Should writers tackle environmental issues instead of playing make-believe? Guest spot at Howlarium

I’m taking a short blogging break to finish a big project before Easter, but in the meantime I can leave you with some slightly unusual bloggery.

Look at the question in the header. When I received it in my email, I thought I’d quietly pass. howlI don’t really see my fiction as a cudgel for issues. But I followed the link and found Howlarium, a thoughtful discussion blog by short story writer Jason Howell. And by then, I was itching to answer. So today I find myself on his blog, with a few other thoughtful types who have plenty to say about what we ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ write.

If you’ve got an opinion about that too, argue it here in the comments. Back soon!


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  1. #1 by janerossdale on March 18, 2016 - 10:29 am

    Many of the books I have read ARE tackling the issue. There are plenty of books set in the near future. Goon Squad, Station Eleven and Not Forgetting the Whale all spring to mind immediately. I introduce subjects in what I hope is a subtle way. In An Unknown Woman one character believes in population control and as a woman who believes very strongly in population control (and also has a fairly grim view of what the world will be like in 20 years time). I know how unpopular this view is. In fact, I very rarely talk about it with friends with children, which is to say that I very rarely express it with friends. They would think my views are radical. My next book is about a political poet whose main issue is the nuclear threat, but of course that is an environmental issue as all the evidence is there that the nuclear testing in the 50s has led to climate change we are now seeing, and there is very little we can do to reverse that. But no one wants to read a book that feels as if the author is ramming a strong moral message down your throat. There has to be a strong human angle. One of my beta readers replied that she would have liked more romance (There is a love story – just not a typical love story). This is what you have to bear in mind. Many readers want a little escapism in their fiction.

    • #2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 22, 2016 - 8:25 am

      Thanks, Jane! Yes, we have to be careful how much we prioritise ‘message’ if we’re telling a story. I think ‘persuasion’ is a better policy, not dogma.

      I probably have a strong warning message in each of my novels. My Memories of a Future Life shows an underwater world that could be a reaction to global warming. Lifeform Three has rising sea levels, which is definitely an extrapolation of what is happening now. It also reacts to our increasing reliance on AIs and how we treat them. But I wasn’t much interested in those subjects as questions. I was interested in human nature.

  2. #3 by Erin Bartels on March 18, 2016 - 12:35 pm

    Hmm, regarding the Joy Williams quote: I’d argue that we can’t talk about the natural world WITHOUT talking about ourselves, because so many of the changes that have taken place (though I would argue not all, because the earth/habitats/species have been changing far longer than since humans starting agriculture or domestication or the Industrial Revolution) and are taking place are the unforeseen result of human activity. Talking about the environment is, in a real sense, talking about ourselves–what we’ve done, what we plan to do, what we must do. I would also take issue with the idea that no one is writing on this. True, cultural diversity is having its moment in the sun, but writers have LONG been sounding alarms about humankind’s destruction and alteration of the environment. Novelists, poets (especially poets), storytellers, screenwriters, essayists, etc. I challenge anyone to find one year in the last fifty that someone has not published something about this.

    I do happen to be concerned with environmental issues, and I was long before anyone breathed a word about global warming. When I was a child, the issues that got the press were the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the deforestation of the Amazon and other rainforests, and the endangerment of a number of animals (tigers, whales, elephants, rhinos, etc.) due to poaching and habitat loss (and despite the press, guess what is still a devastating problem 30 years later?). In fact, as a child I cared exclusively about these issues. Humans? They could take care of themselves. I wasn’t concerned. Then as I grew up, my concerns did change. I had to balance human needs–and they are so great worldwide it is absolutely overwhelming to the heart if you think too long about them at any one sitting–with the environment. My views became more complex, more grey.

