Book Review: Why don’t our writers take the climate crisis seriously?

Book Review: Why don’t our writers take the climate crisis seriously?

By VINEET GILL | | 17 September, 2016
Amitav Ghosh. Photo: Reuters
Amitav Ghosh’s latest book on the climate crisis makes a case against the literary world that has, for all the wrong reasons, failed to seriously engage with this crucially important subject, writes Vineet Gill.

We run into hurdles of all kinds when trying to deal with the climate crisis. There are of course the many economic and political challenges that come in the way of every attempt of ours to respond to this problem: the challenges posed by our complete dependence on the carbon economy on the one hand, and by political systems sustained by such an economy on the other. But more than that, it’s the crisis of the imagination that limits, even hampers, our understanding of the subject. We lack the language — the metaphors, the imagery, the words — fit enough to engage with disaster scenarios like melting glaciers and rising sea levels. And whom do we blame for this crippling deficiency if not our greatest wordsmiths?

Amitav Ghosh’s latest book, The Great Derangement, is a j’accuse issued against all those literary writers who abdicated their social responsibility by being indifferent to the climate crisis — by far the greatest predicament facing humanity. Why did someone like John Updike, for instance — a writer of superhuman erudition and curiosity — never address this subject in his writings, most of all in his novels?

The modern novel has always been adept at looking inwards — it celebrates the Self and regards the “collective” with suspicion, even distaste. And climate change isn’t something you can write about without looking out at the world. At one point in The Great Derangement, Ghosh cites a few lines from one of Updike’s reviews, where the latter defines the novel as an account of an “individual moral adventure” that is unconcerned with “men in the aggregate”.  While this may sound like the form itself has certain inbuilt limitations, Ghosh rightly takes issue with such a narrow view of how the novel can be defined.

As he writes: “ is a matter of record that historically many novelists from Tolstoy and Dickens to Steinbeck and Chinua Achebe have written very effectively about ‘men in the aggregate’.”

So why should contemporary novelists — or, in Updike’s case, near-contemporaries — be any different? And why is it that the coming climate catastrophe barely figures at all on our cultural radar?

The 20th-century split between the high arts and sciences is another explanation that Ghosh offers in this context, though he fails to mention the great “Two Cultures” debate between C.P. Snow and F.R. Lewis. As many would remember, Snow was the one who advocated the miscegenation of the arts and sciences, while Lewis, with puritan resolve, dreamed of a literary sphere free from the certitudes of scientific theory. Today, any work of fiction grounded in science or technology is relegated from the literary mainstream to what Ghosh identifies as the lower cultural rungs of sci-fi or genre fiction. That in itself is one aspect of the larger problem.

Writing about nature — natural catastrophes in particular — is another. One of the most intriguing bits in  this book involves an autobiographical account of the author helplessly trapped on a Delhi street after the city is impacted by a rare weather phenomenon. On 17 March 1978, the national capital was struck by a sporadic tornado, which turned parts of the city upside down and led to some 30 fatalities. (That we rarely get to read about this freak event, in magazines or books, further testifies to Ghosh’s central thesis.)

One of the most intriguing bits in  this book involves an autobiographical account of the author helplessly trapped on a Delhi street after the city is impacted by a rare weather phenomenon.

“Glancing over my shoulder,” he writes, “I saw a grey, tube-like extrusion forming on the underside of a dark cloud: it grew rapidly as I watched, and then all of a sudden it turned and came whiplashing down to earth, heading in my direction.” Crouched on the floor behind a parapet, Ghosh bears witness to “an extraordinary panoply of objects flying past — bicycles, scooters, lamp posts, sheets of corrugated iron, even entire tea stalls”.

It’s a powerful scene of devastation, expertly described. Still, the author admits that he has been, for all these years, at pains to translate this first-hand experience into the fictional domain: “... no tornado has ever figured in my novels.” And here we return to the creative anxiety that hinders writers from depicting grand catastrophes in literary fiction — a condition that the author of the present book, by his own admission, also suffers from. 

In the latter half of the book, the focus shifts from literature to the history and politics of the climate crisis. The attempt throughout is to actually establish links between the cultural, historical and political interpretations of this subject — an approach pioneered by the historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, whose work Ghosh routinely draws upon in The Great Derangement.

Another recent document explored a similar approach. It was written not by a poet or novelist or historian, but by a religious leader. Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical letter on climate change, called Laudato si’, was acclaimed the world over for its clear-sightedness and honesty. It remains required reading for anyone choosing to seriously engage with this subject. The closing pages of Ghosh’s book present a comparative literary analysis of sorts, with the Laudato si’ held in contrast to that other landmark climate-change document of our age, the Paris Agreement.

