by Nicole Jashapara
Ask any middle-class, university-educated individual what kind of books they read, and they will probably list the works of writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Sally Rooney, and Ian McEwan. In other words, books that are generally marketed as “literary fiction”. There is a subtle snobbishness inherent to most people’s preference for it: as Matthew Schneider-Mayerson points out, most critics seem to agree that ‘[w]hereas “literature” is indifferent to (if not contemptuous of) the marketplace, original and complex, popular fiction is simple, sensuous … and formulaic’. Unlike popular genre fictions, literary fiction is seen as subversive, capable of challenging hackneyed ways of thinking and bringing about political change. Ironically, however, the term “literary fiction” was itself popularised by trade publishing, to distinguish books of literary merit from commercial genre fiction, as though the two were mutually exclusive. The marketplace is therefore integral to the production of literary fiction, an often-forgotten fact that helps to protect its reputation and its profitability: as buyers of literary fiction, we are encouraged to believe that our consumer choices are not dictated by market forces. If literature is to be politically meaningful, however, our definition of “literary fiction” needs to be interrogated: the marketplace should not determine what is ‘original and complex’.
Specifically, Amitav Ghosh argues, literary fiction needs to be interrogated in relation to the climate crisis. In The Great Derangement (2016), Ghosh contends that in its stultifying, market-driven tropes, literary fiction is not just a “type” of literature, but a ‘regime of thought’. Dominated by the ‘realist’ novel, it has become limited to the ‘regularity of bourgeois life’: its stories are restricted to highly probable events that occur within a brief period in one or two individuals’ lives. Anything that is improbable, with timespans extending beyond the everyday, cannot be contained within it. However, the Earth’s history has been shaped by unrepeatable, unique events whose consequences ripple through long periods of geological time: think, for example, of the Chicxulub asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, or the sixth mass extinction we’re currently living through. The writing that dominates the realist literary novel excludes most of reality; when strange, unfathomable events enter a novel and shape its narrative, it risks ‘banishment’ from ‘serious fiction’ to the generic realms of ‘“fantasy,” “horror,” and “science fiction”’. Paradoxically, Ghosh concludes, the very gestures with which the realist novel conjure up reality are, in fact, a concealment of the real. The realist, novelistic world, Ghosh says, is dangerously removed from reality.
As I read The Great Derangement, I find myself thinking of the similarities between some of the literary novels I have read over the past year — Americanah and Normal People are the first to spring to mind. Although highly enjoyable reads, the tendency to prioritise the individual to the exclusion of almost anything else is particularly obvious in light of Ghosh’s observations, with timespans that now seem bizarrely delimited. As Ghosh argues: to be considered a serious literary novel, ‘that sense of individual moral adventure’ needs to dominate…’ When inevitably suffocated by the economy of everyday living and administration, the ‘novelist universe’ turns into ‘a world of few surprises, fewer adventures, and no miracles at all’.
It is for this reason, according to Ghosh, that the climate crisis is so absent from modern literary fiction. Flick through the pages of any of the big literary reviews and you will find no discussion of it in the selected texts. Climate change events are ‘peculiarly resistant to the customary frames that literature has applied to “Nature”’. I am reminded of ecotheorist Timothy Morton’s discussion of the climate crisis as a ‘hyperobject’, an entity that is so enormous, so ‘massively distributed in space and time’, that you can ‘only access small slices of it at a time’. It is a problem to which only little thought can be devoted. If the climate crisis transcends our dominant ways of understanding the world, it certainly cannot be contained within the ‘regularity of bourgeois life’. The novel — as we understand it in the 21st century — is formally incapable of addressing the improbability, the uncanniness, the enormity, and the temporality of the climate crisis.
As Morton suggests in his Radio 4 programme of the same name, ‘the end of the world has already happened’: the climate crisis is in full swing, and most people already know and accept that it’s happening. What needs to change is not what people know, but how they think about it, and new ways of writing will be required to confront this crisis. Ghosh’s take subverts the traditional literati view of fiction as the location of rebellion and freedom of expression; he suggests that the novel deadens our sense of what is possible, rather than enlivening our minds.
