Publishers and literary agents applaud the rise of cli-fi genre novels as the Earth heats up
by Dan Bloom
The cyclical natural phenomena that affect our planet’s climate will amplify the effect of human-made ''global warming,'' some scientists warn, as publishers and literary agents call for more cli-fi novels and movies to mirror the Earth system events that are unfolding now
Webposted August 13, 2018 A.D. (''Anno Donaldo'')
The world is likely to see more extreme temperatures in the coming 40 years 2018-2060 -- to be accompanied by more and more cli-fi novels and movies to mirror reality -- as natural warming reinforces human-made climate change, according to a new global forecasting system.
To find out what people on the publishing industry think about cli-fi and its recent rise as a global literary genre in several languages, I asked a group of movers and shakers in the book industry what the prospects were, in their opinions, for the continued popularity of cli-fi novels and movies.
Earlier I asked a dozen journalists I know if they were interested in reporting this news for their publications, and while they all said it's a great subject to pursue, they said they were all too busy with their own projects and articles to take the time to do justice to this kind of literary and climate change story. So I decided to do it myself, and post my findings on MEDIUM, where readers worldwide can access it and pass it on to those who are interested in all this.
A note: In order to protect the privacy of people in the book industry, I created what I call creative composites of several of the people ''quoted'' here. You might call them "ghost quotes" because they are not verbatim quotes but quotes based on what they people have been saying for several years in industry publications like Publishers Weekly, UK Booksellers, the New York Times and the Guardian.
Let's begin with Pilita Clark at the UK's Financial Times newspaper who suggests that cli-fi novels are here to stay and will become more prominent in the publishing world over the next 40 years, and possibly into the next century as well.
“There is a high possibility that we will be at the peak of cli-fi novels and movies for the next four decades at least,” said a prominent American literary agent based in London. While none of the quotes here are directly from such book industry people as Jamie Byng, Elizabeth Sheinkman, John Freeman, Nicole Aragi, ''Big Ed'' FRosenthal in Manhattan or Morgan Entrekin, you can ask them yourself if you want to know more about how they view the rise of cli-fi in their industry and whether they are warming up to the new genre in the 21st century or if they still remain a bit cool to it all.
“If the warming trend caused by greenhouse gas emissions continues, years like 2018 will be the norm in the 2040s, and would be classed as cold by the end of the century,” according to James Renick, a climate scientist in New Zealand.
Enter cli-fi, stage left.
THE PUBLISHER and CEO said: "Sure, I have hear about the cli-fi term, and like sci-fi, I think such novels (and their movie adaptations) have a big future over the next 40 years. Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior was a fantastic cli-fi novel, without being preachy or lecturing readers. It was just a wonderfully-written and executed novel. I expect to see more such novels in the future. I'm all for them. Bring them on! I've told my acquriing editors and PR people and marketing department to get ready for the rise of cli-fi in the publishing industry. Such novels will make reading popular again among young people."
THE ACQUIRiNG EDITOR: "Cli-fi? It's a new term for me, but I like the sound on it and I like what it stands for. I am looking for intelligent literary fiction for my imprint, and if an agent or an author pitches me with a good cli-fi story, I will be there for meet them for lunch and sign a contract. These will be 21st century novels. With reviews in the New York Times and the Guardian. Even Hillel Italie at the Associated Press will write about these cli-fi novels and interview the authors for his always-interesting wire stories."
THE LITERARY AGENT: "They call me Big Ed in Manhattan, not such much because of my girth or my height, but because I have a big hear and I value empathy. It's how I was raised in Boston. So I am in the marrket for cli-fi novels, of course, and with our rights department, I am also interested in selling the movie rights to Hollywood producers like Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio and Marshall Herskovitz. Books to movies is part of my business and I see cli-fi as a bright spot in the future. Just as Jeff VanderMeet's novel "Annihilation" was sold to Hollywood, I can see the same future for well-written well-plotted cli-fi novels. Jeff was a trailblazer. He is leading the way. I love the guy. Met him a few times in New York, too. We have friends in common."
THE PR MAVEN: "I never heard of cli-fi until you mentioned it. It is a new genre or something? Sounds like sci-fi but with the added value of a climate theme. We can do amazing thing with this genre in the PR world, and given the the way the world has been heating up the past ten years, or more, cli-fi is a perfect match for what ails us. If the authors are willing to do the promotional tours, and visit bookstores as part of the cli-fi promotions, I am all for it."
THE MARKETING DEPARTMENT: "Whatever the boss says, we can do. We have been marketing sci-fi novels for years and we know the market. So with cli-fi novels grabbing a piece of the public's mind now, we can do the same thing with cli-fi. It's a natural in this age of the Anthropocene. It's a long word but I like it. I can work it. I can work with cli-fi. Send them to me!"
THE LITERARY CRITIC AND BOOK REVIEWER: "It's too bad that Michiko Kakutani is no longer at the New York Times as a book reviewer, she would be a good person to look at the rise of cli-fi and explain it all for us. But in the meantine, there are plenty of others out there in the book world who can explain cli-fi to readers: Amy Brady, Mike Berry, Michael Svoboda, Adam Morgan, John Maher, Alexander Kaufman. In fact, Kaufman recently referred to Kim Stanley Robinson as "the godfather of cli-fi." That's quite a statement. He wrote that in the Huffington Post."
