In this article I set out the genre of “flood fictions”, novels that use floods to depict climate crisis. I explore a few twenty-first-century British novels (Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From, Clare Morrall’s When the Floods Came, and Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army) in which floods are literal and figurative consequences of climate crisis.
A second characteristic of flood fiction is that they portray the literal submersion of the narratives themselves by means of language erosion and narrative fragmentation. Importantly, flood fictions tackle some of the imaginative and representative challenges posed by the Anthropocene. My reading of these novels provides an intervention in current debates on imagining and narrating climate crisis and presents a previously unexplored and underexplored subset of literary works.
In my talk, I discussed climate fiction as a genre, how humans have always written about climate, and how the genre has recently become popular. I focused in particular on what makes stories and literary narrative special, and compared them to the stories told by disaster films.
I enjoy giving these public lectures, both in Dutch and English. If you’d like to contact me about a lecture, you can do so through this form.
At the end of October, Jim Crace: Into the Wilderness, edited by Katy Shaw and Kate Aughterson, was published by Palgrave. It’s the first book focusing solely on Jim Crace’s novels, placing them in a broader context of philosophical, political and cultural debates. It includes essays on pastoral, gender and religion, and focuses on Crace’s entire oeuvre.
I contributed a chapter on ecocriticism and Crace’s early novels, specifically on The Gift of Stones, Signals of Distress and Being Dead. Rather than suggesting one overarching reading to these novels, I place them side-by-side with the development of ecocriticism as a field. I left the role of the pastoral out of my discussion, as two other chapters in the book (by Philip Tew and Deborah Lilley) explore this. Instead I focus on two developments in ecocriticism over the past decade or so.
The first of these is the turn to the global in ecocriticism, especially since the publication of Ursula Heise’s Sense of Place and Sense of Planet in 2008. The main concern here is especially representing global climate crisis, a topic not explicitly addressed in Crace’s early novels. In the chapter I show how the global — and global crisis — is nonetheless depicted through trade networks in Signals of Distress. I also read the shock of the Bronze Age in Gift of Stones as similar to the emergence of the Anthropocene.
The second development I explore in the chapter is that of econarratology, especially in relation to narrating the non-human. Here I focus on Being Dead, and especially the decentring of the human that takes place once the novel’s main characters are killed in the beginning.
The chapter shows that Crace’s novels provide a rich terrain for ecocritical analysis, even though they have received little ecocritical attention to date.
This month my article on Graham Swift’s Waterland appeared in Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment. I’d been working on this article for a while, and benefited from the comments of an excellent peer reviewer, so I’m particularly pleased to see it published. A link to the free version of the article on the Oxford UP website is available here.
In the article, I use Waterland – which has been explored by ecocritics before – to set out a framework that combines ecocriticism and narratology. It ties in with the emerging field of econarratology, which I expand by looking specifically at Waterland‘s framework narrative and use of the fairy-tale genre. I discuss how the emphasis on storytelling in the book combined with the attention it pays to landscape invites an econarratological approach. In particular, I focus on the instability of both the Fenland landscape and of stories, which is an aspect that I return to in my work, most recently in my monograph. As such, my reading reveals environmental layers in the novel that earlier readings had not uncovered.
Info about some of my other publications can be found here.
In May 2018 I attended an international symposium on the work of Sarah Hall in Leuven. The paper I presented is part of my new project on flood fictions. As I wrote before, by flood fictions I refer to twenty-first-century works in which flood is imagined as one of the key effects of climate crisis. Floods also have symbolic value in these works, referring often to the socio-economic collapses that have taken place in the future. At the same time, floods seep into the novels, breaking up the narrative and leading to fragmentation and language erosion.
In the paper, I defined the genre in a bit more detail, placing it in wider cultural context in which flood is a recurring feature in environmental discourse and disaster films. I discussed how floods are depicted in The Carhullan Army and how this relates to the societal and political collapse that has taken place. I also talked about the importance of books to the novel’s main character, Sister, and how this is echoed in other flood fictions. Books provide a link between the novels’ first readers and their characters, but also suggest that stories, storytelling and the novel as genre are somehow particularly important in a time of climate crisis.