“The Encyclical,” he writes, referring to the Pope’s letter on climate change, “is remarkable for the lucidity of its language and the simplicity of its construction; it is the Agreement, rather, that is highly stylized in its wording and complex in structure.” The level of complexity and postmodern chicanery found in the Paris Agreement — one sentence in the document, Ghosh tells us, runs to 15 pages — are all products politico-corporate machinations, of vested interests pushing their case. The Agreement is composed with the kind of language that draws its vocabulary from Orwellian doublespeak. As The Great Derangement emphasises throughout, the crisis of language is at the heart of every human predicament. And now, if our writers are not leading the way, we’re more than doomed.


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I do agree that more writers should recognize climate change as a crisis worthy of investigating in their fiction, but it's not as if the subject has gone ignored--a narrative that should end now as it's wrong. I've studied climate change in fiction novels for years now and curate a website, interviews, and database for authors who write eco-fiction and/or climate change novels. I have overwhelmingly found that writers DO care about and tackle climate change in fiction. Over the past three years I've posted 431 novels of the eco-fiction variety, at least 75% of which are about climate change. That includes authors and novels of some notability and, at best, is only a sample of these books. Please quit spreading this false truth that writers aren't doing their job when it comes to global warming. Give them some credit. See

A brief excerpt from the book itself explains more about the author's misunderstandings about climate-themed novels, be they be genre novels (which he looks down upon for some reason) by sci-fi authors or ecofiction authors [Atwood, KSR, VanderMeer, Nathaniel Rich, Arthur Herzog, JG Ballard] : "How, then, did the provinces of the imaginative and the scientific come to be so sharply divided from each other? According to Bruno Latour the project of partitioning is always supported by a related enterprise, one that he describes as ‘purification’, which is intended to ensure that Nature is consigned entirely to the sciences, remaining forever off limits to Culture. This entails the marking off and suppression of hybrids—and that, of course, is exactly the story of the branding of science fiction, as a genre separate from the literary mainstream. The line that has been drawn between them exists only for the sake of neatness; because the zeitgeist of late modernity could not tolerate Nature–Culture hybrids. ''Nor is this pattern likely to change soon. I think it can be safely predicted that as the waters rise around us, the mansion of serious fiction, like the doomed waterfront properties of Mumbai and Miami Beach, will double down on its current sense of itself, building ever higher barricades to keep the waves at bay. ''The expulsion of hybrids from the manor house has long troubled many who were thus relegated to the status of genre writers, and rightly so, for nothing could be more puzzling than the strange conceit that science fiction deals with material that is somehow contaminated; nothing could better express the completeness of the literary mainstream’s capitulation to the project of partitioning. And this capitulation has come at a price, for it is literary fiction itself that has been diminished by it. If a list were to be made of the late-twentieth-century novelists whose works remain influential today, we would find, I suspect, that many who once bestrode the literary world like colossi are entirely forgotten while writers like Arthur C. Clarke, Raymond Bradbury and Philip K. Dick are near the top of the list. ''That said, the question remains: Is it the case that science fiction is better equipped to address climate change than mainstream literary fiction? This might appear obvious to many. After all, there is now a new genre of science fiction called ‘climate fiction’ or cli-fi. But cli-fi is made up mostly of disaster stories set in the future, and that, to me, is exactly the rub. The future is but one aspect of the age of human-induced global warming: it also includes the recent past, and, most significantly, the present. ''In a perceptive essay on science fiction and speculative fiction, Margaret Atwood writes of these genres that they ‘all draw from the same deep well: those imagined other worlds located somewhere apart from our everyday one: in another time, in another dimension, through a doorway into the spirit world, or on the other side of the threshold that divides the known from the unknown. Science Fiction, Speculative Fiction, Sword and Sorcery Fantasy, and Slipstream Fiction: all of them might be placed under the same large “wonder tale” umbrella.’ ''This lays out with marvellous clarity some of the ways in which the era of global warming resists science fiction: it is precisely not an imagined ‘other’ world apart from ours; nor is it located in another ‘time’ or another ‘dimension’. By no means are the events of the era of global warming akin to the stuff of wonder tales; yet it is also true that in relation to what we think of as normal now, they are in many ways uncanny; and they have indeed opened a doorway into what we might call a ‘spirit world’—a universe animated by non-human voices. ''If I have been at pains to speak of resistances rather than insuperable obstacles, it is because these challenges can be, and have been, overcome in many novels: Liz Jensen’s Rapture is a fine example of one such; another is Barbara Kingsolver’s wonderful novel Flight Behavior. Both are set in a time that is recognizable as our own, and they both communicate, with remarkable vividness, the uncanniness and improbability, the magnitude and interconnectedness of the transformations that are now under way.''