BOOKSTORE DISPLAY PERSON: "I used to work at Foyles in London, and one summer we put up a cli-fi display table, and it was an eye-catching attraction. Media reports picked up the photo and it went worldwide via social media. Waterstones in the UK also did a cli-fi display recently with very good results. So bookstores are getting into the act as well. It's good for business. It's good for books."
BOOKSTORE BUYER FROM PUBLISHING COMPANIES: "If they publish more cli-fi books and the novels get noticed, we'll order them. It all starts with the publishers and the book reviewers and the literary critics. We will see. I'm optimistic."
A NOVELIST: "Count me in. Publish my cli-fi novel, get me an option for a movie, and I will promote the heck out of it. I will go anywhere for my book. It's more than about my career, it's about the fate of the Earth. My novel is optimistic and full of hope, so I think people like Bill McKibben and Katharine Hayhoe will get behind it. too. Cli-fi doesn't have to be depressing and dystopian to sell well. We need positvie stories too. Margaret Atwood coined a term I like -- ''ustopia'' -- for novels that a hybrid of dystopia and utopia."
AN RECENT NEW HIRE SUB-EDITOR AT PUBLISHERS WEEKLY: "We're the trade magazine of the book industry, and if we say a cli-fi novel is worth reading, readers will follow. I'm all for it. Of course, there might be others who say they are "not interested" in cli-fi, for various reasons, but remember that in the beginning the sci-fi genre faced an uphill battle in gaining recognition. Cli-fi can rise to new heights, I am sure."
Book maven Pilita Clark way back in 2103 put it this way at the FT and said: ''The literary world already has plenty of genres, but as the Arctic melts, the planet warms and carbon dioxide levels reach their highest point in human history, a new class of fiction has been added to the list: climate fiction, or cli-fi.''
And now it's 2018. What would Pilita Clark say now? I'd love to hear from her.
“It’s a definite trend, this cli-fi genre," according to UK academic Adeline Johns-Putra. Until the 1990s, she said, only a handful of novels mentioning climate change were published. Over the past 13 years alone, however, more than 150 have made it into print, including at least 50 in which it is a central theme. Cli-fi has arrived.
A cli-fi novel that stirred a lot of interest in recent years was ''Odds Against Tomorrow'' by US novelist Nat Rich, author of the recent Sunday New York Times Magazine 66-page article about climate change politics titled "Losing Earth."
His popular cli-fi novel was about a storm that devastates New York City. Its cover, showing a submerged Manhattan, was created in March 2012, according to a spokesman for the book’s publishers, Farrar, Straus and Giroux – seven months before superstorm Sandy swamped the city. And then Kim Stanley Robinson's cli-fi novel "New York 2140" also featured a cover similar to the ''Odds Against Tomorrow'' cover.
Mr Rich was just going over the final proof of the novel when the storm hit in October; he woke up the next day to see his fictional work brought to life. He had never heard the term ''cli-fi'' until in 2013 he started doing interviews for the book, he said, but he thought such fiction was likely to become more common.
“I think we will increasingly see more novels that incorporate cli-fi themes as more people begin, or are forced, to contemplate the catastrophic ways in which we have transformed the planet,” he said. “It’s always possible that a popular novel or book can contribute in some way to bringing about political change,” he said, citing Rachel Carson’s 1962 environmental classic ''Silent Spring'' and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel ''Uncle Tom’s Cabin.''
What novelists can do is try to make sense of the ways in which these vast, and often abstract, public issues intersect with our inner lives.
There has already been a shift in the kinds of literary works mentioning climate change over the years, says Oregon-based Adam Trexler, one of the few scholars to have compiled a database of such books. By his count, just over 300 were published between 1962 and 2011, starting with J.G. Ballard’s 1962 post-apocalyptic work ''The Drowned World.''
Many of the 70-odd books written up to the late 1990s were science fiction, says Mr Trexler, and tended to treat climate change as one of several problems rather than the main one. The pattern changed to cli-fi as growing numbers of notable writers began tackling the topic, from Margaret Atwood (Oryx and Crake) to Michael Crichton (State of Fear), Jeanette Winterson (The Stone Gods), Ian McEwan (Solar) and Barbara Kingsolver (Flight Behaviour).
This is in line with growing public concern about the climate, says Mr Trexler. “There’s a slow curve of public awareness of the importance of climate change and an increasing sense that we ought to do something – and why aren’t we?” he said. “So you get important, literary authors doing really interesting work.”
Cli-fi has a long way to go, however, before it becomes as popular as the bestselling classes of crime, history or romance, say UK and USA literary agents. Even non-fiction books about climate change are a tough sell, said the influential London book agent Caroline Michel.
“The minute you mention climate change or cli-fi you can see publishers’ glazed looks,” she says. But that does not mean books about climate change will not sell if they are written by talented authors, she says.
So it is clear that things have changed a lot in the 13 years since the British author and academic Robert Macfarlane wrote in 2005 an essay "The Burning Question" in the Guardian bemoaning the “deficiency of a creative response” to global warming, especially compared with the huge numbers that had tackled the nuclear threat. Brooklyn novelist Amitav Ghosh said the same thing in a book he wrote in 2016.
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