In the final part of the paper, I focus on the fragmented nature of The Carhullan Army, which consists of a series of records, becoming increasingly incomplete towards the end. I place this fragmentation in the context of other flood novels – especially Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From.
The full text of the paper, including the sources I used, is available here.
My new project is on what I call “flood fictions”, novels that use floods as a literal consequence of climate crisis, but also as a symbolic image for life in the Anthropocene: unpredictable, overwhelming and quite literally engulfing. Floods become synecdoches for climate crisis as a whole, bringing the large scale developments leading to and effects of climate change into relatively small-scaled and contained environments.
The unnamed narrator of Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From (2017) hears disturbing news just weeks before giving birth to her son: “the water is rising faster than they thought. It is creeping faster. A calculation error. A badly plotted movie, sensors out at sea” (3). The waters are rising, creeping towards London – and while she’s in the hospital, the really bad news comes. London, it seems, has been lost to the water: “An unprecedented flood. London. Uninhabitable. A list of boroughs, like the shipping forecast, their names suddenly as perfect and tender as the names of children. Ours” (8). Hunter’s novel is just one of several contemporary British novels that imagine floods as a consequence of climate crisis.
Floods are a recurring feature of the climate crisis imagination, both literally and symbolically. In disaster films floods provide welcome imagery, from the flooded planet in Waterworld (1995) to the flooding of Manhattan, leaving only the Statue of Liberty standing in The Day After Tomorrow (2004), and the breaching of the Thames Barrier in the 2007 British film Flood.
Sensationalist though these films may be, flooding is a very real consequence of climate crisis. Global warming is linked to increased flooding in most European countries, as well as in other areas around the world (Alfieri et al.). In Britain, changing environmental and climatological circumstances will make floods twenty times more likely by 2080, affecting at least twice as many people than are currently at risk from flooding. Little wonder, then, that many twenty-first-century fictions imagine a very wet future, especially for Britain.
Floods are also a powerful symbol to describe climate crisis. Leonardo DiCaprio’s 2016 documentary Before the Flood uses the image of the flood as a kind of environmental turning point, a tipping point after which broad-scale climate crisis can no longer be prevented. Similarly, the 2017 film Downsizing, in which humans have themselves shrunk in order to have a smaller environmental footprint, ends with a waterless, but no less dangerous flood. When the methane levels in the atmosphere reach dangerous heights, a group of idealistic environmentalists descends into a cave under the earth’s surface, in an attempt to wait out the next great extinction – of humans. The cave, the film’s protagonist realizes, functions as a kind of Noah’s Ark.
A similar extinction event is referred to as the ‘waterless flood’ in Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam-trilogy, in which a scientist creates a deadly virus that wipes out a considerable part of humanity. Similarly, the deadly flu that kills off most of humankind in Station Eleven (2014) is framed as a flood: “‘The flu’, the prophet said, ‘the great cleansing that we suffered twenty years ago, that flu was our flood” (60). In a slightly different vein, Ali Shaw envisions an arboreal flood in The Trees (2016), when Britain is quite literally swamped, and destroyed, by millions of trees popping up overnight.
Eventually, my new project will lead to another monograph. Before that, I have a few conference papers planned, and at least two articles about the different dimensions of flood fictions. The list of novels that I’ll analyse is growing, but includes Hunter’s The End We Start From, The Ship (2015) by Antonia Honeywell, When the Floods Came (2016) by Clare Morrall, The Carhullan Army (2007) by Sarah Hall, The Flood (2004) by Maggie Gee and All Rivers Run Free (2018) by Natasha Carthew.
January was a good month, research-wise: I had a lot of things planned, but I was able to do some of that in December, and had a lot of energy to work on the other projects in January.
What I worked on:
Submitted an article on Ian McEwan and ecology – I struggled with finding the focus for this article quite a bit. While I’m happy with the article I ended up submitting, it will need more work. As the editor of the volume pointed out, it’s quite a bit under the maximum word limit. I knew that when I submitted it, but didn’t want to negatively affect the unity of the piece. Having said that, I agreed with the editor that he’d make some suggestions for expanding it, and I’ll be thinking about that too. I still feel nervous about it, so fingers crossed.
