Professor Adeline Johns-Putra is one of the world’s leading researchers into the relationship between literature and the environment. She was one of the earliest scholars to research the phenomenon of climate change fiction when, in 2009, she became a co-investigator on the ESF-funded project ‘From Climate to Landscape: Imagining the Future’ at the University of Exeter, an interdisciplinary project that brought together ecologists, geographers and literary scholars. Among the outputs from the literary component of the project, which Professor Johns-Putra led, were Adam Trexler’s Anthropocene Fictions and a review of climate change in literature in WIREs Climate Change in 2011 (which was then updated in 2016).
Professor Johns-Putra co-edited (with Axel Goodbody) Cli-Fi: A Companion in 2018, and is currently editing The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Climate. Her latest book Climate Change and the Contemporary Novel is published by Cambridge University Press.
Gary Raymond caught up with her via Zoom from her home in Honk Kong where she is Professor of Literature at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou, China, and Honorary Professor at the University of Hong Kong.
Gary Raymond: Amitav Ghosh questions in his book 2016 The Great Derangement whether the contemporary western novel is equipped to deal with the huge issues surrounding the climate crisis. Do you agree with him then, and is he still right?
Adeline Johns-Putra: I do think scale is the big issue here and I think Ghosh was right. The Great Derangement is a wonderfully written book, but he’s repeating a point made by Timothy Clark in his book Ecocriticism on the Edge. Is scale the issue? My area of interest is the narratives about climate change and what we’re calling now the Anthropocene. The problem with scale is that it’s too easy to believe everything is happening somewhere else, somewhere beyond our control. There is the planetary scale; how do we begin to imagine things that are so broad? And then if it’s temporal scale, involving geological timelines, and how we’re effecting the very fabric of the earth and how some of our actions are going to cause irreversible damage, and some of the effects won’t be known for thousands of years. Then there is the scale of multitudes. The sheer number of living things involved. Scale is important and the unthinkability of it is important. I’m interested in the ethical action and awareness of this. Whether you can feel enough across those scales to do something; how do you measure efficacy and agency on those scales?
Scale is not just a representation problem; it’s an ethical problem. And for me that gets to the ethical paradox that is at the nub of climate change crisis, which is that you want to think across scale, but it’s also important to think about what you can do, what humans can do. So, we arrive at this ethical challenge; you want to think beyond the anthropocentric, but you also want to activate human agency in order to do something. Scale is important because it opens up that problem. And it’s almost irresolvable. This is what Clark calls “anthropocentric disorder”. You want to do something, so you drive a hybrid car and turn light switches off when you leave a room, but also you know this does not help you come to terms with the scale of what needsto be done.
So, where does that leave the novel? I think the novel is one of the few places where we can respond to that conundrum. What Ghosh is suggesting is that the novel is almost responsible for the conundrum, for this blinkered focus on “us”.
GR: If we race to the end point of what the many questions that your answer raises, and ask if there are any novels attempting to tackle that unsolvable problem?
AJ-P: Broadly, there are. I tend not think of single texts or single trends. The Climate Change novel has become a capacious term; but the potential for narrative to develop in a digital age is huge. The trend is to find a way to activate that ethical agency while thinking across traditional borders. And I think the novel is doing that. It’s challenging a lot of what understand to be “realism”, for example. Novels are becoming formally very interesting.
GR: I recently read Richard Powers’ The Overstory, and I think this is a novel that’s attempting, among many other things, to tackle head on the issues of scale. Many protagonists involved in many narratives over different timescales, all tied together with ideas around plant intelligence.
AJ-P: That’s a good example. The Overstory brings us in and gets us interested in different protagonists and it does the “realist” thing of making us attached to those characters. But then that novel is also reaching out, doing another thing. But then novels have always been capable of doing that. The big nineteenth century novels did that. Middlemarch, for example, is based in a village but is looking at multiple perspectives. But I don’t think that’s the only way.
I think postmodernism, metafiction and magic realism all have a place in this. Magic realism risks a bit of cynicism, it risks a bit of detachment, the attitude of “let’s see how much fun we can have with the rules” – possibly – but those are some examples. Questioning the power of voice, what it means to be a protagonist? Look at what indigenous Australian writer Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book (2013) does by creating a mute protagonist. That questions narrative voice in a very postmodern way, making us think about the power and importance of the human voice, and non-vocal species like the swans of the novel.
