Literature and Climate Change

melting glaciers


Two days ago my interview with cli-fi popularizer Dan Bloom was reposted on the Tele-read website and drew some interesting comments. Respondents debated whether “cli-fi” was a useful or a silly generic label.

I use today’s post to talk a little more about generic labeling and also to list my major posts on literature and climate change over the past few years.

One skeptic of the cli-fi label wrote a very funny response where he imagined the “fi” being attached to a wide range of literature:

I have said this before, the term cli-fi makes me less inclined to read a book with that label. It sounds silly and trivial. It smacks of a marketing gimmick too. Or maybe all genres should get a cutesy label.

Aye-fi: pirate fiction
Cry-fi: sad fiction
Di-fi: Princess Di fiction
Die-fi: high death count fiction
Hi-fi: drug fiction
My-fi: narcissistic fiction
Sty-fi: messy, unedited fiction
Why-fi: fiction that questions the meaning of life

…et al

Climate change is a serious subject and fiction that deals with it deserves better than a silly marketing label.

I appreciate the respondent’s point. On the other hand, one age’s silly marketing label can be another age’s received wisdom. “Sci-fi” itself was not taken seriously for a long time.

I find useful Rick Altman’s Film Genre, one of the best books I know on generic labeling. Although Film Genre focuses on the cinema—there’s much more money at stake in labeling films than in labeling novels—it has a very useful survey of genre history, going all the way back to Aristotle’s attempts to define tragedy and comedy.

Altman’s main point is that, although genres sometimes seem to have the solidity of natural fact, in reality they always emerge through a complex interaction of authors, audiences, and cultural institutions. Some genres take hold while others seem silly and fade away, but one can’t always predict ahead of time what will happen.

To cite a couple of his examples, what we now call the action adventure genre used to be called melodrama or “mellers.” Now we most commonly associate melodrama with “women’s films,” but these used to be called “women’s weepies.” (Some now call them “chick flicks,” although these can include comedy as well as melodrama.)

And then there are westerns, which used to be called “oaties.” And while “musical” may seem self-evident to us now, it evolved out of a diverse range of generic labels that used to include “revue,” “comic opera,” “minstrel shows,” and others.

One couldn’t have predicted that sci-fi would become a respectable generic label rather than a silly way of  describing a lot of pulp fiction, some of it featuring BEMs (bug-eyed monsters). But this genre would by taken up by authors who have become canonical, like Kurt Vonnegut, Ursula LeGuin, and Margaret Atwood. My point in Tuesday’s post is that sci-fi became respectable because rapidly evolving science and technology are such a key aspect of our world that a special genre focusing on them lent itself to serious artistic exploration.

I don’t know for sure that “cli-fi” will catch on, but there’s a chance it will. After all, climate concerns will increasingly make our lives difficult in the years to come.

Upon further reflection, however, I don’t think cli-fi will become as big a sci-fi. It seems more likely destined to become a sub-genre of “eco-lit,” which covers the same ground but has the advantage of (1) addressing humans’ relation to nature more generally and (2) including poetry and creative non-fiction in addition to fiction.

Speaking of eco-lit, here are posts I’ve written over the years about literature that casts light upon issues raised by climate change.

Many of my posts have been about climate change denial. For instance:

Donne’s Warning about Climate Change – Donne mentions the movement of the spheres in his poem “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” but they are distant, and he makes the important point that we only see the effects of nature that occur right before our eyes, not the larger patterns. Think of Senator James Inhofe bringing a snowball to the Senate to disprove global warming.

Tolstoy and Climate Change Denial – We can see that climate change denialists follow in the footsteps of the Moscow aristocrats in War and Peace, who can’t believe that Napoleon will take the city.

Out of Denial and into Responsibility – Jack Burden in Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men gives us a great description of the philosophy of denial, which he calls “idealism.” By the end of the novel, fortunately, he decides to face up to reality.

Obama: A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall – Poet Henry Vaughan decries fools who “prefer dark night before true light,” and Alexander Pope in The Dunciad goes after the dunces who turn their backs on science, intelligence, and logic.

GOP Denies a Giant Problem – For another instance of denial, it is hard to top Jonathan Swift’s Lilliputians, who refuse to believe that other men like Gulliver could exist. Their philosophers conclude that he must have dropped from the moon.

Haiyan, Climate Change, and King Lear – King Lear also closes his eyes to the family and political storms  that he has triggered. His most trustworthy counselor advises him to “See better, Lear,” thereby earning banishment.

When American Fantasies Are Dangerous – In American Gods, Neil Gaiman gives us a great example of denial: southern slave owners refuse to acknowledge that there has been a successful slave rebellion in Haiti.

Melville and Climate Change Denial – Another instance of slave society denial occurs with Captain Delano in Melville’s fine novella Benito Cereno refusing to see the rebellion going on right before his eyes..

Some write about the grim future ahead:

Climate Action Will Lead to Dystopia – Russell Hoban’s post-apocalyptic novel Riddley Walker is about nuclear holocaust, not climate change, but it captures the same disregard and contempt for future generations that climate denialists are exhibiting.

Hydrocarbons Unleash an Angry God – Euripides’s The Bacchae shows how nature responds when we try to impose our will upon it. The control freak King Pentheus is torn apart at the order of Dionysus.

This Is the Way the World Ends – Robert Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice” sounds as though it was written for climate change. Will the world end in fire or ice? How about both?

Will Californians Become the New Okies? – The droughts that climate change is visiting upon California (not to mention other parts of the world) bring to mind the ecological nightmare described by John Steinbeck in Grapes of Wrath.

 The Mariner’s Advice to College Students – Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner can be read as an ecological parable—the arrogance that the mariner exhibits by shooting the albatross unleashes “life in death” upon the world.

Some authors provide useful advice for climate activists:

Kingsolver Tries to Save the Planet – Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior directly takes on the issue of climate change as it shows disruptions in the migratory patterns of monarch butterflies. Most usefully, Kingsolver shows various constituencies that must learn to talk to each other if we are to address the issues.

Being Right on the Climate Is Not Enough – Along these lines, Ibsen’s Enemy of the People has important lessons for climate activists: if you want to change people’s minds, avoid self-righteousness.

Climate Change: Signs of Witchery – Leslie Marmon Silko, a Laguna Pueblo writer, vividly captures environmental devastation in her novel Ceremony but also has her protagonist discover a healthier way of living in the world.

Climate Hope Shines in Dark Times – Madeleine L’Engel has a wonderful Advent poem that I shared after the world gathered in Paris this past December to combat climate change. Despite the grim forecasts, we experienced a glimmer of hope.

And finally, if you are in the mood for light verse about the environment, here are a number of poems by my father, a deep lover of nature:

An ABC of Our Attack on the Earth

The River’s Blood Turned to Stone

The Animals Are Trying to Warn Us

The Koch Brothers: Oligarchs of Oil and Ordure 

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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