The other big thing I worked on this month was a fellowship application. I applied for a three-month writing grant at the Rachel Carson Center in Munich. I want to use it to really make some headway on my new project on flood fictions (more on that next month). I’ve been doing some papers on this, and a book chapter, but this year I want to write and submit two further articles and submit a book proposal for this project.
Halfway through the month I got the editors’ comments back on the chapter I wrote for Jim Crace: Into the Wilderness. In the chapter I apply some ecocritical approaches to Crace’s early novels The Gift of Stones, Signals of Distress and Being Dead. The editors only had a few comments, so I was able to turn around this revision fairly quickly and return the chapter by the end of the month.
The final week of January was the exam week at my institution. I worked ahead a bit and ended up with an entire week in which I was able to devote pretty much all my time to research. I managed to have practically no appointments that week, save for two on Tuesday afternoon. I checked my work email daily, and did some small chores that came out of that, but that didn’t take more than 45 minutes a day.
I feel really pleased that I was able to take this time: it felt like a complete luxury. I even had time to take things a little slow before the busy start of the new semester. I was so pleased with this week that I’m planning two further weeks in the middle (resit-week) and end of the new semester as well.
What I’m working on:
This month’s big project is a chapter revision for a book on literature & philosophy, due at the end of the month. The chapter is on the ethical issues raised by 21st-century British flood fictions. Back in November I received the editors’ comments, which were very supportive. The main point of criticism was that I had not included enough philosophy – I hadn’t interpreted the premise correctly. The editors gave me some useful suggestions and I did some more research to fix that. I think that I’ve found some good perspectives to incorporate. I begun revising a few days ago and so far I feel good about how the chapter is coming along. I actually quite like revising – I like the craftmanship of it, chipping away, polishing and making it better.
What I’m thinking about:
I am itching to make a start on the first of two peer-reviewed journal articles to my flood project that I want to submit this year. The first article will define the genre of flood fictions. I won’t properly start on this until March, but I’m very excited.
I expect to hear back from two editors this month, or early next month: on the McEwan chapter, and on a chapter on climate fiction for a book on ecocriticism and narrative theory.
In early March I’ll hear back on my application to serve as associate editor at ISLE. This sounds like an interesting position to me and fits in well with my aim to work on strengthening my academic community.
This academic year I’m trying take more time to really reflect on my courses. I decided to delve a little deeper into the two Master’s courses I taught in semester 1. I’m using both my own observations as well as student evaluations (though I know full well how problematic these evaluations often are). I had been thinking about doing a reflection like this for a while, inspired in particular by Bonni Stachowiak’s reflections.
While my institution sends out standardised evaluation forms to students as well, I decided to create my own a few years ago. There are things specific to my courses that I want students’ opinions on, and I like to do these evaluations in class so that we can have a conversation about it as well (if you’re curious, these are the evaluation forms I used: Survey and LTL).
The two courses are a MA year 2 survey course on 19th, 20th and 21st-century British literature (mainly poetry and short fiction), which I taught for the sixth time in a row this year (!). The other is a course called Literature and Teaching Literature (LTL), a course for our first year MA-students. The programme prepares them to teach in upper-secondary education, and this course is often their first encounter with literary pedagogy. It was the first time I taught this course, which had been developed and was taught by a colleague of mine for the previous 8 or 9 years.
Literature Survey course
I’ve been tweaking and changing the survey course for years: it’s become more interactive, I’ve switched some texts and have incorporated more retrieval practice since reading James Lang’s Small Teaching last year. This year, we had a very small group: only 5 students, of which one fell ill halfway through the semester and attended sporadically after that. Teaching such a small group meant that I had to make my classes even more interactive: I simply couldn’t rely on ‘class discussion’ to naturally lead to interesting discussion. This is something I constantly try to develop, so I’m glad I challenged myself more in this sense.