But I even thinking a really conventional writer like Kim Stanley Robinson, who is a science fiction writer, so we may not think of him as realist, but he uses a lot of the realist tricks like world-building and putting people into those worlds etc. But you have to understand his work by looking at all of his climate change books, of which there are so many now. He’s building this huge universe where there are so many ways in, and so many perspectives and interconnectedness, and jumping across the scales, while still activating our sense of individual human agency within that.
So, this conundrum – how do we activate human agency while reaching across scale, and while also being ethically aware – there are many ways into that. The Richard Powers way, proliferating perspectives; the postmodern way that I’m associating with Alexis Wright; and then you could have the Kim Stanley Robinson and David Mitchell way which is: let’s build a universe. These are all formal interventions into what the novel can do.
GR: Do you think we’re seeing an evolution of the novel into something else, something more than just a book in the hand?
AJ-P: Yes, I think that’s happening alongside the other interventions. Readers do still like the book in the hand. I sometimes worry if I’m too sentimental about the novel, because it’s my business to write about them, like it’s your business to write them. But I am also interested in new forms, paratexts and transtexts (as Gérard Genette termed them). A novel isn’t just that text; it talks to other texts, to sequels and adaptations and lectures etc. And I see that being harnessed more by writers now. Some writers are doing this more and more, reaching beyond their novels to write more to create their own set of transtexts, like Robinson is doing. Writers who want to reach out to their readers and find ways to add to what they’ve said in fiction. You could also cite Margaret Atwood with her use of twitter, and James Bradley with his blogs. It allows for the potential of digital connections to come to the fore.
GR: Are we seeing the novelist step outside of the traditional narrow work of writing stories in order to address issues of scale?
AJ-P: Yes, I think we are. This nervousness we’ve had for so long about the relationship between literature and propaganda, that we can’t get too preachy, I think is being addressed. I saw Maggie Gee at the Hay Festival one year say that she doesn’t like being too “messagey”; and we do have an idea of art having an aesthetic effect first and foremost. But, of course, many writers also want it to have another affect. If you’re interested in climate change then, sure, you’re interested in the aesthetic effect, but you’re also interested in what the reader carries away with them. Stepping into a kind of activism – or at least become a commentator of what’s going on – more and more authors are being lured into that role by climate change. I think even Maggie Gee has. The very fact she was at the Hay Festival talking about climate change in her novels is a sign of that. Add to that Margaret Atwood’s tweets, Kim Stanley Robinson’s lectures, Bradley’s blogs, and you can see it’s hard for contemporary writers to think their only job is to create this work of art and send it out there.
GR: Atwood is an interesting example, because she’s gone from a celebrity within literature to a mainstream celebrity, mainly down to the success of HBO’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, and I wonder how much it’s possible for writers who have stepped beyond their novels to allow those novels to speak for themselves.
AJ-P: It’s a tough one for the novelist. You do want your body of work to speak for itself, and it’s not every novelist who is sort out for what they think beyond that. But maybe writing about something as pressing as the climate crisis forces you to think about interconnected agency and perhaps we’re seeing that the novelist is not immune to that and they’re having to negotiate their relationship with their text and what they want their relationship to be with their readers. I wonder if any writer writing about the environment cannot think about whether they are going to make a change. We’re calling on writers – and everybody – to think about their place in the world. That’s what the climate crisis is doing.
Can a climate change novel even be a novel unconcerned with ethical questions?
Some novelists go out with a sense of task. Ian McEwan, I know, had a hard time finding his way in to writing about climate change, and I don’t think Solar is his best. On the other end of the scale, you have someone like Cormac McCarthy, who when he wrote The Road wasn’t thinking about climate change at all. He’s never commented on it, so far as I’m aware. When he wrote The Road, he was thinking about his relationship with his son. But now it’s very hard to read that book in a time of climate crisis and not think of it as a book about climate change. Then George Monbiot says this is a book you have to read if you’re concerned about climate change. And then the reference to climate change is put on the jacket of the book. But McCarthy himself has never regarded it as such. And we know when we read it that it isn’t. I’ve treated it as one, but only because of its reception and its effect.
GR: McCarthy brings us to your work on the representation of the child in climate change fiction, and the difficulties and evolution of that thread.
