It’s probably also true that climate change is far too complex an issue to write a definitive novel about. But is it too complex an issue for fiction writers to make a contribution? To write not so much a definitive novel about it, but one of many complementary ones? My own attempt at this, From Here (2012), tells the story of a group of ordinary people (a supermarket cashier, an ex-banker, a hipster girl), who’ve come together in an unlikely alliance – realising how this one issue touches them all to the core. It’s full of the contradictions surrounding climate change, and the confusion many people (even those actively involved) feel around it. Telling people that I was working on a story that tackles the issue head-on, and with a clear stance on it, the response I often got was: are you sure? Which, more than once, probably meant: are you completely out of your mind?
There’s a school of thought that says novels shouldn’t (even can’t) be about a very current issue. One could reply that climate change isn’t very current in that sense – it didn’t start yesterday, and it will be with us for a long, long time – but I won’t, because our response to it (or lack thereof) is as current as it gets. But ought that really to prevent us from writing about it?
Zadie Smith beautifully described the dangers of writing fiction that’s grounded in the now in a recent Guardian podcast. People tend to find their own time “uninteresting, vulgar and stupid,” she said, and they will constantly accuse you of “shallowness, because there’s a sense that literature must be timeless”. And yet, the novels that “end up being important to people are the ones which in some way express their time” – provided you’re not simply producing a “springboard to talk about whatever is in the news.”