Why aren’t novelists writing about the environmental meltdown?

Nigel Pitman
Feb 2, 2015 · 14 min read

Novelists have a thing for catastrophe.

Something gets blown to bits—and decades later writers are still dropping by for a look, sniffing the air for cordite. The number of novels written about the Vietnam War now exceeds 3,500, which works out to about one novel for every combat platoon at the height of the conflict. The Holocaust, the Soviet purges, and the Ceausescu regime have won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and some of them have done it more than once.

Shouldn’t we be baffled, then, by the empty stretch of shelf where one might reasonably expect to find a body of fiction about the greatest catastrophe of our time? These days everyone calls it climate change, but of course it’s not just the weather that has been pistol-whipped over the last 100 years. It’s everything else in the natural world as well: seafloor invertebrate communities, rare plants in Sri Lanka, the phylum Mollusca, you name it.

But if most people are aware by now of the destruction carrying on all around us, you wouldn’t know it from reading modern-day fiction. On the lists of prize-winning American novels published over the last ten years, the number with a strong environmental content — and the number written by authors who have a published history of interest in that kind of thing — are both close to zero. The same can be said of the year’s-best lists and the bestseller lists. And the vacuum is not unique to the United States. Over the last 50 years South America has lost country-sized expanses of the world’s richest forests and has produced some of the world’s best novelists, but the two phenomena have never shown much interest in each other. All of which begs a question which has itself been strangely absent from the literary landscape: Where are the great conservation novels?

Plant specimens, northern Peru. Photo by the author

Consider the Amazon, home to one of the

longest-running environmental catastrophes on record. Now think of the last serious novel you read that featured the Amazon in a prominent role. I have to go back half a century, to Peter Matthiessen’s At Play in the Fields of the Lord. Everything since is a blushing cameo. The narrator of Benjamin Kunkel’s Indecision spends some time in eastern Ecuador, hitting on a Belgian girl. The Peruvian novelists Roncagliolo and Vargas Llosa have some novels set in Amazonia, but it’s not their best work. The hero of Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder journeys deep into the Amazon to track down a scientist who’s obsessed with — and doesn’t this sounds promising? — oh, wait a second, sorry — she’s obsessed with people.

There’s no shortage of literary nonfiction about the Amazon, which fills a long shelf running from Tristes Tropiques to Savages to The Lost City of Z. And as those books make clear, the scarcity of Amazonian fiction can’t be chalked up to any lack of color, or drama, or character, or humor, or any of the other engine parts of modern fiction. They’re all there in abundance. If you wanted to write a modern-day version of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with all the original trappings (slavery, institutional racism, cheerful grifters, goofy dialects, ha’nted barrels), you’d probably want to set it in the Amazon. A few years ago I worked on a river in the Amazon that’s home to nine different Indian tribes who paint their faces like Samoans, wear Osama bin Laden t-shirts, sing hymns in church on Sundays, and trade ten-thousand-dollar mahogany logs for salt. Both of them — Indians and mahogany — are going extinct. Promising material for a young novelist? Apparently not. In any case, that river is still there. It would be nice if someone would write something about it.

For the time being, the only people doing so are professional conservationists, academics, and government officials. This makes for some dry reading. Here’s a line from a World Wildlife Fund book about that river:

“The opportunities that exist to involve indigenous peoples in sustainable management of the natural resources through building upon local systems of governance are immense.”

And here’s a line from an anthropologist’s report on the same area:

“During the mid-to late dry season… groups appear to begin to travel down tributaries, away from their core areas, in search of turtle eggs.”

Read with some perseverance, reports like these can offer glimpses of the rich life on that river. But if you’re looking for a Growth of the Soil, a Dr. Zhivago, a Gravity’s Rainbow, a White Teeth, or even a run-of-the mill novel that can serve up some of that wealth in an immersive reading experience, you’re out of luck. These days, the most spine-tingling lines of modern Amazonian fiction aren’t printed in a book at all — they’re shaking it out on the dance floor with M.I.A.:

“Blindfolds under homemade lanterns
Somewhere in the Amazon they’re holding me ransom….”