AJ-P: Yes, even though my monograph is titled Climate Change and the Contemporary Novel, it’s really focussed on this issue of posterity and how meaningful and effective it is as an emotional hook in novels and how effective it is at making us think ethically in the ways I talked about earlier. And It’s a much more complicated question that it appears. I think it’s almost too easy to say, “let’s think about the children”. I was looking at just a few examples in novels where I was beginning to see the child talk back, because all representation of child in climate change fiction is seen through the parental perspective – ‘what are we going to do about the children”. The problem is that trapped in the parental perspective is parochialism, as in The Road: “we will kill anyone who comes near you. Forget the old man who wants to come with us. Forget anyone other than you.” And paternalism – “I know what’s best. My perspective, not yours.” And I’m interested to see where this goes now in light of the Greta Thunberg’s climate strike moment. What have the children got to tell us? And this happens in The Road – which is why I like that book so much. As the child grows bolder, the question is perhaps that is wrong and it isn’t just about us and there is a wider world out there and that connectedness is important. That’s what I call “radical posterity” in my book. Not just this narrow parenthood posterity, but radical posterity. I’m not sure yet where this historical moment of the new generation, the younger generation, who are now becoming adults are going to take us. I hope they push us away from over-sentimentalising the future the way we know it, which I think is absolutely trapped in parenthood posterity ethics.
GR: I suppose the obvious question next is not simply where do you see the next generation taking us as a planet, but where will they take the novel?
AJ-P: One possibly promising voice is the Finnish author Emmi Itäranta. Her novel is very much from a young girl’s point of view and explores a young woman’s responsibilities when looking after scarce resources in a climate dystopia. So, you might get more voices like hers.
There seems to be a huge amount of poet activism. There are projects that are encouraging climate poetry to be written in schools, or poetry engaged with themes of the climate crisis. The University of Leeds ran one recently with the Poetry Society (called I am the Universe); and in the US I was contacted by a journalist trying to get something similar off the ground. I spoke to a UK-Japan student conference a few weeks ago, an activist conference, trying to get students to come together, and I said to them that they should think about the stories they’re telling as well as they activism they’re doing. And obviously Greta Thunberg is doing that; people are watching her and thinking about the speeches she’s making and how she’s using her words. Although I can’t point toward a young novelist doing this right now, but I have to wonder if an understanding of the power of rhetoric and poetry is something that they will be coming to terms with.
GR: That brings a lot of things together. We’ve talked about what the next stage may be for the novel, and we’ve talked about what young people are most active in – if you categorise as Greta Thunberg’s output as non-fiction – her articles and speeches etc – and then poetry, and maybe all this feeds into what the novel can be, and that it will absorb all of these forms to create a post-novel – perhaps even a post-masculinist novel.
AJ-P: Stories with an element of empathetic identification and believability in terms of their world-building will always be enjoyed and always be important. It would be interesting to trace those storytelling impulses. But are they always going to be told in the way the novel does, I’m not sure. Particularly if you look at what social media allows us to do in terms of telling stories, and micro fiction, for instance.
Also, think of fan fiction. Fan fiction is potentially a new form of climate change trans textuality. In somewhere like China, fan fiction is huge. Sc-fi novels in China engender so much activity online. So, people are reading the novel, they enjoy that relationship with the text, but then they are doing something with it, creatively. Perhaps the most well-known sci-fi novelist in China is Liu Cixin who wrote The Three Body Problem. This book has had so much fan fiction written around it, as well as music soundtracks etc. In fact, one fan fiction was published with Liu Cixin’s blessing and was translated into English by the same person who translated Liu. So, actually, people – young people, predominately – at their keyboards, will be writing stuff and responding and are being able to write with a certain sense of immediacy and urgency. That might produce all kinds of new directions for the novel.
GR: That makes me think at the other end of the spectrum. That’s a grass roots movement, and at the other end you have TV execs adding to the world of novels created by the likes of Atwood and George RR Martin, in those cases writing TV instalments before the novels have even been written. The Handmaid’s Tales has an ongoing set of series now that will somehow fit between the original novel and its sequel, The Testament, all written for television by people other than Margaret Atwood.
AJ-P: And those rules can grow. There are novelists now who will be thinking of how they can harness those things when writing about climate change to create huge climate change transtexts. It requires a perfect storm, really, of something clicking with the cyber-imagination and taking off, but it could be anything that does that. And to add to that ecosystem, (pun intended), the idea of climate change itself is also an important component in this. You go back to the self-aware writer and the self-aware reader, and we’ve become so generically aware of climate change, and you’ve got someone like Dan Bloom who claims ownership, or responsibility for coming up with a phrase like “cli-fi”, and who is pushing and marketing that phrase, that self-consciousness does something too. We’re so connected now, the readers and the writers. I’m very aware when I say that, that it doesn’t apply to everyone, and I’m very aware it’s important to always state those likely to be most affected by the climate crisis are the least cyber-connected; but in terms of where the novel goes, those digital connections could be a very interesting and important factor.
Adeline Johns-Putra‘s latest book Climate Change and the Contemporary Novel is published by Cambridge University Press.