual process that is difficult to turn into a page-turner. If your protagonist finds himself trying to outrun a retreating glacier, it might not be a chase scene that will captivate your readers. Add to the fact that the weather as a subject beyond brief exchanges at bus stops is chronically boring – I say this as
someone who’s written an entire book on the subject – and it’s going to take
exceptional writers to produce captivating works of fiction that deal with the climate.

Margaret Atwood, whose MaddAddam The trilogy depicted a near future linked to the climate ravaged by genetic engineering and plagues, summarized the problems related to climate change in the form of a literary subject. “I don’t even call it climate change, I call it changing everything,” Atwood said in 2014. “It’s a change of everything. We think climate and we think, more clouds, more rain, oh, who cares? The whole thing can never be the front and center of a book because it’s not a human being.”

Frank Herbert, whose 1965 novel, Dunes, is currently experiencing a renaissance in screen adaptation. It is possible to go back even further and to Jules Verne’s 1890 novel The purchase of the North Polewho imagined a world slightly off axis.

The first literary novel to tackle the subject head-on is undoubtedly that of Octavia Butler. parable of the sowerpublished in 1993. Set in a future California ravaged by drought and wildfires brought on by rising global temperatures, parable of the sower is written like the diary of Lauren Oya Olamina, a black teenager living with her family in a privileged bourgeois compound outside of which the poor and sick struggle to get by, and are constantly at the mercy of the peddlers of water. Private militias are employed by corporate giants and there is even a politician who promises to “make America great
yet”. Such prescience means Butler’s book is barely dated – earlier this year a musical version was staged in Boston – mainly because it was based on the author’s meticulous research on the subject. What is the most thought-provoking parable of the sower that’s how this story unfolds of a barren, fire-ravaged future in 2024.

Other examples include that of Barbara Kingsolver Flight behavior, published in 2013, which tells the story of a swarm of monarch butterflies, displaced from their winter habitat in Mexico by climate change, and which lands on a small town in Appalachia. The 2018 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Richard Powers The dominant story followed a group of people whose relationship with trees becomes a collective battle against deforestation, while Rosa Rankin-Gee’s brilliant Dreamlandreleased last year, is set in near-future Margate, baking in scorching heat and facing impending flooding by rising seas.

If Ghosh’s treatise had one flaw, it was perhaps a failure to acknowledge the role of genre fiction in addressing the issue, particularly science fiction. Seen by many as the prerogative of wispy-haired men in faded t-shirts reading fervently about wars being waged in distant galaxies, this is certainly the most knowledgeable genre when it comes to climate change.

American science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson is a good example. His novel 2312, published ten years ago, sees the earth practically abandoned by humanity for other planets. Our 21st century inactivity, known as “dithering,” has become a source of acute embarrassment. 2020s The ministry of the future is set three years from now and shifts from the conventional climatic fiction device of inventing desperate consequences to placing the story almost in the present. The “ministry” of the title is set up to represent the rights of future generations, who are considered equal to those already living.

“I decided it was time to tackle the topic of climate change directly,” Robinson said. “The real story is the one that awaits us in the next 30 years. It’s the most interesting story, but also the stakes are the highest.

What sets Robinson’s work apart, besides the quality of the writing, is its grounding in real science. So highly respected is the author outside
the world of science fiction that he was invited to speak at the Cop26 summit in Glasgow last year. In a moving speech, he summed up the importance of literature in raising awareness of global issues, telling the crowd, “It shouldn’t be the lonely daydream of a writer sitting in his garden, imagining he might have a better world”.

It had a pretty decent start, but the best and most effective climate fiction is yet to come. But coming it is hopefully accompanied by enough change in world politics that means there will be future generations to read it.

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