I’m not saying I think a novel about the Amazon has got to be better than a novel about, say, growing up in the suburbs. Isn’t it a shame, though, that we hardly ever get the chance to compare? I’m also not disappointed by the lack of biodiversity novels because I believe a good one would make a difference in the fight to save what’s left of nature — I don’t, and they won’t, even though it’s pretty to think that maybe they could. I’m mostly disappointed because the world’s best writers have remained so uncharacteristically silent about the biggest story in the world today. Readers of modern fiction aren’t exactly stranded in the suburbs, but we’re not feeling the wind in our face as we come around a bend of the Ucayali, either.

But of course the problem isn’t that writers are avoiding the Amazon. The problem is that they’re avoiding the larger disaster altogether: the end of nature, wherever it’s playing. You can still hear frogs sing in the background of modern novels, but you won’t hear a peep about the global decline of amphibians. Occasionally some ‘toxic airborne event’ drifts across the pages as a metaphor for some broader malaise out there — e.g., “all that summer wildfires were blazing across the west” — and it is touching to see younger writers give their characters a little depth by having them worry out loud about polar bears (or something) — but you don’t have to read much farther to perceive that these are tiny greenish brush marks on a canvas of an altogether different color.

This sort of nearsightedness was easier to understand in writers who hit their stride in the second half of the twentieth century. You don’t expect Philip Roth or Gunter Grass to write a novel about the collapse of the marine fisheries. But with the current generation of writers it’s different. These days it’s much clearer that the great question of our time is how to make a life on this planet without turning it into a sandpit. And it’s that much harder to understand why novelists, who have been chasing after ambulances for so long, are taking so long to track down this one.

Madre de Dios River, southern Peru. Photo by the author

But why? Why has the current

generation of writers failed to produce a Solzhenitsyn of mountaintop removal, or a Cormac McCarthy of desertification? At first reflection, it’s tempting to chalk it up to the dullness of the standard conservation narrative: faultless conservationist outwits soulless industrialist with the help of scrappy indigenous sidekick. But anyone who keeps up with the news knows how many fascinating ways that narrative can twist and fray. Nor is the problem that environmental catastrophe is too gloomy, or too depressing — after all, no one reads those best-selling novels about Afghanistan for the good vibes.

It can’t be the scientific content that’s turning novelists away from the topic of conservation, either; there are plenty of scientists in modern fiction. And the conservation crisis isn’t an exclusively scientific issue anyway, like string theory. But if it’s not the old ‘two cultures’ problem, maybe it’s a ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ problem. For example, what if the same qualities that make some people conservationists or birdwatchers — chief among which seems to be the conviction that penguins can be just as interesting as people — also make it unlikely that they will ever write a great novel? Similarly, what if the skills that great novelists possess — chief among which seems to be a laser-like focus on our species — somehow blind them to the mushroom clouds rising up all around them in the natural world?

It’s also hard to accept the argument that today’s writers just don’t know the issues well enough to engage them in long-form fiction. True, there hasn’t been much mixing between novelists and professional biologists since Steinbeck drank beer with the marine biologists in Monterey. But access to the web means that anyone who wants to can now become an expert on, say, peat-mining in Kalimantan. And given that you are forever reading about novelists who did months of research on bathhouses in 19th century Japan, “to get the atmosphere right,” it’s clear that we’re just avoiding the topic.

Or maybe that’s not fair. Because it’s one thing to read a news article on coral bleaching, and something altogether more affecting to spend an afternoon at a moldering reef. That kind of thinking has led to some recent efforts to get novelists into the field to see the wreckage firsthand. The best-known is Cape Farewell, a British program that for the last decade has been taking writers and other artists to the Arctic Circle, the Peruvian Andes, and other places where the old world is melting away. The British novelist Ian McEwan was on one of the early trips, and his 2010 novel Solar, about a scientist who stumbles on a solution to global warming, is one of the only high-profile literary novels in recent years to put the environmental crisis front and center. So is that what’s missing, then? If so, then the solution is easy. Dispatch David Mitchell to an oil-clogged bayou, Daniel Alarcón to a field station outside Iquitos, and Zadie Smith to a Sumatran logging concession, and five years from now we should have something to show for it.