Although Ghosh does not explicitly discuss the white-centrist outlook of the publishing industry, that surely plays into it. The subjectivities and stories we encounter in literary fiction are still overwhelmingly white and Western, despite the many brilliant writers of colour that exist in the mainstream (Zadie Smith, Paul Beatty, and Bernardine Evaristo, to name a few) and the increasing attempts by publishers to combat this whiteness. Ghosh points out that colonialism was central to Western carbon industrialisation, and that contemporary carbon politics are ‘closely related’ to imperialist hierarchies of global power. The climate crisis can only be truly confronted, then, if we also confront colonialism. Given that the Global South and minority ethnic groups globally are most vulnerable to the current climate crisis, literary fiction’s ‘bourgeois’ Western whiteness is inextricable from its lack of self-reflection. Will people look back at this time, as a period in which we were fully aware of the existence of the climate crisis and yet did not write about it in our most lauded forms of literature? It is for this reason, Ghosh suggests, that this era will come to be known as ‘the Great Derangement’.
There is one genre missing from Ghosh’s incisive evaluation: science fiction. Writing for the Guardian, Ghosh argues that ‘fiction that deals with climate change is almost by definition not of the kind that is taken seriously’. It is relegated to ‘the genre of science fiction’, ‘as though in the literary imagination climate change were somehow akin to extraterrestrials or interplanetary travel’. His remarks express a common value judgement that regards science fiction as inherently unliterary and not properly “serious”. However, as an inherently marginal genre, science fiction is drawn to the exploration of alternative — and often radical — ideas: it has long been seen in opposition to literary fiction, occupying what Mark Dery calls a ‘sublegitimate status…as pulp genre’.
This might actually be to its advantage. Sci-fi author and literary critic Samuel Delany has argued that ‘one of the most forceful and distinguishing aspects of science fiction is that it’s marginal’, for it is ‘always at its most honest and most effective when it operates — and claims to be operating — from the margins’. Its perceived “unliterariness” and subsequent distance from the establishment is fundamental to its imaginative and experimental capabilities, which in turn paradoxically accord it both literary and political value.
N. K. Jemisin’s collection of short stories, How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? (2018), takes its name from her essay on Afrofuturism, a movement featuring — as the OED terms it — ‘futuristic or science fiction themes which incorporate elements of black history and culture’. As Jemisin emphasises, futuristic narratives have not always been the realm of the politically radical or genuinely imaginative. In his essay ‘Racism in Science Fiction’, Samuel Delany writes about the rejection of his novel Nova by a famous science fiction editor on the grounds that ‘he didn’t feel his readership would be able to relate to a black main character’. Similarly, Jemisin notes that the speculative fiction she grew up reading was filled with ‘all-white futures’. There’s Black History Month, Jemisin points out, but ‘[n]o one seems puzzled by the fact that there is no time correspondingly devoted to examining, celebrating, or imagining the black future’. Afrofuturist narratives were, at least initially, inherently marginal even within the marginal realm of science fiction. In many ways, Afrofuturism is a movement of reclamation and liberation: in his essay on the subject, Dery asks if the ‘unreal estate of the future’ is not ‘already owned by the technocrats, futurologists, streamliners, and set designers…who have engineered our collective fantasies?’ The future is determined by the imaginations of the present; what is imagined is as important as who is doing this imagining. Afrofuturism has self-evident political significance for black liberation, but it is also highly relevant to the climate crisis. If, as Ghosh suggests, one of the reasons for our imaginative and cognitive failure to address the climate crisis is our inability to address colonialism — specifically, the continued interrelation between the two — then doesn’t it follow that some of the most exciting thinking about ecological futures might come through Afrofuturist work?
