When Amitav Ghosh's PR team asked the Guardian newspaper in the UK to publish an excerpt on literary matters from his new essay collection titled THE GREAT DERANGEMENT, the PR people and the publishers (University of Chicago Press) probably thought this was a great PR boost, but in fact it backfired. Over 225 comments came in in the first 24 hours and most of them were negative and anti-Ghosh. Why? Because in the excerpt the Guardian published, Ghosh came across as an elistist VIP holier than thou writer of "serious mainstream fiction" and he called genre novels in the sci fi and cli fi and spec fic camp as low rent, gutter, outhouse genres. This did not go over well with Guardian readers.
Here's one comment to start off with:
A commenter said: "It's good to see a concerted pushback in the West against Amitav Ghosh's outdated and ivory tower prejudice against genre novels."
Minhheer commented re Ghosh quote:..."....the mere mention of the subject is often enough to relegate a novel or a short story to the genre of science fiction. It is as though in the literary imagination climate change were somehow akin to extraterrestrials or interplanetary travel. ... In the same spirit, I think it also needs to be asked, what is it about climate change that the mention of it should lead to banishment from the preserves of serious fiction? ''Mignheer said: Dr Ghosh, Your analysis seems to be based on a couple of related fallacies: that science fiction is about things like extraterrestrials and interplanetary travel and that science fiction cannot be serious fiction. This leads you to ask why "serious" fiction does not bring to the fore large-scale happenings like climate change.
Science fiction (or sf or speculative fiction, or what you will) is not about futuristic gadgets -- it is about the large-scale, the sociological, the effects on humans of technological advance, of radically altered social or ecological contexts. Mainstream, or what you think of as "serious", fiction is about the small-scale, about interpersonal relationships set in the context of a fixed background. Your piece asks why a cat is not more like a dog. It's the wrong question.''
''Do not forget that this is the writer who won Britain's premiere and most prestigious award for science fiction, the Arthur C Clarke Aware, for his novel "The Calcutta Chromosome". The paperback edition did not even mention the award on the cover.
He is bigoted and prejudiced against SF, as can be shown by his intentional limitation to exclude the type of books he is actually writing about (and indeed writing):
"literary novelists writing in English"
He then cites several authors of award-winning SF.
Yet he loftily ignores superb novels such as Kim Stanley Robinson's "Science in the Capital" trilogy: "Forty Signs of Rain", "Fifty Degrees Below" and "Sixty Days and Counting".''
Dave said: ''The Water Knife'', by Paolo Bacigalupi, is a novel about climate change and water rights in the American west. I enjoyed it so much I went and read the nonfiction history of western water, Cadillac Desert.''
A commenter named Hawfish then wrote: "Yes, Ghosh is pretty sneering about science fiction, which is apparently a generic outhouse surrounding the manor house of literary fiction. He seems to have forgotten that aristocrats living in manors are rarely the first to see the future coming, especially when they don't pay attention to what's going on in the outhouses. Ghosh seems to have completely missed David Brin's 'Earth' and Paolo Bacigalupi's ''The Windup Girl'', as well as the Ballard novels mentioned here above.''
Doctor Liberty replied: ''Pretty much all of Bacigalupi's stuff deals with climate change, read them this year. Also read Peter F Hamilton's first trilogy which is set in an England that's mostly underwater. I'm not even looking for climate change related fiction but I can't seem to avoid it!''
MattAndrews said: ''I think the problem is amplified by limiting the field to the somewhat arbitrary constraints of what is regarded as literary fiction. Given that climate change is a nightmare whose worst episodes are yet to come, the genre of cli-fi (see cli-fi.net = speculative fiction that is focused on climate change) is where the action is... and there is some marvellous work happening in that field.''
Linda Ellis added: ''By definition a story that deals with extrapolation of current events or "what if" ideas is Science Fiction .
It is intellectual snobbery on Ghosh's part to consider such work as being relegated to some second division. Some of the most interesting writing is going on in this genre and if Ghosh wouldn't read it because of the label then Ghosh is the loser.''
This led GreatCChulu to comment re where Ghosh wrote in his ''inane oped'' that
''the mere mention of the subject is often enough to relegate a novel or a short story to the genre of science fiction''
''it arises out of the peculiar forms of resistance that climate change presents to what is now regarded as serious fiction.''''And therein lies the problem with this Ghosh article," GreatC continued. "The problem isn't the cultural impact climate change or its effect on the literary zeitgeist, it is the application of such a hackneyed and reductionist literary view. Arguably, Cormac Mac Carthy and Margaret Atwood's dystopic speculative fiction as evidenced in "the Road" Oryx and Crake" and Margaret Atwood's excellent accompanying novels fit the citeria to be classed as science fiction. Please try and accept this. I hope the realisation doesn't make you choke on your cornflakes.
