Amitav Ghosh’s book The Great Derangement was published in 2016. It’s a moving polemic, accusing contemporary novelists of failing to find the right forms, or the necessary urgency, in addressing the climate crisis. And it’s a crucial intervention. Which novelist hasn’t been anguished by this widening gap, like a chasm opening under our own feet, in the very ground of the work we live by? I’m thinking primarily about what’s loosely called the realist novel, because that’s the tradition of novel-writing I work in and love best; it’s where I’ve found my life, as a reader and a writer.
A realist novelist’s work is in finding expression for the way we live now. And yet as the climate crisis and the environmental catastrophe impinge more and more strongly on all our imaginations, novelists have struggled to find the right forms in writing to register that shift in perception, that accelerating awareness of the need for absolute change in… well, in the way we live now.
Some novelists are beginning to work their way into those new forms, but some are still struggling.
Why does that matter? The right responses to the crisis – interventions, actions, change – hardly depend on the novelists, thank goodness. Because what do we know? What we know is how to make a novel. To be frank, the realist novel tradition has a pretty long history of failure, or worse, when it comes to advocating a particular politics. We write out of our blind spots. The novel in its realist mode has been, of its nature, parochial. I don’t use that word as a pejorative term; novels have excelled in conveying the particulars of the given parish. But it may be that in confronting the future, and in finding the language and forms for mobilising change, the painstaking transcribing of parochial realities isn’t much use any longer. Perhaps the novel form I’m speaking for here is about to become obsolete, in a world where perception has to become more diffused and globalised. That happens. The relevance of an art form can be sucked out, over a quite short space of time, by a matrix of extreme historical change; it can happen inside an artist’s lifetime. Works which were taut yesterday with the rich meaning of their moment, can seem shrunken and empty when tomorrow comes. Revolutionary works, gathering dust in an art gallery, are suddenly so much junk metal.
An important part of Ghosh’s argument is that the realist novel is essentially a bourgeois form, conceived in capitalist colonialist Europe and exporting to the rest of the world, in its mode of imagining life, some of that civilisation’s vainglorious illusions. The rationalisation of modern life ‘begins in the economy and the administration, but eventually pervades the sphere of free time, private life, , entertainment, feelings…’ The everydayness of a realist novel-narrative takes for granted in its reader a shared ‘common sense’ apprehension of what’s everyday, and what’s likely to happen; it’s not prone to detecting warnings of catastrophe. Dependent on notating the nuances of the working of the system, it can’t register system collapse; centred in bourgeois individual subjectivity, it can’t write for the collective. Just as the climate crisis exposes the fallacy of the common sense of ‘capitalism as usual’, so the scale of the rethink required for change shows us that fictional realism isn’t half as realistic as we thought it was. Perhaps it’s essentially a backward-looking form. It’s no accident that George Eliot immersed in small town England is a greater novelist than Mrs. Gaskell honourably trying to encompass the new politics of industrial change in the northern cities.
The set of skills which a novelist of this kind develops is dependent on – among other things – observation. It isn’t future-oriented. It’s more like drawing something: looking at the thing, making a mark, looking again, correcting the mark, looking again. So much of the good work such novelists do is based on this fine-tuned repeated adjustment. Of course the ‘thing’ won’t, for a novelist, actually be in front of you; it exists in some inward terrain at the intersection of imagination and memory. But that gesture of correction, checking against the lived experience, against likelihood, is fundamental. You try out a version, you write it, then you don’t like it. You run the scene in your imagination, and those words don’t feel true to what you can imagine – they don’t feel right, don’t feel like reality, they feel false. You write it again; is that more true? Very likely you won’t have ever lived such a moment yourself, but you are drawing nonetheless on your experience, in judging your rendering’s truth-to-life, its verisimilitude. This work of the pursuit of fresh truth-to-life is the realist novel’s genius; clearly, it’s also part of the problem: climate change still doesn’t feel very likely, even though we know it’s not only real, but it’s happening right now.