    Now I come to the point when I am writing short stories and novels. In the writing, I seek to understand human issues, like racism, alcoholism, fear that no one will love or understand us, fear that we will have wasted our lives before we truly understood why we have been given the gift of life, etc. But I also deal with environmental/land issues on a small scale, at a local level, as they play in to those human stories. So far I haven’t made an environmental issue “the point” for a couple reasons:

    1.) People generally write and read novels in order to better comprehend the human experience–we have an insatiable need to make sense of it and good novels help us do that. We also read to be entertained. The only people who love being preached at are the ones who already agree with you. We read books to experience another world or this world through another’s eyes. If we want to tackle and “issue” we watch Netflix documentaries that tell us what terrible people we are, we read articles that tell us everything we are doing wrong, and we follow the news cycle which leaves us depressed and despondent because we feel there is so little we can do. The novel is the reader’s escape from all that GUILT. So if we have a “message” of any kind–environmental, humanitarian, sociocultural, religious, political, or otherwise–it needs to be presented in such a way that the reader is the one who “notices” it and the reader is the one who decides which “side” they will take. Issues have to be presented not as agendas but as a part of the human experience we all must come to terms with in our own way and in our own time as we mature.

    2.) I love the first line of your response, Roz, about prescribing suitable and unsuitable subjects. And yes, it just hasn’t been the idea that has lit a fire under me as a writer of fiction (though I may talk quite a bit about environmental things on my blog–and I do). Anyone who sets out to write a novel that they will be proud of knows that they have to be passionate at that moment about that story. Otherwise, the novel just doesn’t work. I do have three stories simmering on the back burner at the moment that will involve the vital importance of preserving wilderness, the conscientious and intelligent use of land, and the importance of educating and empowering the next generation regarding our environment (and not using scare tactics that make them give up before they’ve started because the problems seem insurmountable). All of those stories will be played out on a very local level. But just because they will not tackle the great bogeyman of global climate change doesn’t mean they’re not going to be worthwhile engagements with the environmental issues of our day.

    What it comes down to is the fact that there are innumerable stories out there to tell in innumerable ways. Luckily, the world is full of writers who love to tell a good story. All we can do is tell the stories we are passionate about to the best of our ability. This comment is hideously long. So I’ll stop right here.

    • #4 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 22, 2016 - 8:31 am

      Erin, I enjoyed your essay! I particularly like your point about ‘inviting’ the reader to notice messages, rather than making them our overt purpose. And about presenting them as part of human experience. This makes for longer-lasting fiction anyway. And it makes for fiction that might have a rich tapestry of ‘concerns’ – Lifeform Three, for instance, has the concern about our vanishing wilderness, but also our diminishing sense of humanity, our narrowing emotional responses, global warming, how we treat intelligences we have created … they all grew out of the world I created and the story I told.

  3. #5 by DRMarvello on March 18, 2016 - 1:56 pm

    I agree with the comment you posted, Roz. I write what I’m compelled to write. Sometimes that includes social commentary and sometimes it doesn’t. Regardless, I don’t think I need anyone telling me what I should and shouldn’t write based on what inspires *them*. They should worry about their own audience and let me worry about mine.

    Being aware of the environment and the social landscape works both ways. Some of us are inspired to write about what can be done to correct our perceived slide into environmental destruction, and some of us are inspired to write dystopian worlds that explore the consequences of that destruction. Both kinds of work are out there now and have been for generations. The one thing they have in common is that they’ve had little impact on what humans actually do about anything.

    The daily struggle overwhelms 99% of our attention. Brief moments of reflection on environmental concerns don’t give us the time, perspective, knowledge, or energy to plan and take action. We shake our heads, throw away another Starbucks cup, answer the ringing phone, and focus on the crisis of the moment.

    I think George Carlin had it right. The planet is fine; it’s the people who are f***ed. We will continue down our myopic and parasitic path until the planet is no longer suitable for human life–with half of us denying that anything is wrong the entire time. At some point, the planet will shake us off like a bad case of fleas in what’s known as a “mass extinction event” and start over, just as it has done many times before of the past 4+ billion years. The only question is how long it will take and how nasty things will get for future generations before the current human-compatible biosphere collapses.

    • #6 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 22, 2016 - 8:32 am

      Hi Daniel! ‘The planet is fine…. the people are f+++ed’ – yes! The dinosaurs probably said the same thing. Keep wearing the hood. 🙂

  4. #7 by Alexander M Zoltai on March 19, 2016 - 4:31 pm

    Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
    Another excellent re-blog from Roz Morris…

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