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Stranger than Fiction

Why won’t novelists reckon with climate change?

The drive up highway 44 from the north-east Indian city of Guwahati to Shillong, up in the hills, has changed in significant ways since I grew up there in the seventies and eighties. The clouds still drift along the distant horizon of conifer-quilted hills, but there is more construction along the road, with brick-making factories puffing smoke into the sky and gashes of red earth where cranes have torn into the hillsides. But what is most striking, on a visit after a long time away, is the tankers laboring up the switchbacks, their round bellies sloshing with fuel, which will then be used to fill up the cars and the buses that offer the primary mode of transportation in this part of the world. It is a little like the conceit in the British writer Magnus Mills’s novel, The Scheme for Full Employment, in which “UniVans” filled with parts for UniVans are driven around from depot to depot. As the UniVans break down from use, the parts they transport are used to repair them, and so on.

Such are the absurdities of the fossil-fuel lifestyle we are locked into globally, folly piling upon folly, the latest among them the decision by the United States to pull out of a Paris Climate Agreement that itself is like a band-aid applied to an earthquake. (Its target is to limit the global rise in temperature to between 1.5 and 2 degrees centigrade but, since it comes into effect only in 2020, it is seen by many critics as putting such a target beyond reach.) Yet in spite of all the evidence of the destruction visited upon the world by our resource-heavy appetites, accompanied by a gnawing recognition that something is fundamentally wrong in our relationship with the Earth and in the way we live, and all the cumulative knowledge about climate change and the irreplicable characteristics of an era that some have named the Anthropocene, the end result is still a kind of imaginative fatigue.

This makes itself evident in the paucity of fiction devoted to the carbon economy, something the Brooklyn-based Indian writer Amitav Ghosh addresses in his marvelous recent book, The Great Derangement, writing, “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.” Ghosh, who has depicted the precarious ecology of the Sundarban mangrove forests of Bengal in his novel, The Hungry Tide, says that this absence has to be “counted as an aspect of the broader imaginative and cultural failure that lies at the heart of the climate crisis,” a failure so pervasive that he calls our era, “which so congratulates itself on its self-awareness . . . the time of the Great Derangement.”

To question the idea of progress requires an extremism of vision or a terrifying kind of independence.

For Ghosh, this is in great part the result of literary fiction’s need to keep the fluky and the exceptional out of its bounds, conceding the terrain of improbability—cyclones, tornadoes, tsunamis, and earthquakes—to genre fiction. Reflecting on his own encounter with a tornado in 1978—apparently the first to ever be recorded in Delhi—he finds himself unwilling to use it in his novels for fear that a reader would find such a scene to be “a contrivance of last resort.” Modern fiction, Ghosh argues, emerging at the same time as modern bourgeois society, embraced a Weberian rationalization in its descriptions of the everyday, pushing away the exceptional and the fantastic that had such a great role to play in earlier literature.

This sounds plausible, but there is more to fiction’s shortcoming than just its embrace of rational, routinized life. Ghosh’s focus, understandably, is on the cataclysmic and exceptional expressions of climate change, on Hurricane Sandy and the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 (which shows up in the final story of Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection Unaccustomed Earth). Yet the destruction visited by the carbon economy is as much a gradual process as it is eventful, consisting for the most part of a steady, everyday grinding away at the Earth, an extraction of natural resources and the squandering of those same resources in order to sustain our unsustainable lifestyles.

If fiction has been unable to come to terms with our steadfast rapaciousness, it is because to truly represent the ravages of the carbon economy involves understanding capitalism, and even nationalism, as failures, and this is not something contemporary fiction is capable of doing. This is why in the context of India, which Ghosh focuses on, there is almost no fiction that depicts the industrial disaster in Bhopal in 1984, or, in more recent years, the displacement of people by dams in central India or the ravaging of tribal communities by mining companies, including the uranium mining carried out in Jadugoda and that the Indian government is attempting to expand, against protests from local people, into the north-eastern state of Meghalaya where I am writing this.

In the United States too, even well meaning liberal fiction, often falling under the rubric of cli-fi, reveals itself as incapable in grappling with this. This is perhaps because to think of modern life as a failure, and to question the idea of progress, requires an extremism of vision or a terrifying kind of independence. An indie bestseller like Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, set in an eco-apocalypse, features rhapsodies on the internet and electricity. Marcel Theroux in Far North includes a paean to modern flight as one of the finest inventions of “our race,” even though the effect of air travel on carbon emissions is quite horrific.

Fiction, in other words, suffers from its own kind of anthropocenization, one that owes as much to post-war prosperity in the West and to globalization, which succeeded in universalizing the obsession with individuals, character, and interiority that dominates writing programs and its reviewing culture. Even nature, resource extraction, and climate change, viewed through the filter of character, become a kind of exoticizing backdrop.

Even resource extraction and climate change, viewed through the filter of character, become a kind of exoticizing backdrop.

Was this always true? Ghosh, in spite of tracing the lapse all the way back to the nineteenth century, argues that a kind of major shift happened within the carbon economy in the switch from coal to petroleum during those post-war decades. The former provoked class solidarity as well as fictional representations, as in Emile Zola’s Germinal, but the latter is “inscrutable . . . Its sources . . . mainly hidden from sight, veiled by technology, and its workers . . . hard to mythologize, being largely invisible. . . . Oil refineries are usually so heavily fortified that little can be seen of them other than a distant gleam of metal, with tanks, pipelines, derricks, glowing under jets of flame.”

This is true, but nevertheless the fact that nature, climate change, and the carbon economy can be captured in nonfiction, as well as in genre fiction, suggests that the problem may lie with the narrow conceptions and practice of literary fiction. A nonfiction writer, especially when basing his or her work upon reporting, needs the funding to make the reporting possible as well as access to such sites and is in that sense limited by shrinking budgets for longform writing and the restrictions imposed by corporations and national security states. For the fiction writer, imagination actually provides a kind of freedom from such constrictions, especially if this is guided by the documentation provided by others, including journalists and activists. Nothing could be a greater indictment of contemporary literary fiction than its failure of imagination when it comes to the fate of the world.