Like much science fiction, a central theme of How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? is the potency of ideas, and their ability to liberate us from ways of being that we have — until that moment — believed to be inevitable. ‘How can you want something you’ve never seen, don’t have the words for, can’t even imagine?’ Jemisin asks in ‘Walking Awake’. In the collection’s first story, ‘The Ones Who Stay and Fight’, the reader is introduced to Um-Helat, a joyful, utopian world of ecological balance and complete equality. Anticipating that this somewhat forcefully-built utopia might be disparaged as unconvincing, Jemisin has the narrative voice directly address the reader: ‘It cannot be, you say. Utopia? How banal. It’s a fairy tale, a thought exercise… it would not last, you insist. Racism is natural, so natural that we will call it “tribalism” to insinuate that everyone does it’. The imagined displeasure of the sceptical reader is similarly pre-empted: ‘“Impossible!” you hiss, your firsts slowly clenching’. Jemisin works to disrupt and recast the reader’s sense of what is possible, in literature but also in life: ‘How else can I convey Um-Helat to you, when even the thought of a happy, just society raises your ire so?’ the narrator wonders sardonically. Crucially, Um-Helat is itself undermined. Through underground networks, citizens begin to spread information about our world. ‘Evil…spreads’, Jemisin writes. By the end of the story, the implication is clear: if Um-Helat can be destroyed by the idea of our world, than perhaps our world can be liberated by the idea of theirs.
Not all science fiction is radical, though. Like all genres, its tropes can stagnate. In Venetia Welby’s forthcoming novel Dreamtime, recovering drug addict Sol and her best friend Kit live in a dystopian 2035, where climate refugees are rife, robots run hotels, and flights are banned. It is a world in which people accept ‘inertia and stasis in the face of climatic catastrophe’ and, in response to increasing climate refugees, promote a racist, anti-migrant nationalism: ‘America for Americans’. Dreamtime’s convincing dystopia is presumably intended to critique the capitalist, colonial, and exploitative histories that have led to the climate crisis, as well as to disrupt our tacit acceptance of it. However, this is mitigated by the fact that its characters remain trapped in tropes that are politically and emotionally regressive. Sol is a textbook ‘manic pixie dream girl’, a pop-culture term coined by film critic Nathan Rabin to describe quirky female characters who exist to help male protagonists on their emotional and spiritual journeys and have little inner life of their own. Sol’s best friend Kit is in love with her and spends half the book lamenting her disinterest because she has ‘never been interested in nice guys’. The climate crisis recedes into the background, there to facilitate Sol’s quest to find her father and her Freudian love life: she picks up ‘another father substitute’ in her creepy lover, Hunter. Although Dreamtime is ethically alert to the political dangers of climate apocalypse, it does not feel particularly hopeful about the capacity for human beings to change the way they treat each other, or the non-human world.
By contrast, Jemisin’s short stories present ecological hypotheticals that offer generative models for thinking about the surrounding world, both rural and urban. Most notably, her writing breaks down the nature-culture binary: in both ‘Stone Hunger’ and ‘The City Born Great’, sentience is accorded to cities themselves, for they are ‘like any other living beings’. In imagining an urban city as a vibrant, living being, Jemisin literalises the idea of an all-encompassing, enmeshed ecology, in which everything — even a building — might have agency; she is curious about what it would mean if ‘any city, upon reaching the necessary urban development, could achieve sentience’. As Jemisin noted in an interview with the New Yorker, ‘sometimes, when I am walking, the air feels a particular way, or the light comes in at a particular angle, and the moment makes me feel like the city is alive and breathing’. In a world of climate crisis, where most of the world’s population live in cities, we cannot value “nature” as this elegiac lost ideal that exists in our shrinking countryside: we are all in nature, in our homes and streets. Pretending otherwise is yet another mode of ‘concealment’.
If any criticism could be levelled at Ghosh, it would be that he over-generalises about literary fiction. In the same vein, sweeping generalisations about science fiction should also be avoided. Science fiction is not automatically relevant to the climate crisis: historically, the genre has been far from radical, and it is still susceptible to overused tropes that endanger its imaginative potential. However, its marginal position and perceived unliterariness do mean that it has a unique space to develop radical, alternative ideas, distanced from the market-driven ‘regime of thought’ Ghosh discusses. The “literary” tag — associated as it is with individual-focused, bourgeois fiction — is only limitedly useful in valuing any other kind of literature. In Jemisin’s case, science fiction is valuable precisely because it is “unliterary”, in the sense that it differs so significantly from the typical “realist” literary novel. Although the sidelining of science fiction writers is frustrating, it is not always lamented: for a writer like Jemisin, “unliterariness” is not an insult, but a joyous accolade.
NICOLE JASHAPARA is reading for an MSt in English (650-1550) at Linacre College. She happens to think the cauliflower more beautiful than the rose.
Art by Sam Griffiths