Good writing is the endless correction of the clichés of perception and expression, which get in the way of freshly seeing what’s real. Our post-Romantic sensibility puts a high value on this freshness, and on an ideal of originality in art; it’s the opposite, as a technique of composition, to the patterns and formulas of traditional story telling. Yet perhaps those traditional modes are better primed, as Ghosh argues, for narrating what’s improbable: the intervention of catastrophe across our ordinary days. Climate catastrophe is difficult for realism, because in our part of the Western world we don’t fully know yet what its catastrophe feels like. It’s ‘too powerful, too grotesque, too dangerous, and too accusatory’. And it doesn’t feel like one thing: its very real consequences are too various, and what connects them together is too abstract. Realism isn’t good with abstraction; we can’t test it against any experience we have. An expectation that the enduring rhythms of nature will recur is built deep into our imagination, and into our writing; we reach out of our human crises to the eternal, unchanging, reassuring indifference of the skies – Prince Andrey in War and Peace, lying wounded on the battlefield at Austerlitz.
‘But to reproduce the world as it exists need not be the project of fiction,’ Ghosh writes; ‘what fiction… makes possible is to approach the world in a subjunctive mode, to conceive of it as if it were other than it is… We need… to envision what it might be.’
So maybe I should just speak for myself, and my own problem here. I don’t know how to solve this difficulty, inside my own style – this mismatch between a way of working, and a material that won’t yield to it. I can’t get my awareness of climate change, and my fear, into the texture of my work. And I can’t solve it by becoming another kind of writer: too late for that. Too late as well, for that matter, to become another kind of reader. I’m addicted, in reading, to the thick particularity of the parish. Not just my parish: any parish, no matter how far away from where I am, and how unlike my parish – but I need to feel its reality on the page. I can’t teach myself to like the different weightlessness of speculative fiction, or made-up worlds. Even as a small child I was always less interested in fairy tales – I preferred even quite tedious stories of children going to school and coming home, eating tea with their families. I had to learn to admire the fairy tales, intellectually, later.
Write something, look at it, correct it if it isn’t true… We write in the dark anyway. And I know there are already other writers, elsewhere, who’ve looked in their own lives straight at the changing weather, the floodwater, the parching land, the villagers whose livelihoods have been destroyed. These writers are searching already for the words to make all this real on the page, or on the screen of their phone: the exact right words. My own realism ought to be able to encompass at the very least, for the record, how fearful we are in bourgeois Europe these days, and how our new awareness, of the costs of the way we live now, is streaked like a garish new dye all through our familiar old lives. I remember D.H.Lawrence with his apocalyptic vision of the catastrophe of the industrial capitalism which was fuelled partly, in those days, by Nottinghamshire coal. This apocalyptic passage from The Rainbow spoke to me when I was young; then I rejected it, deciding it was nostalgic elitism. Now at seems to me prophetic vision – as well as superbly true to life. And it represents a hope, too, for novelistic realism. If we only look long enough at what’s in front of our eyes, we can learn to see through it.
To the whole story.
The place had the strange desolation of a ruin. Colliers hanging about in gangs or groups, or passing along the asphalt pavements heavily to work, seemed not like living people, but like spectres. The rigidity of the blank street, the homogenous amorphous sterility of the whole suggested death rather than life. There was no meeting place, no centre, no artery, no organic formation. There it lay, like the new foundations of a red-brick confusion rapidly spreading, like a skin-disease.
Just outside of this, on a little hill, was Tom Brangwen’s big, red-brick house. It looked from the front upon the edge of the place, a meaningless squalor of ash-pits and closets and irregular rows of the backs of houses, each with its small activity made sordid by barren cohesion with the rest of the small activities. Farther off was the great colliery that went night and day. And all around was the country, green with two winding streams, ragged with gorse, and heath, the darker woods in the distance….His house was simply, but well furnished. He had taken out a dividing wall, and made the whole front of the house into a large library, with one end devoted to his science. It was a handsome room, appointed as a laboratory and reading room, but giving the same sense of hard, mechanical activity, activity mechanical yet inchoate, and looking out on the hideous abstraction of the town, and at the green meadows and rough country beyond, and at the great, mathematical colliery on the other side.
Tessa Hadley has published seven novels – including The London Train, The Past, and Late in the Day – and three collections of short stories. A new novel, Free Love, will come out in 2022. She publishes short stories regularly in the New Yorker, and reviews for the Guardian and the London Review of Books; she was awarded a Windham Campbell prize for Fiction and the Hawthornden Prize in 2016, and the Edge Hill Prize in 2018.