Or not. Because that sort of year-abroad program seems unlikely to produce a great conservation novel — for the simple reason that conservation doesn’t seem to be what spins those writers’ dynamos. You’d get some fascinating books, but they’d probably be two-headed monsters, like those Updike novels set in the tropics. Well, fair enough. Why not try something different, and encourage creative writing in the places where the destruction has been the bleakest? It could help. But given the track record of writers in the rest of the world, it seems likely that an 826 Valencia for park guards in Kenya would create a lot of novels about, say, coming of age in Mombasa.

Most likely there are no easy solutions — we’re just going to have to wait. Because sooner or later a crop of novelists will come along who are just as sympathetic to penguins as they are to people, and there will no need to ship them anywhere at all.

Southern tamandua, southern Peru. Photo by the author

The real reasons for that gap in the

bookshelf, it seems to me, are the simplest. Most people just don’t find the destruction of nature very interesting. After all, there’s not just a dearth of novels about ocean acidification — there’s also a dearth of movies and songs and blog entries and Twitter updates on it. On the one hand, this is fair enough — it seems like a good thing that no one pressured Kafka or Calvino to write about something important. On the other hand, wouldn’t it be sort of troubling if no one had written any novels about, say, the siege of Sarajevo? And wouldn’t it be even more peculiar if Sarajevo had been under siege for decades, if it were still encircled by artillery today, and if everything suggested that its markets would continue being shelled for the rest of our lives?

Maybe writers worry that by choosing an environmental theme they’ll be labeled sanctimonious, or graded on their politics rather than their art. (“Isn’t she the global warming one?”) Whatever the reason, one is left with the distinct impression that the devastation of the natural world has been weighed by today’s writers and found lacking, compared to the thousands of other things that apparently are worth writing about. And the same must be true of readers. Maybe some readers of this essay have muttered: “So what? I like my fiction just fine without sea urchins.” To which one can only reply: When was the last time you tried any fiction with sea urchins?

The second good reason why there are so few novels about nature’s destruction is that while destruction is a relatively easy topic for a novelist, nature is not. What does it mean for a writer that there are 16,000 species of trees in the Amazon, and that a character there will routinely come into contact with hundreds of them? The practical answer is that it doesn’t mean very much at all. It’s mostly extraneous detail to plot and conflict and character than can be dealt with briefly, or not at all — like the fact that a character in Palm Beach will routinely come into contact with hundreds of different kinds of cars. But the better answer is that those trees offer a brand new axis along which plot and conflict and character can cast their shadows. After all, Amazonian trees are living beings that are born, struggle, and die; that share a common ancestor with all other life on the planet; and that lived perfectly dignified lives until we rolled out a non-stop campaign to splinter them to pieces. Surely novelists can find a little more emotional heft in that kind of diversity than in a parking lot.

A hundred years ago, when painters began to break free of century-old conventions, novelists were hot on their heels. By now it should be clear how badly they blew their chance. No doubt, over the last century novelists have succeeded in melting down narrative, and reliability, and even the reader’s sense of reality — all of which is neat, and some of which feels modern — but then they’ve consistently kneaded those things back together into the same old questions storytellers have been asking for centuries. Will Penelope give in? Will Crusoe survive? Will John Self lose it all? That’s no real surprise — because sex, death, and competition are what you find interesting when you’ve been designed by millennia of natural selection. What’s disappointing is that the current generation of novelists — a generation with all the tools to see this trap, and to see why it matters — isn’t seeking out questions a little farther from their navels. Questions like: Would Penelope, Crusoe, and John Self please stop trying to burn down the house?