I tried out more interactive assignments, from having them make ‘intertextual webs’, for texts, to having them lead the discussion, and devising a game with questions that sent them around a quest centered on John Burnside’s poem “The Day Etta Died”. Something I’m pleased with, and which I’m using for the second time in a row, is the image-assignment in the first week – rather than giving them a timeline of important events in the period that we cover (19th, 20th and 21st century Britain) in a lecture, I hand them a stack of images. They have to figure out what the image is of, and put the images in the correct chronological order. I do hand out a timeline after the activity to help them remember.
There were also some things that were starting to feel increasingly uncomfortable. The advance tasks that the students had to do every week, and which were tied in with the weekly reading, often felt not challenging enough, and a bit boring at times. They just didn’t seem to work with the group. I also struggled to make clear how the assignments they had to do for the course were tied in to each other. And, in the first half of the course, there seemed to be a disconnect between the classes as I interpreted them based on my predecessor’s material, and the assignments the students had to hand in.
This was reflected in the course evaluations. Most students wanted to get rid of the advance tasks in this form, and see other changes as well. One student made this explicit in the evaluation:
“In the beginning things were less well-prepared and it didn’t feel as if you were in charge of the course, but that the course was imposed upon you. That changed after the first period I think. I would like to see more influence of you on assignments and topics so that it all comes together in a course that you stand for. You did a good job and are inspiring as a literature teacher.”
Although I was just as well-prepared in the beginning as I was towards the end, this student did pick up on the feeling I had that the beginning of the course wasn’t great. At the same time, I wonder whether if I hadn’t made this feeling of discomfort explicit halfway through the course, they would also have picked up on it.
So, halfway through the course I decided to change things (see this article on the midsemester course correction by David Gooblar). I waited until I had my usual middle-of-the-course stop/start/continue evaluation, so I could incorporate some of the students’ feedback as well. While I didn’t change the syllabus radically, I did change the nature of the advance tasks, something I’d been doing gradually anyway. I divided the second half of the semester up in weeks relating to the three assignments the students had to hand in for the final exam, and tied the advance tasks and class assignments in with that. Every week the students got time to work explicitly on their assignments, and discuss their work and progress with each other. I also build in feedback moments, so they could hand in drafts of their assignments through Canvas.
Other evaluation outcomes
In both courses, the students felt they had achieved the learning objectives. This is the first year I’m asking students to reflect this explicitly, and I like it
As a lecturer, I score highest on being an expert on the course subject matter, and on having well-structured classes (more so in the Survey course than in the LTL course).
“I really enjoyed your lectures. I really liked your clear, structured approach. Also I really appreciated the extra feedback moments for the different parts of the end exams. Thanks for the enjoyable lessons.”
Three students noted that they missed the element of literary analysis in Literature and Teaching Literature. We spent some time on that in the first two weeks, but the focus of the course was on teaching literature – hoping that students would have enough experience already and gain experience in the other literature course offered in semester 1. I’m tempted to take out the literary analysis part completely – the course seems simply too short for much attention on in-depth analysis and teaching, and we do a lot of analysis in the other literature courses offered throughout the programme.
In both the LTL course and the Survey course I didn’t score very high on motivating students to prepare for class. Relevance is often discussed in relation to motivation (in, for instance, Small Teaching and in Minds Online, two books I recently read and enjoyed). Ironically, LTL revolves around ways of teaching literature, and the students are teachers who are supposed to teach literature. That should make the course feel very relevant. I might have a conversation with the students next time, about what I could do to motivate them, or what they could do to motivate themselves more, as I’m genuinely curious how that works with them. In the first class of semester 2, I’ll ask students to make explicit what they want to take away from the course, including at least one way in which they expect to implement the course in their own teaching.
I recently saw the 2017 film Geostorm. The premise of the film is that in the near future a solution is devised by scientists to control the freak weather caused by climate change. The solution is a network of satellites colloquially called ‘Dutch boy’, after the story of the Dutch boy who put his finger in a dyke to stop a flood.* It costs a lot of money but, the voice-over tells us, it brings the world together and keeps climate crisis in check. Problem solved.
