How writers can read The Grapes of Wrath as climate fiction

Farmer and sons during a dust storm.

John Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath serves as a model for speculative fiction writers interested in portraying the effects of climate change. Photo credit: Library of Congress

Great fiction dramatizes times, places and attitudes it was never meant to illuminate. Shakespeare’s plays are loved today, despite the sometimes impenetrable language and unacceptable sexism and racism, because they reveal the universal. For several years, I’ve been interested in how fiction authors deal with climate change, and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is one of the better attempts, if you choose to interpret it this way.

In case you skipped your American Literature class, or forgot to watch John Ford’s film adaptation, the 1939 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel follows the Joad family from the loss of their Oklahoma farm during the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s through their migration to California’s Central Valley. They descend from a life of gentile poverty to one of desperate survival. Continue reading

Is climate fiction a genre, a theme, a motif, or what?

Protoplantary Disk

Climate fiction is like a protoplanetary disk. Image courtesy NASA.

The activist and public relations man Dan Bloom, who originated the term “cli-fi” in 2008, recently posed the question to me in an email: Is climate fiction a genre, a theme, or a motif? I laughed, because these are the kinds of questions that resemble the old saw about debating the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin. But if the small cadre of writers and editors interested in building a new form of literature called “climate fiction” hope to have any success, they’ll need an answer, just in case a burned-out academic or a newspaper intern calls.

Climate fiction is like the protoplanetary disc of dust and gas surrounding a young star. Something’s happening, but the system of planets, moons, and comets has yet to emerge. Awhile back, I posted my Six Rules for Writing Climate Fiction as an attempt to help the new writer understand the emerging genre’s place in the universe of accepted genres. With a bit of tweaking, a reader or editor could use the rules to label a novel or story “cli-fi.” Using this framework, a book lover could argue, like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who said in a case about pornography, “I know it when I see it.” Continue reading

Why arts events are like torture

trombone plus lawnmower

Yes, this person is playing a trombone accompanied by a lawnmower. Photo courtesy Society of Composers.

I attended an arts event the other day that reminded me why I don’t go to arts events. The event was one of a series of readings sponsored by a Seattle-area literary non-profit which I won’t name, but I respect it for its work with aspiring writers and young people. The event’s theme of climate change caught my eye, because global warming is a ripe, almost unexploited area for fiction. I went with notebook in hand hoping to jot down some thoughts for an article that could make me a few dollars.

No soap. The event featured three writers and a musician. The first writer, a young lawyer who had won the non-profit’s literary prize, read his story, which was a kind of satire on the environmental correctness of Seattle. I was happy that someone was willing to take on the city’s culture of “Let’s do something for the environment, no matter how stupid it is.” But he said nothing substantive or satirical about climate change. Continue reading

Review: A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists

cover image

A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists

I remember a lecture in a college philosophy class about a medieval scholastic who wrote that if you can imagine something, it’s possible for it to become real. The artist Picasso took the idea a step further by declaring, “Everything you can imagine is real.” But what happens if you imagine something, and then destroy it, like a painting or essay that won’t come together? Does it exist somewhere, but only partly? That’s among the questions author Jane Rawson asks in her novel A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists. Thwarted desires to finish the undone lie at the heart of this charming, if puzzling work.

Rawson tells the story of Caddy, a 30-something Australian widow of Harry, a man killed in a horrific accident that destroys her physical home and her emotional life. She lives on the streets of a 2030 Melbourne ravaged by a warming climate that magnifies the extremes of rich and poor, leaving Caddy living in a shack, surrounded by an odd assortment of friends. She’s also a writer, working on a story as she barters her body for food and water. In a fit of frustration, she throws the unfinished story away. Continue reading

Seattle literary event may debut climate fiction

Hugo Literary Series poster

The poster for the Hugo Literary Series in Seattle. The April 25, 2014 event may debut interesting climate fiction.

A literary event in April 2014 has me thinking that climate fiction may have arrived in Seattle. Richard Hugo House, a non-profit organization that supports writers with educational programs and events, has posted the schedule for its annual Hugo Literary Series. The org has invited three writers–Nick Flynn, Rick Bass, and Jennine Capó Crucet–to write about climate change and its impact on our present and future lives. For a program titled “Some Like It Hot,” the writers are asked to answer these questions: “How do we reconcile love for our modern lifestyle with the strange weather outside our car windows? Will the rising water drown us when it rages down our doors? Or will our anxieties kill us off before we have a chance to battle through Mad Max’s desert world come true?”

Nick Flynn is a poet best known for his 2004 memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, which won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for the Art of the Memoir. Rick Bass is a writer and environmentalist who won the 1995 James Jones Literary Society First Novel Fellowship for his novel Where the Sea Used to BeJennine Capó Crucet is the author of How to Leave Hialeah, which won the Iowa Short Fiction Prize and other awards. None of the writers appears to have composed fiction with climate change themes, but the challenge posed by Hugo House should result in some interesting new literary takes on the future of humanity in a warmed world.

Here’s a link to more information and tickets to the series, including “Some Like It Hot” on April 25, 2014. Will you attend?

‘Cli-fi’ gains traction as new literary form

Global warming

Image courtesy Inhabitat

Guest Post by Dan Bloom

Note from Joe: Originally from Boston, Dan Bloom is a Taipei, Taiwan-based free-lance journalist who has written about “climate fiction” since 2008. He blogs about the genre at Cli Fi Central.

In a London Guardian newspaper commentary in London in late May, British writer Rodge Glass issued a “global warning” about what he termed “the rise of ‘cli-fi'” — noting that “unlike most science fiction, novels about climate change focus on an immediate and intense threat rather than discovery.”

His piece about the rise of cli-fi as a literary term in English — in both the U.S. and in the UK — was well-received among his newspaper’s readership with over 100 comments joining the post-publication online discussion. NPR broadcast a story about cli-fi in April, which was followed by a second story in the Christian Science Monitor. And following the Guardian piece in late May, the Financial Times in London ran its own story about cli-fi.

Glass, himself a novelist, said that in recent months the cli-fi term has been used increasingly in literary and environmental circles — but there’s no doubt it has broken out more widely. The Twitterverse also took note, he said.

I know a little about the growing popularity of the cli-fi term, because I coined it here in Taiwan in 2008 while working on a series of blog posts about climate change and global warming. But it wasn’t until NPR and the Guardian ran stories about cli-fi that the word got out far and wide. I also want to credit an artist in Taiwan, Deng Cheng-hong, who inspired me in my PR work with his illustrations of what future survival cities for climate refugees might look like.
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