How to miss several boats: Amitav Ghosh on climate change in literature
It is a simple fact that climate change has a much smaller presence in contemporary literary fiction than it does even in public discussion…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.
So, to sum up; if it’s sci-fi, it’s not serious? Not taken seriously by whom? My first reaction to this elitist nonsense is anglo-saxon in origin. Best move on…
The comments under the article are well-informed (considerably better informed, actually) and many focus on the self-inflicted nature of Ghosh’s dilemma: an obsession with the validity of genres, and a casual disrespect for the work of so many authors whose work he dismisses because he thinks their work isn’t ‘literary fiction’, while berating authors he admires but who he claims have not contributed to cli-fi, or not contributed enough.
It is absolutely the case that many authors have, for a long time now, explored the human condition in climate-related dystopian settings; it seems very unfortunate that ‘popular fiction’ does not, in Ghosh’s view, appear to count – and this despite the plain fact that if one wishes to reach people, popular fiction remains a more cogent vehicle for mass dissemination than literary fiction. By the same token, to complain that ‘literary fiction’ fails to acknowledge the serious nature of the problem is an attempt to suborn literature – art itself actually – in the service of a single agenda, and no matter how well-meaning, history suggests that the value and integrity of art is frequently perverted by the deliberate inclusion of gross polemic no matter how cunning the disguise. When art is reduced to the status of a mere conveyance for a political or social agenda, it is diminished in all but the most skilled hands.
Then there is the issue of story telling in such a context. The climate has no voice or volition. A novel cannot be ‘about’ climate change; the climate is an environment in which people’s stories are revealed. That their stories are shaped by their environment should be a given, but since climate change hasn’t delivered its payload yet, stories must necessarily be set in the future – and future fiction of any kind – literate or not – will be consigned to the indignity of inadequate categorisation, a function of markets, not literature. We can call it future fiction, sci-fi, cli-fi or whatever, but the genre does no great service to the work.
A failure to understand that the novel will always transcend the genres into which it gets stuffed like so many supermarket pre-packs in a trolley is also a failure to acknowledge the value and quality of popular novels. It is, however, a fine platform on which to build the kind of snobbery and disdain that is so often itself characterised as elitist.
I think it’s very unfortunate that he thinks the criticism is the product of an agenda – like climate change deniers, there’s a pervasive sense of victimhood and a whiff of conspiracy here. Such defensiveness is usually a sign of a weak argument that has to be shored up by ascribing motive – a practice I’ve always regarded as facile. It’s actually a bizarre kind of ad hominem attack: dismiss the criticism by throwing the critics under a bus big enough to seat them all at once. And that said, reading lightly between the lines of a statement Ghosh makes himself, it appears there might be some projection going on here:
“I have been preoccupied with climate change for a long time, but it is true of my own work as well, that this subject figures only obliquely in my fiction.”
Over the years, I’ve come to identify the audience that is at once both the most important, and the hardest to reach. To employ a rather convenient generalisation myself, I would call this latent audience the ‘general public’. It is the woman in a supermarket queue with two infants in tow. It is the plumber who only reads the sports pages. It’s the Trump voters and the Brexiteers: we can call them deplorables, but that’s just another way of dismissing their concerns while failing to address their sense of betrayal, disenfranchisement and a profound incomprehension about how this came about.
The small subset of readers who wade through what AS Byatt wittily referred to as her ‘difficult novels, that only academics will read’ (I’m paraphrasing but the the gist is accurate) are not the people we should be trying to reach. They are numerically tiny (as denoted by sales of literary fiction), and in all events we are likely to end up preaching to the converted.
If there is a communication problem, it’s origins are in education and the broad inability to understand risk management on long-term scales. Those who confuse climate science with ideology are not those who will pick up the latest Man-Booker tome, so literature of any kind is not a vehicle they will willingly travel in.
The problem as I see it is the right-wing media working so assiduously to convince the public that climate change isn’t real, isn’t as much of a problem as scientists claim, that it’s a front for a political, social or economic agenda, or any combination of the above.
This is the target audience – those taken in by demagoguery and willing to ignore the inevitable cognitive dissonance it creates, and Ghosh et. al. will never speak to their issues while they regard them from an ivory tower so lofty they can’t see the ground on which their tower is built, nor reach the very people whose future they claim to care so much about. Climate change affects us all, not just people who read ‘literary fiction’.