Climate change was so last year: writers’ festivals and the great derangement

Every other day, it seems, a new controversy erupts around the programming decisions of one or another of Australia’s ever-proliferating literary festivals. If the object of outrage is not an unrepresentative panel discussion, it’s a politically contentious keynote, or else a disastrous clash between ill-suited speakers. Whatever the specifics, the regularity with which such brouhahas flare up speaks to our anxieties about what purpose literary festivals serve.

Most festivals propound some variation along the lines of ‘books and ideas’. Melbourne Writers’ Festival promises to ‘celebrate literature and explore ideas’. Adelaide Writers’ Week – Australia’s oldest literary festival, founded in 1960, but now just one of more than a hundred – offers ‘both writers and readers a unique opportunity to spend time sharing ideas and literary explorations’.

It was the latter that dominated Australia’s earliest literary festivals, as evidenced by a glance at the 1962 program for Adelaide Writers’ Week with its public forums on ‘The Problems of Australian Writers’, ‘The Place of Australian Literature in Education’, and the death (?) of the short story. By contrast, most contemporary writers’ festivals traffic in the discussion of ‘issues’ as much as, if not more than, books – a prudent shift given that the most recent Australian Bureau of Statistics data on the publishing industry suggest that the average Australian book sells fewer than 1,000 copies.

At the same time, celebrity writers have further displaced the centrality of books and literary discussion, ‘the performing author,’ as publisher Terri-ann White noted in a Sydney Review of Books piece, ‘[having] become the equivalent of the book itself.’ Ultimately, as Jerath Head writes in an essay for Overland,

whatever the motivations of the programmers, and the sentiments shared by the bulk of contributing artists and irate commentators, their primary concern is funding their own continuation. Booking conservative authors with mainstream appeal, or capitalising on provocative, controversial sessions, are inevitable in this context.

As Head notes, writers’ festivals are contested spaces, caught in the bind of many cultural projects: by default politically progressive, but lacking the funding necessary to eschew conservative or populist concessions altogether (to wit, the incongruous sight of Barnaby Joyce – having presumably been deemed by organisers to be just controversial enough to garner a big audience but not so much as to galvanise a backlash – headlining this year’s ‘Power, Politics and Passion’-themed Canberra Writers’ Festival).

It is in this context that literary festivals are now routinely critiqued from both left and right. While the former advocate the no-platforming of reactionary speakers – as in the case of Bob Carr and Germaine Greer – the latter lament, in the vein of the Australian’s Caroline Overington, festivals’ assumed conformity of progressive opinion and the loss of ‘the muscular and challenging exchanges of old’.

Accordingly, the writers’ festival circuit begins to look like just another front in the culture wars, one in which, as Head wrote, ‘partisan [outcries]… along identity and representation lines [have] marginal returns’, given the entrenched power structures of festivals and their limited ability to reach wide audiences.

Nevertheless – contrary to Overington’s sneering claim that at literary festivals it’s ‘panel after panel on climate change’ – I was initially struck by the dearth of discussion on the subject at this year’s Adelaide Writers’ Week, despite its theme of ‘change’ and the presence of authors, such as Clive Hamilton, who have written extensively on the subject. After all, if writers’ festivals are to be platforms for, in the words of a recent Sydney Writers’ Festival statement, ‘urgent, necessary and sometimes difficult’ conversations, then clearly climate change must be the litmus test. As Amitav Ghosh writes in The Great Derangement: ‘considering what climate change actually portends for the future of the earth, it should surely follow that this would be the principal preoccupation of writers’ – and, by extension, one might add writers’ festivals – ‘the world over’.

A closer inspection of the 2018 Adelaide Writers’ Week program, however, revealed a more nuanced story, a shift towards examining climate change – the science of which, we can at least be grateful, is decreasingly the subject of public debate – through an imaginative rather than objective lens. Despite the seemingly careful omission of the term in the titles of sessions, works of fiction informed by climate change were widely spotlighted, including Jennifer Mills’ Dyschronia, Maja Lunde’s The History of Bees, Corey Doctorow’s Walkaway, and Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour. It may be that this shift marks nothing more than an astute curatorial choice on the part of outgoing director Laura Kroetsch, an acknowledgment of the exhausted (and exhausting) nature of the old climate change debates. But I wonder if something more significant is also in play: a reframing of climate change not as an ‘issue’ to be ‘solved’, but rather a condition of contemporary life that can no more be ignored – much less willed away – than heartbreak, or family dysfunction, or any of literary fiction’s great themes.