Some of the acknowledged greatest "serious fiction" writers of the canon have engaged in writing speculative fiction.; H.G. Wells; Trollope; Orwell; Huxley; Vonnegut; etc. etc. etc. and I think that writers such as Jo0hn Wyndham or P.K. Dick (and many others)could easily rank aside them. The problem isn't the engagement of "serious fiction writers", it is the lack of engagement by certain critics with "serious fiction writing" that strays beyond their general understanding or the limited world view of the themes and tropes that "serious fiction writing" should possess.''
''Yes, the damaged environment--and the wealthy's adaptations to it-- are frequently mentioned in Atwood's Oryx and Crake.
Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, with its Ice 9, is another strong example of post apocalyptic fiction on the environment.''
Snowwalling wrote: "Sadly Dr Ghosh who lives in the VIP elite mansion of "literary" fiction, as opposed to those outhouse gutter low rent genres of "illiterary" fiction like sci-fi and spec fiction and clifi and ecofiction which he so loathes from his mansion in Broolyn, sadly Amitavji is proscriptive about what kinds of fictions novelists in the West can deploy to talk about climate change issues. For him, "it's my way or the highway. " He is so wrong. JG BALLARD started the ball rolling in the 1960s. Wake up Dr Ghosh. Do you homework. Genre fiction rocks and can dance circles around so called literary fiction.''
ChatRob followed with this: ''Damn right. Snowwalling, You beat me to it with Ballard, he was ahead of nearly everybody on climate change. And lots of other stuff too. When you look at the world at the moment Super Cannes and Cocaine Nights don't seem too far removed from current reality.''
Sphicntr added: ''Like it or not scifi is niche fiction. Not a reflection on scifi itself merely the reality of modern media.''
''Kim Stanley Robinson's 'Green Planet' is a novel covering the practice of science and the effects of climate change... highly recommended
It is also the most optimistic book I've ever read - even in the face of catastrophic weather induced by climate change, the protagonist meets each challenge with ingenuity, compassion and resolve. Also his trilogy beginning with 40 Days of Rain.''
Mark Palmer wrote: ''What an utterly inane, pointless article.''
''That said, I was impressed by The Road. We aren't told what the cataclysmic event was in the film, but an asteroid strike is the most likely explanation, given the environmental depiction. This would have caused huge climatic upheaval, including a global shut down of photosynthesis. A supervolcano eruption is another possible explanation.''
Frost and Dire added: ''It's in science fiction. I know that's not a genre that most literary writers and critics would deign to consider, but it's still there.
"Relegate" to science fiction? Hmm, no literary bias there by the author at all.
Pat Lux added: ''Julie Bertagna’s award-winning EXODUS series has introduced many young adults to the consequences of climate change. ''
Another commenter added: "And Liz Jensen, RAPTURE, which Dr Ghosh to his credit does mention in his essay book, along with Barbarar Kingsolver's Flight Behaviour.''
''If writing of climate change is to relegate a work to science fiction, does that make the Man Booker Prize equivalent to the Rumbleows Cup?
As others have stated the lower leagues have been writing informed and eloquent stories centred around environmental disaster and climate change for quite some time. To the pile I'll add John Brunner's "The Sheep Look Up" and "Stand on Zanzibar", part of his so called "Club of Rome" quartet named for the think tank of the same name.
I like your characterisation of 'realist' fiction as a 19th-century stentorian patriarch disinheriting and exiling those family members who deign to broach his taboos. It's precisely this sense of starched collars, approved haircuts and coverings for the piano legs that bedevil literature and literary criticism. Dare to write of certain subjects in certain ways and they'll write to the TLS and say 'Ugh...' Those stern letters and reproaches do have consequences for editors and for writers. How many ideas and drafts have been rejected by the risk-averse managers of bottom lines for fear of the reaction and subsequent 'relegation' to the pulping installation? Better for all to call it genre where it might sell.
It is interesting that you mention poetry's ability to disregard the boundaries of acceptability. Is it that poetry is rarely about what looks good on a table in Waterstones, or what star rating it'll get in the Guardian, or what will make the shortlists of the annual prizes? Or is it that poetry has always been able to take time to look around itself and take in a landscape for the sake of itself, while literary fiction tends to have its mind on the minds of others? No time to stand and stare, too much time caring about the constraints of a narrative or character development.
To answer your challenge: A crisis of imagination? Definitely not. A crisis of culture? Perhaps, but one that's been going on for a long time and that encompasses a much larger range of subjects than solely climate change.
Maybe literary fiction will end up like Paddy McAloon's broken-hearted lover, seeking the meaning and solace found in the sweet but excessive September rain so much, it ends up drowning in it.''