It's really sad that Dr Ghosh wants to be ''proscriptive'' about what kinds of fiction should be deployed for talking about this subject. Whilst the sections on climate change geopolitics and history are brilliant analyses, Dr Ghosh's idea for fostering the conditions for novelists to tackle global warming impact issues only in ''serious mainstream literary circles'' is too proscriptive. Has he never heard of genre novelists? So this otherwise brilliant book is a near-total fail in the chapter about climate novels since 1960 written by ''genre'' writers. The author did not do his homework on this and his prejudice toward genre novelists does not serve him well. There have been sci-fi and speculative fiction and eco-fiction novels about climate change issues from the early 1960s to today, and Amitavji does not seem to grasp this point. In India, not one literary critic challenged him on this, and this article appears in the India Guardian not the UK Guardian and written by an Indian journalist and literary critic who has not studied the history of climate-themed literature in the West. But literary critics and reporters in North America and the UK will be sure to challenge him on this. His view of what constitutes "literature" is antiquated and prejudiced. Hopefully, after living in Brooklyn for over 25 years he knows that genre novelists from Ballard to Turner to Atwood to Robinson to Vandeermeer have been writing about climate change for over 50 years, and yet he pretends in this book that only ''literary fiction'' by so-called serious VIP novelists can tackle global warming issues. Which is why I found it curious that Ghosh more than once brings up the matter of 'serious fiction' and its upturned nose. To bring up climate change in a novel, Ghosh writes in his book, which I have read, '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 [genre] dwellings that surround the manor house.' But why take serious fiction so seriously? After all, its conventions don't have a monopoly on human imagination. The lines between categories of fiction are blurry at best, and if something called science fiction or climate fiction can better accommodate what is urgent, then maybe we should let it. At the same time, to give the essays their proper due, the book in the end is hugely impressive. Dr Ghosh's arguments about realism and the exceptional are especially interesting!

Starting a discussion...Mr. Ghosh, among others, has misunderstood the situation in Bangladesh with respect to climate change. A 2014 peer-reviewed article in "Climate Risk Management" by Hugh Brammer addresses this. "Bangladesh’s dynamic coastal regions and sea-level rise". His introduction is to the point..."There is a widespread misconception that a rising sea-level with global warming will overwhelm Bangladesh’s coastal area contour by contour and will thereby displace as many as 10–30 million people in the 21st century e.g., (Gore, 2009; Houghton, 2009). In some accounts, that situation will be aggravated by high rates of land subsidence (Syvitski et al., 2009), a recent doubling of the rate of sea-level rise (Smith, 2012) and rapid, on-going rates of coastal erosion (Vidal, 2013a,b). The accounts given to-date imply that the Bangladeshi people are helpless against a rising sea-level and will be unable to resist the rising water. Those assumptions and descriptions are incorrect. Bangladesh’s coastal area is not uniform, nor is it static. It is dynamic, and so are the people of Bangladesh." Mr. Ghosh describes Hurricane Sandy as improbable and unprecedented. This is another misunderstanding. A hurricane called "The Long Island Express" devastated the same region in 1938. Wikipedia has described it... "Hurricane Sandy not the first to hit New York: A 1938 storm 'The Long Island Express' pounded the Eastern Seaboard. The storm formed near the coast of Africa in September of the 1938 hurricane season, becoming a Category 5 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane scale before making landfall as a Category 3 hurricane on Long Island on September 21. Long Island was struck first, before New England, Vermont, New Hampshire and Quebec, earning the storm the nickname the ‘Long Island Express’. The winds reached up to 150 mph and had waves surging to around 25–35 feet high.[The destruction was immense and took a while to rebuild. The western side of the hurricane caused sustained tropical storm-force winds, high waves, and storm surge along much of the New Jersey coast. In Atlantic City the surge destroyed much of the boardwalk. Additionally, the surge inundated several coastal communities; Wildwood was under 3 feet (0.91 m) of water at the height of the storm. The maximum recorded wind gust was 70 m.p.h. at Sandy Hook. In 1938 (one of the warmest years on record in the US) this extreme weather event might have been improbable and unprecedented, but not today. A point to be made? Will authors years from now ask if the unimaginable was our lack of appreciation for historical climatology, our rush to a "settled science" and a misguided attempt to mitigate the climate quickly with improbable technology? Have we learned nothing from our experiences in the 1960s and 70s?

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