Amitav Ghosh asks, “Where Is the Fiction About Climate Change?”

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.

Perhaps there is a real lack of engagement here — but there may also be a lack of imagination on Ghosh’s part. Note how careful he is to specify that he is talking about “literary novelists,” and the “literary mainstream.” Presumably that rules out science fiction writers like Kim Stanley Robinson, whose Science in the Capital series explores the causes and possible consequences of climate change with great depth and intelligence. And Robinson is just one among many writing what some call cli-fi.

Ghosh has worked himself into an unnecessary bind. Since the consequences of climate change are not yet as dramatic as they are almost certain to become, those matters need to be explored by writers who produce speculative fiction. If you want that to happen, and yet you ignore fiction that you deem outside the “literary mainstream,” then sure, you’ll find a gap in imaginative coverage of the issue. But expand your sense of the “literary” just a bit and the picture will look quite different.


  1. Atwood is coming to my University in a few days, so I'm trying to finish up the MaddAddam Series. It's been wonderful so far; I'm eager to hear her speak.

  2. This sort of thing always makes me wonder: what makes a book "count" as fiction-about-X (fiction about climate change, fiction about the social media age, fiction about religious experience etc.). Does a book need to be “about” climate-change in the way McEwan’s Solar is to qualify? My gut feeling is that even without turning to SF, “mainstream” literature includes plenty of reflection on climate change, it’s just not always easy to notice it because it doesn’t hold the center of the narrative focus. When I read the article, I thought of, for example, Joshua Ferris’ strange little novel, The Unnamed, and the various violent and escalating weather events that form the backdrop of the story, or the final chapters of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. Both these books engage imaginatively with climate change, but may not be about it. David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks may not qualify as “mainstream” enough for Ghosh, but the most “realist” thread of the novel may be the way in which climate-change and ecological crisis work in the background of the narrative, unremarked and unnoticed by the characters (whether immortal or not) until the book’s final chapter. Mitchell pulls the narrative rug out from under the reader’s feet a little bit in that final chapter (and, if I remember correctly, you did not think it was particularly successful), but I do think part of the point was that all the time this epic spiritual/human battle had been going on in the novel (along with all the mundane experience of the ordinary human characters), the planet was changing – we just didn’t notice it (and I confess I liked the ending when I read it).

    Maybe it’s not only that Ghosh is looking in the wrong places for examples of climate-change literature, but that even when it’s there readers struggle to see it. Which, seems appropriate, given the topic – as Alexandra Harris points out in her fascinating book, Weatherland, it’s hard to even imagine normal summer weather in a particular landscape when you’re in the middle of winter. Maybe some future Alexandra Harris (sitting among the orange groves of tropical England, of course) will find all sorts of anxiety about climate change in our contemporary fiction and art that we just can’t quite see at the moment.

  3. James Howard Kunstler, among the early authors to sound the alarm about climate change (see The Long Emergency), has a book series under the title of World Made By Hand. I haven't read it, so can't recommend pro or con.

    One modest nit: it's entirely unfair to say that the public is unaware of impending crisis. It's better to say that a large portion is in flat denial while others are confused or simply waiting to see. The idea has been out there for well over a decade; anyone who hasn't dealt with it somehow must be living under a rock.

  4. I recently read a little book by horror writer Victor LaValle. It's mostly about racism, power and horror, but on the very last page it also managed to prompt in me a sense of dread and doom about climate change. Horror is the right genre for how many of us feel about climate change — that powerful forces that we cannot control have fated us to a terrible future.

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