Climate Crisis and the 21st-Century British Novel
On this page I’ve collected all the blog posts I wrote on my book Climate Crisis and the 21st-Century British Novel
You might also be interested in reading about my more recent project on flood fictions.
Announcing Climate Crisis and the 21st-Century British Novel
I’m fascinated by how we talk about nature and how we imagine it. Contemporary stories about nature are the topic of my new book, Climate Crisis and the 21st-century British Novel.
The way we think about nature goes beyond new nature writing or documentaries of the kind that became popular after Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. In the building where I work there’s a “green pub” about which there’s very little “green” other than the ambitions of the designers to create a “green” building. The cafeteria – “the green house” – aims to serve only organic food, providing different kinds of smileys for each product showing whether foods are healthy and sustainable or not.
There’s many other ways in which narratives of nature shape our culture – from ideas about which landscapes we find pleasing, to clothing trends and architecture.
21st-century fiction offers an especially exciting space for such narratives. The novels written today reflect how we think about and how we try to come to terms with events and developments, including environmental crisis. In the coming months I’ll be working on my new book, Climate Crisis and the 21st-century British Novel which will appear with Bloomsbury Academic in their Environmental Cultures series.
My focus is on how widespread awareness of environmental crisis plays out in the stories we tell about nature, the ways we frame and imagine it. Four narratives of nature are central to my book: pastoral nature, urban nature, climate change nature and polar nature. They form two sets of companion chapters: pastoral and urban are typically seen as opposites, but they also flow into each other. The other two chapters are also companion chapters: the climate change chapter is concerned with many narratives that imagine a warming world, whereas the polar narratives of the fourth chapter are about very cold environments. The poles are also a powerful image of climate change.
Climate Crisis and the 21st-century British Novel is the first book to explore natural environments and narratives in 21st century fiction. It is also the first ecocritical book that looks at this combination of narratives and takes a broad approach to the literary forms that climate change narratives take, outside of science fiction. It discusses the meaning of traditional narratives such as pastoral for a contemporary setting and traces the development of new narratives. While my approach is predominantly ecocritical, I’ll also be using econarratology, urban studies, rural studies, food studies and other sociological and geographical fields.
I’ve deliberately chosen to discuss books that are not first and foremost about nature – although in some form or other it resurfaces in all of them. Particularly books that are not nature writing or cli-fi are interesting to me because they show how contemporary ideas about nature, informed by climate crisis, resurface everywhere, not only in explicit discourses about nature. It also allows me to see the four narratives I’ll be exploring in the broadest sense: the chapter on urban nature that I’m working on right now for example has a section on food and how alternative food practices create a connection with nature that people often believe does not exist in the city.
My aim in Climate Crisis and the 21st-century British Novel is to show how pervasive environmental crisis has become in the early 21st-century, so pervasive that it pops up in many different places, and outside of stories devoted explicitly to nature. Understanding this pervasiveness, I believe, also brings us a step closer to understanding environmental crisis and imagining responses to it.
More about the book and a full list of the novels I’ll be discussing here.
Climate Crisis and the 21st-Century British Novel: introductory remarks (October 2017)
My book, Climate Crisis and the 21st-Century British Novel, is published on November 2nd. In it I discuss how a wide variety of literary fictions reflect contemporary awareness of climate crisis, and participate in the construction of the stories that we tell about climate crisis.
In the weeks leading up to and following the book’s publication, I’ll blog about the book in some more detail than I have done so far. In this post, I want to give some background to how I got started on the book’s topic. If you’re interested in reading more on the process of writing the book proposal and the book, you might find the posts I wrote for PhD2Published useful.
Last month, The New York Times ran an article on what they call “climate-themed fiction”. Taking the links that people have drawn between recent hurricanes and Paolo Bacigalupi’s 2010 novel Ship Breaker as a starting point, they asked whether this and other novels could become reality. This question ties in with what inspired me to write Climate Crisis and the 21st-Century British Novel: the ubiquity of climate crisis in our cultural sphere, and the role that novels play in helping us think through the shape climate crisis might take.