Jane Rawson, who has written both fiction and nonfiction books that directly or obliquely address climate change, tells me:

We tried talking about climate change and it didn’t fix it. And obviously it’s completely unrealistic to think that it would but, unlike other issues that get discussed at writers’ festivals, people seem to think that talking about this and publishing a couple of novels on it is all that’s needed to change minds and everything will be fixed. And the idea that you would have to keep coming back to it year after year after year – that’s ridiculous! We should have fixed this, right? Which is not a thing with, say, the breakdown of the family or bad parent-child relationships. Novels like that aren’t expected to fix the problem; they’re just expected to register it as an aspect of human experience. We’re writing and talking about climate change now, and it’s still going to be worth writing and talking about next year. I don’t really understand why we’ve taken this attitude to climate change in fiction. It should be a continuing thing. It’s part of everything now.

Rawson’s comments make me reflect on Chekhov, who said that ‘the task of a writer is not to solve the problem but to state the problem correctly’. The idea that writers or writers’ festivals can or should ‘solve’ climate change is not only misguided but also, in the end, regressive. As Head writes, ‘it is a sleight of entrenched neoliberal thinking to assume that the discussion – creating fertile ground for the idea of change – is as good as action.’

In a recent tweet, Maxine Beneba Clarke wrote: ‘To be honest, making any kind of artistic work in Australia right now that doesn’t directly engage with the mess we’re in seems like fiddling while the house is burning.’ Perhaps. But, at the risk of sounding nihilistic, I wonder if ultimately the question is not what literary fiction can do to highlight or mitigate the effects of climate change but rather what the writer’s consciousness of climate change can do for literature – at least until we achieve the kind of critical mass useful for reinforcing genuine activism. As Rawson says: ‘All novels written now should be climate change novels unless they’re a fantasy in some way. Realist novels that don’t have climate change as part of the contemporary landscape are fantasies, genre novels.’

It is the failure of the writers of literary novels, so beloved of writers’ festival audiences, to state the problem of climate change that Ghosh refers to as ‘the great derangement’. He writes:

I think it can be safely predicted that as the waters rise around us, the mansion of serious fiction, like the doomed waterfront properties of Mumbai and Miami Beach, will double down on its current sense of itself, building ever higher barricades to keep the waves at bay.

For Ghosh, literary fiction’s gatekeepers have partitioned off climate change into the hybrid and genre forms – especially science fiction or ‘cli-fi’ – a ‘capitulation’ that has had the effect of delimiting ecological catastrophe as a problem for the future rather than the present (and, indeed, the recent past). McKenzie Wark, in an essay on Ghosh, puts it this way: ‘Fiction that takes climate change seriously is not taken seriously as fiction.’

This is changing, slowly. This year, Rawson’s From the Wreck became the first novel to be nominated for both the Miles Franklin and the Aurealis Award for best science fiction novel. And it is hard to see how the novels mentioned above – or any number of others, from James Bradley’s Clade to Mireille Juchau’s The World Without Us – would fail to qualify for consideration as ‘serious’ works of fiction except by the most parochial standards. It may be that no more is at stake here than the relevance of the mainstream novel whose ability to accurately convey our experience of the world has always been contestable, and is arguably becoming more so under the conditions of late capitalism. But perhaps, given what we know of how stories profoundly inflect as well as reflect objective reality, that in itself should be enough for us to wonder at what an overhauled literary culture, with the knowledge of human-caused climate change at its centre, might do in, if not for, the world.


Image: crop from cover of Dyschronia, by Jennifer Mills

Ben Brooker

Ben Brooker is a writer, editor, and critic based on the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri People of the Kulin Nation. His work has been featured by Overland, Australian Book Review, The Saturday Paper, MeanjinKill Your Darlings, and others in Australia and overseas.

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Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Firstly, let’s not got to rosy-eyed.

    The title Writers’ Festival has always been a misnomer. They are Publishers’ Marketing Exercises pure and simple.

    And as for the Climate Change debate, perhaps the more sobering reality is that even those self-proclaimed bleating hearts on behalf of the planet are really just GIROs (Green In Rhetoric Only) which is just as exasperating as the Flat-out Deniers and the Shruggers.

    As the planet hurtles toward catastrophe, the fact is words — whether spoken or written — don’t count for anything if they are just token expressions of concern.

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