OccM then added:
''Another couple of strands of thought.
Does literature has an intimacy problem. Those cultural movements of the past that may have been more at home to the topic of climate change, such as the Romantic movement and Sturm und Drang, were either far more visual or were on stage. Recitation is at the heart of poetry and fairy-tales and children's stories where one is more likely to encounter tornadoes in one's path and where realism can take a hike. Part of what a novel is, is an intimate experience the reader has alone with the book. A retreat from the real, the weather and any notion of change. Perhaps climate change is something to be performed rather than read?
Then again maybe it's a matter of class. Notions of hierarchy inveigled their way into this article in an uncoded manner. Literature is exclusive. The boundaries are hard. The rules apply to everyone, but doubly-so to genre, the punishment being ostracism from the bookshop's main sequence, but for those safe within the walls of the literary, they can be bent and raise only a knowing smirk. As long as one's indulgences are seemly and infrequent. Climate change has the whiff of science. It has its own exclusive rules known to those privy to the arcane conceits of the scientific method. Woe betide those who assume knowledge that cannot be tested and evidenced. The arguments rage, the temperatures rise and storms threaten to consume the blithe and unresearched.
There. Are. Graphs.
Clearly writing about climate change is declasse and fraught with hazard. Take it seriously enough for your protagonist to gaze at the clouds a paragraph too long and the ostrakons with your name on will be flung.
You can tell it's a Friday. I'm taking Guardian opinion pieces too seriously.''
Fergus Brown replied to Dr Ghosh: ''Err... David Mitchell also springs to mind,with Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks, and John Brunner in the early 70's; The Sheep Look Up, etc.
The main problem is that the environment, the world of a story, is generally the context, not the subject, with Ballard et al providing rare exceptions.
Writing a narrative set in any future world affected by climate change is not so difficult, but making that world the main focus is much harder.''
Another commenter added: ''When Dr Ghosh starts off his cockamamie oped this way, you know he did not do his homework, since every major newspaper or book review in the UK and USA has reviewed climate-themed novels in the scifi and clifi genres: "It is a simple fact that climate change has a much smaller presence in contemporary literary fiction than it does even in public discussion. As proof of this, we need only glance through the pages of literary journals and book reviews. When the subject of climate change occurs, it is almost always in relation to nonfiction; novels and short stories are very rarely to be glimpsed within this horizon. Indeed, it could even be said that fiction that deals with climate change is almost by definition not of the kind that is taken seriously: the mere mention of the subject is often enough to relegate a novel or a short story to the genre of science fiction. It is as though in the literary imagination climate change were somehow akin to extraterrestrials or interplanetary travel.'' Amitavji, my friend, the Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB), Slate, Salon, Grist, Inverse and even the New York Times has taken note of genre novels about climate since at least 2013, including NPR the USA radio network, and in the UK the BBC and the Guardian itself has published articles, opeds, and reviews about climate-themed novels and movies since 2013 as well. Who are you kidding, sir? Please come down to Earth and deal with what it, not with what you think is. Because as you can see from the many comments here, you are so so wrong about this. PLEASE, SIR, WAKE UP! You are hurting your own cause.''
Pagey noted: ''What a snobbish piece.''
Dr Teeth added: ''A contemporary dose of CC fiction is provided by the final part of "the Bone Clocks" by David Mitchell. It's very scary, realistic vision.''
Icoomenter said re where Ghosh wrote:
''When I try to think of writers whose imaginative work has communicated a more specific sense of the accelerating changes in our environment, I find myself at a loss''
So Dr Ghosh, Maybe then do some research? That's what I do.
And maybe be a little more open to the imaginations of writers you haven't already heard of, but who are in the minds of so many better-read posters than you, here?''
CaptainSmith wrote: "Maybe such apocalyptic fiction depends on a time and place. I'm thinking of the 1950s and 1960s when there were a number of science fiction novels about a nuclear war or disaster, some of which were made into movies (e.g., On the Beach). Since then there have been novels about virulent disease that escapes (e.g., Andromeda Strain). Is Ghosh saying global climate change is missing from recent scifi, or is he limiting his remarks to his sense of "literary" fiction?"
Vokker said: ''There is serious literature about a world after the climate disaster; for instance Dirk C. Fleck "Go! Die Öko-Diktatur" written in the year of 1993 anticipating not only catastrophic climate change but also the dying of many many refugees in the Mediterranean.''
John 99 said
''Publishing Houses focus on what sells. If they thought they could flog it they would be encouraging authors to go there.
I have yet to meet an American that believes in climate change. Most people seem to be more interested on history based drama, real life, sex and horror. All of that will be catered for by climate change but we haven't got there yet.