While this premise is probably enough to merit Rotten Tomatoes’ review of Geostorm as “a disaster of a movie”, the way in which climate change is framed in the film made me think. For instance, it demonstrates a point I make in my recent book: anthropogenic climate change has become firmly lodged in our cultural awareness. We no longer need an explicit explanation in order to link the events happening at the beginning of the film to climate change. In 2017 this was much more the case than ten or fifteen years ago. As my partner (who suffered through Geostorm with me) pointed out, in The Day After Tomorrow (2004) the fact that climate change is causing the freak weather had to be made much more explicitly.
Geostorm‘s language about climate change also stands out. As the voice-over tells us, “we fought back”. Climate change is a villain, and the hero is the scientist who developed ‘Dutch boy’. Appropriately, an article in The Guardian that appeared around the release of Geostorm asks whether climate change is Hollywood’s new supervillain.
What Lawrence Buell calls the ‘David-and-Goliath’-trope has long been a part of the environmental movement (1). It is usually used in relation to pollution, when big corporations are the Goliath (as in the environmental classic Silent Spring, for example) and ordinary people or misunderstood scientists are the David. This us-versus-them dichotomy is not unproblematic, though, as Buell also notes. In the case of the production and use of pesticides critiqued in Silent Spring, for instance, it absolves the consumer of any blame. The same happens in Geostorm: the causes of climate change are glossed over, and what matters is that a solution is provided and that “we fought back”.
Geostorm also replicates the kind of first world exceptionalism so common in many Hollywood films – and in the real world. The film’s ending reveals that the devious secretary of state aimed to use “Dutch boy” to destroy all of the former enemies of the US. He wants to bring the political balance back to what is was in 1945, with the US as superpower.
The Day After Tomorrow, probably the best known film about climate crisis, makes a slightly different point. At the end of the film, when the heroes have been saved and reunited, the President makes a televised speech. He mentions that the US and other first world countries have now come become “guests in nations we once called the Third World”. There’s plenty of exceptionalism in this film as well of course, not the least because after having first decided to abandon half the country to the massive snowstorms, helicopters are sent out to rescue our hero, his son and others who have miraculously survived in New York. Nonetheless, while Geostorm magnifies climate crisis inequality in favour of the US, The Day After Tomorrow suggests that climate crisis might alter this inequality. Climate crisis, it seems, would be beneficial to the global balance of power.
Quite a bit of research has been done on The Day After Tomorrow as a climate film. The results vary from suggesting that the film had a bigger effect on people’s awareness of climate crisis than the IPCC reports, to suggestions that it didn’t really have an effect at all. A 2009 paper notes that The Day After Tomorrow increased “information seeking behaviour” amongst viewers. Other audience studies had different results: in the UK the film made viewers anxious, and although they may have seemed more willing to do something about climate crisis, they didn’t know what. In Germany, viewers of the film came to the conclusion that climate change would not affect them personally. The Day After Tomorrow is also perhaps a bit too much of a Hollywood-disaster-film to really invite serious reflections on climate crisis (even though one of the first casualties of the freak weather hitting the US is the Hollywood sign, blasted away by a tornado) (2).
It’s become a platitude, but representing climate crisis in film or in novels is hard. I do think it is important that literature and film address climate crisis, if only because the crisis itself, as well as our awareness of it, has become so much a part of our society. The problem with films such as The Day After Tomorrow (and especially Geostorm) is, as Michael Svoboda puts it, that
the apocalyptic film also disconnects viewers’ current lives from the possible future depicted on the screen
That is to say: I like thinking about how these films, and novels, depict climate crisis. It fascinates me how stories are created that shape how we think, imagine and talk about climate crisis. I think it is important that we study these stories and point out patterns, and problematic aspects. But I also don’t want to fall into the trap of prescriptiveness: there’s more to a novel than its ‘message’, just as a film should also be entertaining.
*As a Dutch person, I feel like I should point out here that the story of the boy with his finger in the dyke is largely unfamiliar to Dutch people (it’s an American story). Also that it’s just too weird, as anyone living near water knows.