My PhD was on ecocriticism and contemporary British fiction. I defined ‘contemporary’ broadly: the oldest novel I studied was John Fowles’ Daniel Martin (1977), the most recent Solar (2010), by Ian McEwan. When I’d finished my PhD, I realized that what I found most interesting were novels published since 2000, and especially the cultural climate in which they were produced. The years since 2000, many critics have suggested, have seen a growing awareness of climate crisis in Western culture. The ecocritic Terry Gifford pinpoints the spring of 2007 as a watershed moment in this respect. It was, he suggests,
‘a turning point in our perception of climate change and our engagement with global warming. It was a time when debates about our species’ effects upon the global environment moved from a weekly to a daily presence in the newspapers’
This awareness goes beyond the newspapers – it is reflected in the documentaries and films on climate crisis that have appeared since 2000, in magazines that published green issues and even on the high street, with the rise of ‘eco-conscious fashion’ and more local, organic food. As the editor of Vanity Fair put it in his editorial for the magazine’s first green issue:
‘Green is the new black.’
Novels, I think, are particularly good at capturing whatever humans face. They are especially good at imagining human relationships and immediate environments — two areas that are bound to change as a result of climate crisis. But novels are not just mirrors of contemporary culture – they also offer ways of thinking through situations. Like the novels in The New York Times article, they present future situations, but especially also how they affect human relationships. Novels, in short, don’t only reflect how we imagine climate crisis, they also actively shape these imaginations.
In Climate Crisis and the 21st-Century British Novel I write about the position of novels in a time of climate crisis, and especially the kinds of narratives they draw on. The bigger story of climate crisis is, I argue, reflected in different ways, in different types of narratives that resurface in novels, films, advertisements and other cultural expressions. The four narratives of climate crisis I focus on are collapse, pastoral, urban nature and polar environments, and over the coming weeks I’ll explore these four narratives some more.
The cocktail-party version of my book (October 2017)
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.
A short intro to Climate Crisis and the 21st-Century British Novel
(This post is a repost of a guest blog post I wrote for Bloomsbury’s Literary Studies blog)
At some point early into my research on climate crisis, I began to get the feeling that climate crisis was everywhere. I saw it referenced in films, novels, in food advertising. This, of course, happens to anyone who immerses herself in a topic: suddenly, her new interest seems all over. I quickly discovered, however, that references to climate crisis really are everywhere. Especially in the years since the beginning of this century, climate crisis has moved from merely an ecological or political problem, to an issue that has become firmly entrenched in our cultural awareness.
In Climate Crisis and the 21st-Century British Novel I write about how the stories we tell about climate crisis are how we try to understand, imagine and come to terms with it. Novels, I argue, don’t only reflect awareness of climate crisis, but shape how we tell its story.
One of the dominant stories (or narratives) I write about in Climate Crisis and the 21st-Century British Novel is that of climate crisis collapse. This story is familiar from contemporary films as much as novels. What I found particularly interesting is that environmental collapse never comes alone: it always coincides with social, economic and political collapse. In Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army, for example, the disappearance of the seasons is described in the same breath as the rise of a totalitarian regime in Britain.
Yet in writing my book I particularly wanted to show that climate crisis isn’t only depicted in the story of collapse, but that it influences all of the stories we tell about our natural environment, and quite a few we tell about ourselves.
Another story I explore is that of urban nature. In cities people engage in unique ways with nature and climate crisis, for example through the “real” or local food movement. In Zadie Smith’s N/W the farm-to-table spinach that Natalie serves illustrates both her rising social status and the extent to which purchasing local foods is believed to be environmentally beneficent.
Climate crisis, livestock-diseases and the decline of agriculture have changed the most quintessential of British stories about nature: the pastoral. Pastoral is usually associated with idealization, but critiquing that idealization is as much part of it as many contemporary novels show. In Graham Swift’s Wish You Were Here, for example, the Robinsons’ enjoyment of their new house as an idyllic part of the countryside is time and again interrupted by references to BSE, death and war.
The final story I write about in Climate Crisis and the 21st-Century British Novel is that of the North and South Pole as dominant depictions of climate crisis. Interestingly, a lot of literary fiction about the Arctic is historical fiction. I discuss how past explorations of the Arctic hold up a mirror to contemporary engagements with the region, from tourism to environmentalism. In The Collector of Lost Things (Page) and The Deep Water (McGuire), for example, the nineteenth-century hunt for whales and bears foreshadows the Arctic as a canary in the mine of climate crisis – as well as a popular ‘last chance to see’ tourist destination.
Climate crisis really is everywhere – not just literally, as it is unfolding in the physical world around us, but also culturally. Twenty-first-century novels provide a perfect space in which to explore these stories of climate crisis, as well as how crisis affects our ideas about ourselves and the world we live in.