It will change give it 30 years or so.''
Snow added: ''I like Amitav Ghosh, and the sections of his essay book about politics and history are brilliant. It's just the literary stuff where he for some reason he did not do his homework, or could not bring himself to do it. When the book was released in Indian is June, over 100 Indian PR writers and journalists praised the book and not one writer challenged Ghosh on his bias against sci fi and other genres. But I knew that when the book was released in the USA and the Uk in October, readers and critics would respond and tell Dr Ghosh he is plain wrong about the literarry stuff. And as the comments here today, 100+ so far, they show how strongly people feel and I hope Dr Ghosh will pay attention to what the comments here has been saying. He cannot change his book. But he can change his tune when he gives radio and print and TV interviews in the future, starting tomorrow. He say: "I was wrong about my genre bias, and the good readers of the Guardian have made me aware of this." He is a man of humility and I am sure he can do this. He is on our side. He just did not do his homework on the literary stuff. The other two-thirds of his book is brilliant.''
And finally, SOS said :
''The real question is why Prof. Ghosh hasn't tackled Climate Change. The answer, obviously, would be that he'd have to write convincingly about the sort of highly educated White people he meets everyday. Why? Because people like them make the decisions which existentially affect the 'subaltern' he believes the is speaking for.
A highly educated Professor of the right colour is welcome to be a 'native informant' and depict people from his part of the world as without agency or rationality, but once he tries the same trick on the white people who went to the same Ivy League Colleges as himself, the thing breaks down. We are prepared to believe that Dr. Bannerjee, the head of the Sundarbans' Forest Office, is a horrible hypocrite who directly sanctions the killing of very poor fishermen. We don't believe Dr. Bannister, the head of Global Oil's Louisiana office receives orders from Donald Trump to deliberately destroy the livelihoods of Afro-American fishermen in the bayou, so that they lose their right to vote, by causing an oil leak.
Human beings are, generally, willing to believe absurd lies about far away places. They may even get a thrill from the suggestion that there is a vast conspiracy going on under their very noses. What they reject is illiterate lies about things they are familiar with.
Climate Change affects everybody. No rational person would choose to communicate anything valuable they have to contribute to the common information set though a costly and inappropriate channel. Literary fiction is costly and inappropriate. Arundhati Roy first wrote a screenplay, which was made into a Tv film nobody saw, for which she received an award because in India nobody watching a movie means it must be high brow. She didn't write another screenplay coz the same thing would happen. She then starred in a movie- an Indian remake of Mister Johnson- but it was ludicrously bad more especially coz Piers Brosnan starred in the genuine article. Once again, hardly anyone saw the film so Roy gave up on film. She then wrote a 'return of Orestes' ultra-feminist novel which nobody in India read- though a large number of people bought the book and even believed they had read it because they thought it was about the struggles of a prostitute- but which gave her a 'bully pulpit' because Indians hate literature but love the idea that they can make big bucks by selling some shite to the West. Roy wasn't stupid. She saw that literary fiction doesn't change anything. So she gave it up and went in for a sort of fact based journalism. However, the intellectuals looked askance at her for mentioning facts and trying to use proper arguments. So she gave that up and went in for fact free attitudinizing. This was popular. At last, she had got an Indian readership! But, her influence was negative. If she wrote scathingly of some scheme of Narendra Modi's, people rang their brokers (I was one) to demand shares in the venture. She has contributed to the wide-spread perception that Left-Liberal politics is gestural and 'anti national'. It is like Gandhian pi-jaw or muddle headed Tagorean lyricism.
Science Fiction eagerly embraced themes of man-made disaster. Hollywood eagerly embraced these themes. It is routine to see them portrayed on TV series. Literary Fiction may well have gone down the same road. No one knows because no one cares if it did.''
...the mere mention of the subject is often enough to relegate a novel or a short story to the genre of science fiction. It is as though in the literary imagination climate change were somehow akin to extraterrestrials or interplanetary travel. ... In the same spirit, I think it also needs to be asked, what is it about climate change that the mention of it should lead to banishment from the preserves of serious fiction?Your analysis Dr Ghosh seems to be based on a couple of related fallacies: that science fiction is about things like extraterrestrials and interplanetary travel and that science fiction cannot be serious fiction. This leads you to ask why "serious" fiction does not bring to the fore large-scale happenings like climate change.
Science fiction (or sf or speculative fiction, or what you will) is not about futuristic gadgets -- it is about the large-scale, the sociological, the effects on humans of technological advance, of radically altered social or ecological contexts. Mainstream, or what you think of as "serious", fiction is about the small-scale, about interpersonal relationships set in the context of a fixed background. Your piece asks why a cat is not more like a dog. It's the wrong question.