Writing a book about books seems alien to many people outside of academia. Over the past years I’ve tried to explain to family and friends why I was writing a book about 21st-century British novels, and why that’s even interesting. This is the explanation that I came up with.
My new book (published November 2nd, 2017) is about climate crisis and the way it is portrayed in 21st-century British novels. I start the book by discussing a different medium: the 2015 film The Revenant. This film about fur traders in 19th-century North America manages to be both historical and very topical. As Leonardo DiCaprio explained when he accepted the Oscar for his part in the film, The Revenant shows that ‘climate crisis is real’. Because the bleak, snowy landscapes that the film depicts no longer exist in Northern America, the film crew ended up in Antarctica. At the same time, as the film’s success shows, the wilderness that The Revenant shows remains an important part of how we think about nature.
Films and novels are a way in which we tell stories about ourselves and our environment. Roughly since the year 2000 it’s become much more normal to talk about climate crisis, to write books about it that aren’t non-fiction or science fiction, and to make films about it that are mainstream. Climate crisis has become part of our cultural consciousness – we’re not puzzled when a star like Leonardo DiCaprio talks about climate crisis at the Oscars. The omnipresence of climate crisis also means that it has become much easier and more natural for authors to refer to climate crisis. Things such as rising sea levels, increasing number of hurricanes or floods have become a kind of shorthand for climate crisis. We don’t need the scientific explanation to understand these and other events as part of climate crisis.
In the book I discuss twelve British novels published since 2000 that all show that climate crisis has become part of 21st-century life. The books, including NW by Zadie Smith and The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall, aren’t explicitly ‘about’ climate crisis – rather, they show how the stories we tell about ourselves, the world and our place in it are increasingly influenced by awareness of climate crisis.
Novels – like films – create new stories. Urban nature is one of these newer stories. The city is no longer seen as the opposite of nature, but a place in which people can connect to nature, for example through parks and gardens, but also through farmers’ markets and local food. Another narrative that is relatively new is that of environmental collapse – stories in which societies collapse because of climate crisis. This story seems to become more popular every year, both in books such as Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, and in films such as seemingly every disaster movie made in the past five years.
Novels and films also update old stories of nature. We can’t really disappear into idealization of the countryside (pastoral) anymore without having in the backs of our minds climate change, livestock diseases and industrialization. While the Arctic and Antarctic were long the last frontiers of wilderness and heroic exploration, they’ve now become destinations for last chance to see or extinction tourism.
This is what my book tries to explain. Climate Crisis and the 21st-Century British Novel is available from Bloomsbury Academic, and I also write about the book on this blog. My exploration of the way British novels depict climate crisis is part of my work on ecocriticism. More of my ecocritical research can be found here.