All of this raises a lot of questions about the novels that some day soon are going to score the full hat-trick: the vastness of what we’ve destroyed and the offhand way we’ve destroyed it and the meek attempts to save a bit of what’s left. Are we talking about a Calvino-like talent capable of inhabiting a coral reef as comfortably as he did subatomic particles? Or something more along the lines of David Foster Wallace, constantly apologizing, apologizing, and second-guessing his own apologies? Or some kind of Sebald, obsessively aware of everything that’s gone down but only capable of dealing with it through sidelong glances and half-mad digressions?

Are we talking about a fairly standard set-up with a few tweaks to set, plot, and wardrobe? That’s easy enough to imagine. Cloud Atlas, with an overarching theme of men preying on nature. Lush Life, in which the teenage shooter is a homesick immigrant from the cloud forests of Rwanda. Austerlitz, the story of an Indonesian professor who travels obsessively through the smoking countryside in search of something he no longer remembers. To each of these alternate universes one’s first reaction is “Yeah, but that’s just not what that particular writer does….” Which only brings us back to the question at hand: Where are the writers who will?

And the questions keep coming. Is pulling the natural world out of fiction’s background and sticking it up in the footlights going to require what they call ‘formal experimentation’? Does a biodiversity novel require at least one character who pipes up every now and then to remind everyone that a fifth of vertebrate species on Earth are threatened with extinction, or that the Amazon basin accounts for 15–20% of the planet’s fresh water? Will there always be some ornithologist just back from the field, wringing her hands? More broadly, if we agree that modern literature is 99% Prufrock and 1% ragged claws, can we talk about what a more equitable ratio should look like? Do we need to bring back the talking rabbits from Watership Down? And if you let 2.2 million tropical beetles start talking, what sorts of things are they going to say?

House on fire, southern Peru. Photo by unknown

Some people have warned that the

erosion of biological diversity will eventually impoverish art itself, as it sweeps away one by one the sources of our inspiration. It’s hard to take that argument seriously, though. After they killed off the European bison, cavemen painted other stuff on their walls. And novelists have used individual plants and animals so very sparingly in their work to date — as metaphors, as decoration, as the occasional plot device — that it seems overly dramatic to believe that they won’t do just fine with a few hundred thousand fewer taxa on the planet. Holden Caulfield will always have his ducks, and Orwell his aspidistra. There will always be something winging through the air at which King Lear can cry “Well flown, bird!” It doesn’t have to be a Carolina Parakeet.

After all, what novelists have been doing ever since Quixote is creating a world of their own making — a planet whose complexity has come to rival the real thing, but one that is inhabited by novels rather than species. Each novel has its own niche; some are narrowly endemic to a particular salt marsh of style or genre, while others range across continents. All of them are linked to the others by threads of behavior, environment, and phylogeny, and on this tangled bank novels can devour each other, reproduce to create new forms, hibernate, grow old, and fall asleep in the sun. The only thing they cannot seem to do, as they proliferate from paper books to audiobooks to Google books, is go extinct. Thus while the long-term survival of The Goldfinch is assured, the same cannot be said for the Yangtze river dolphin. The thought is sickening.

In any case, if the millions of species in the real world were half as well catalogued, curated, and cared for as the millions of books in the literary world, biologists would have a lot less to complain about. Conversely, if the literary world were losing novels as fast as the natural world is losing species, we would be back in the library at Alexandria. It’s not the responsibility of novelists to document what’s being lost in the library that’s burning all around us this time, or to offer solutions for putting out the fire. It’s not their job to tell us how the fire started and how it spread and why it has been so hard to put it out. What novelists can do — what they must start doing — is to describe the conflagration: what it smells like and what it sounds like and how strange that smoke looks against the afternoon sun; what it feels like to be a librarian in those smoky hallways, choking with rage, or a scribe chucking rolls of parchment out of an upper window; and which books those people loved best and why.

Fiction writers have yet to step up to the challenge, but they are going to have to soon. It would be too terrible an irony if novelists — “those people on whom nothing is lost” — turned out, in the end, to be people on whom nothing is lost except for the house coming down on their heads.

Nigel Pitman

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