June 18, 2019

Literature for a Changing Climate

“In his book-length essay The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh makes the case for a new literature of climate change. He argues that the modern novel is not up to the task of representing a vague, omnipresent threat to the survival of humanity. Fiction is too obsessed with the inner lives of its characters to survey a changing earth. What we need, he contends, is a full overhaul of what counts as “serious fiction”: a shift from close-focus domestic realism to a global view of environmental vulnerability. The criteria of literature must be adapted to make room for the aesthetic conditions of ecological catastrophe.

Ghosh acknowledges that environmental apocalypse isn’t a brand-new literary concern; he cites several authors, including himself, whose work he sees as integrating “the unthinkable” of climate change in fiction. Finally, though, he believes that the catastrophe of climate change will require an artistic storming of the gates. “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.” If one function of fiction is to help us understand the world, Ghosh thinks the literature we have now is failing in the face of global warming. We’ll need new genres, structures, maybe even words.

In fact, climate change is far from a new subject for literature. On the contrary, the variable, impassive earth is a motivating image in many of the works we already celebrate. The scale of the incoming disaster is unprecedented; our vulnerability to the climate is familiar. We just have to recognize the theme for what it is.”

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