A few weeks ago, I was working on a story which features a character overwhelmed at the crises facing our world. I typed the words livable future because I wanted the character to engage with the absurdity of such a phrase, the fact that the possibility of it is still — shockingly — up for debate.
I sat back and stared at the words. I watched the cursor blink. Then I hit delete.
I’m still trying to understand all this. But why I hit delete speaks to the issue of why contemporary literary fiction — particularly realist fiction that isn’t dystopian, speculative or set in the near-future — rarely engages with the most significant issue of our time. It’s a subject Amitav Ghosh tackled in his 2016 book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. He recently told Writers Rebel that while there have been significant improvements, the scale of the crisis lies beyond the imaginative scope of many writers. “As things get worse we become more and more blind,” he said.
In 2020, novelist Lauren Groff highlighted some key titles in the cli-fi genre, but noted that when it comes to reading about climate issues, she’s more drawn to non-fiction. Lydia Davis went further, admitting that in the midst of the ongoing emergency, writing can seem unimportant when compared to activism and other work that might help perpetuate life — literally.
Sometimes I share Davis’s sentiment. But then, writers write. Few of us choose not to. The question, then, is this: for those of us who care about the crisis, and want our art to reflect life, how can we successfully blend the two?
Part of the problem relates to what readers will and will not accept when it comes to fiction. Writing plausible, believable fiction is no small feat and, as Ghosh notes, authenticity has become a hallmark of modern literature. It requires perception, imagination, sensitivity, patience and a lot of hard work. It requires characters and a story that will suspend readers’ disbelief long enough to keep them in the world the writer has created.
The climate crisis is not only unthinkable, as Ghosh writes, but the severity of it can, in our culture, be hard to believe. To be clear, I’m not talking about conspiracy-laden climate denialism. What I’m talking about is the way our culture can dull us, distract us and delude us. We know there’s a problem, but then carry on with business as usual. I’m talking about “soft denial” and there’s evidence of it everywhere: well-meaning beliefs that the crisis can be solved with a gradual approach that doesn’t really disrupt the system; attempts to downplay the severity of the crisis, lest people get too discouraged; suggestions that technology might save us; and exhortations to lean towards unearned hope and optimism. I’m talking about the pervasive influence of business-as-usual groupthink – the kind of thinking that can make you wonder: surely if things are really as bad as they seem, more people would drop everything and do something? In this world, fiction that reflects the full scope of the crisis risks coming across as exaggerated or simply unbelievable.
Because when you really think about it, there’s a baked-in absurdity to characters going about their daily lives in the midst of catastrophe. But then, that is our reality. The crisis rarely makes an appearance in our mainstream media, politics, culture, workplaces or conversations. This is one of the challenges of fiction. In theory, it can and should enable us to imagine a world that acknowledges the urgency and scale of the crisis. But for this to feel plausible, it must reflect the world we currently inhabit. Which is why climate stories set in dystopias or the near-future may have succeeded better than realist literary fiction. Again and again, our society treats climate catastrophe as a crisis that lies ahead, not all around us. Perhaps inevitably, this sentiment is reflected in our fiction.
I desperately hope that with greater awareness and activism, our societies continue waking up to the severity of the crisis, and fiction will reflect that. But until that day comes, I want to suggest this to my fellow writers, from personal experience.
If you’re concerned about the climate crisis, let yourself feel it. I mean, really feel it. Wallow in the pain of it. Lose yourself in the fear, grief, rage and inconsolable heartbreak of it. Then write – not just about the crisis, but perhaps more importantly from it, this dark, infuriating place we currently inhabit. Because in order for fiction to reflect the reality of the crisis in compelling, believable ways, it’s important that writers feel it.
For a long time, I avoided the terror and heartbreak that grips me whenever I think about the emergency. But once I started connecting to these feelings, a palpable sense of anger started showing up in my fiction. This may not solve the problem that Ghosh identified. But writing is truth-telling, and how can we tell the truth unless we first acknowledge what we’re feeling?
Melissa Jean Gismondi is an award-winning writer and audio producer currently based in Tkaronto (Toronto). In 2019, the Writers’ Trust of Canada named her one of five ‘Rising Stars.’
CALL TO ACTION: Read The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable by Amitav Ghosh. It’s a powerful and provocative look into the stories we tell — and more importantly, don’t tell — about the climate emergency.
Sign up for the Good Grief Network’s 10-step program if you need support processing the emotional reality of the crisis. And get involved with whatever climate justice group inspires you in your area. For me, it’s Last Generation Canada.