Skip to main content

In which I find Amitav Ghosh's missing monocle, and return it to him that he might see more clearly

5 min read

Poor old Amitav Ghosh is wondering where all the fiction about climate change might be... when in fact it's right under his nose, and he simply chooses to disregard it as being insufficiently deserving of the label "literature".

Right in the first paragraph, he answers his question and immediately discards the answer:

... 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.

If for "literary imagination" we substitute "bourgeois imagination", that last sentence is no surprise at all -- because this is about genre, which is a proxy for class.

And when Ghosh surveys the few examples of supposedly literary fiction that have dealt with climate change, look what happens:

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.

Now, I'll concede that most of them have preferred generic labels other than science fiction for their works at one time or another, but it's very hard to make the case that Atwood, Vonnegut and Lessing haven't written works that slip very easily into the sf folksonomy, while McCarthy has written a very successful dystopia. So that's half of Ghosh's successes demonstrably working in the speculative fiction tradition... but they can't be speculative fiction, because they're too good for that trash. They've won awards and stuff -- awards that aren't rocket-shaped. Ipso facto, no?

To his credit, Ghosh gets pretty close to the technical distinction in narrative strategy that demarks the dichotomy he's observing, via one of Moretti's more interesting theory-nuggets:

This is achieved through the insertion of what Franco Moretti, the literary theorist, calls “fillers”. According to Moretti, “fillers function very much like the good manners so important in Austen: they are both mechanisms designed to keep the ‘narrativity’ of life under control – to give a regularity, a ‘style’ to existence”. It is through this mechanism that worlds are conjured up, through everyday details, which function “as the opposite of narrative”.

It is thus that the novel takes its modern form, through “the relocation of the unheard-of toward the background ... while the everyday moves into the foreground”. As Moretti puts it, “fillers are an attempt at rationalising the novelistic universe: turning it into a world of few surprises, fewer adventures, and no miracles at all”.

I offer that the absence of Moretti's fillers -- often but not always replaced with anti-fillers designed to re-enchant the novelistic universe, and make of the universe a character in its own right -- is a way to describe one of the more fundamental strategies of speculative fictions, where it is preferable to have a world with more surprises, more adventures, and more than the occasional deus ex machina). Moretti's fillers are basically the opposite of worldbuilding; they remove complexity, rather than adding it.

And here we see the true root of the problem, the reason no one who identifies as a writer of "serious" "literary" fiction can handle climate change in their work -- look at Ghosh's language, here, and tell me he doesn't feel the class pressure of genre (my bold):

To introduce such happenings into a novel is in fact to court eviction from the mansion in which serious fiction has long been in residence; it is to risk banishment to the humbler dwellings that surround the manor house – those generic out-houses that were once known by names such as the gothic, the romance or the melodrama, and have now come to be called fantasy, horror and science fiction.

It's clearly not that "the novel" as a form can't handle climate change: science fiction novels routinely invert the obstacles set out in Ghosh's piece in order to do their work. It's that to upset those particular obstacles is to break the rules of Literature Club, to go slumming it with the plebes of genre fiction: literary fiction can't write about climate change, or about any other topic that requires an understanding of the storyworld as a dynamic and complex system, because -- as a self-consciously bourgeois genre in its own right -- it cannot commit the sin of portraying a world where the bourgeoise certainties no longer pertain, wherein hazard and adventure and unexpected events are revealed to be not merely routine, but to be the New Normal.

Take it from a squatter in the generic out-houses, Amitav old son: there's only one way you'll ever get literary fiction that deals with climate change -- and that's by acknowledging, however grudgingly, that not only was science fiction capable of being literature all along, but that science fiction began by asking the question whose suppression is the truest trope of the literary: what if the world were more important than the actions of individuals?