Why Read Fiction while the Planet is in Crisis? Reflections on Cli-Fi Book Clubs

November 16, 2022

Misty Matthews-Roper

Everywhere you look lately someone is talking about narrative and how we need stories to navigate the climate crisis. These calls range from a desire for more artistic representations of our situation to entirely new ways to communicate this issue

In the last decade, the number of narratives about societies grappling with climate change—often referred to as cli-fi (climate fiction)—has increased dramatically, including popular films like Don’t Look Up or novels such as Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior. Many researchers and activists think that these stories might be able to impact the choices and behaviours of their audiences in ways that rationality-driven messages—such as scientific studies and reports—cannot. But how narratives actually influence our behaviour is rarely straightforward.   

Within the growing number of fictional representations of climate change in film and other media, my own research focuses on novels and their readers. Since the early 2000s, several novels have explicitly portrayed futures characterized by climatic changes such as desertification, drought and water shortages, violent storms, and increased tropical diseases. After the 2009 “Climategate” email scandal, several of these novels also explored reasons for public distrust in science and scientists.

 Our imaginations have clearly been caught by the promise of cli-fi narratives. What I want to understand is how these stories affect us.

Our imaginations have clearly been caught by the promise of cli-fi narratives. But how do these stories affect us?

Interestingly, much cli-fi research has been largely theoretical with very few instances of engagement with readers. To learn more about the effects of these works, some scholars have developed a new methodology called “empirical ecocriticism.” Two of the first empirical cli-fi studies were surveys of US-based readers by Matthew Schneider-Mayerson.

Schneider-Mayerson’s studies reached mixed conclusions about the impact of reading cli-fi novels. The typical American cli-fi reader is 18-35 years old, liberal, and concerned about climate change. Schneider-Mayerson also found that dystopic imagery in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife made both liberal and conservative readers more likely to envision a hopeless future. He concluded that although reading cli-fi encourages readers to reflect on their emotional reactions to climate change and how they might imagine a future impacted by climate, reading alone didn’t lead to behavioural change.

My research aims to build on this research, which relies on individual survey responses, by exploring the social power of reading. To more fully observe, measure, and potentially harness cli-fi’s capacity to impact society, I argue that we must look to book clubs. 

Book clubs are important spaces of social interaction. As readers gather and interpret novels, they often relate the novels to their lives and experiences. In essence, fictional stories can become part of the repertoire readers use to comprehend their own realities. 

With these two considerations in mind, (1) cli-fi novels might affect their readers and (2) book clubs can act as microcosms of society, I have set out to study what happens in cli-fi book clubs. From January to June 2022, I facilitated and observed four virtual Canadian book clubs as they discussed four predetermined cli-fi novels. Two are set in times very like our own (Weather by Jenny Offill and Blaze Island by Catherine Bush), while the other two consider climate-changed futures (The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline and Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller). Our meetings led to a myriad of discussions about climate change, climate anxiety, and how we can live with climate change.

My initial analyses have revealed some intriguing insights. Take for example our meetings about Weather, which is written in short staccato-like bursts giving readers glimpses into the day-to-day life of a harried New Yorker mom, Lizzie, on the eve of Donald Trump’s 2016 electoral victory. Throughout Weather Lizzie is consumed not only with worry for her family, but also the planet. Overall, it was a very divisive novel. Many readers were put off by the style and others felt that cli-fi should be about dystopian futures. Yet, those who liked it drew their fellow readers into conversations about how climate change is already happening and how they already feel existential dread about it. Using the novel and its characters as a backdrop, the readers tried to suss out how to deal with these feelings. They acknowledged that simply giving into anxiety about our future was not a solution. Instead, they discussed the need to focus on the present and act where you are.

Weather also highlights the tense feelings in American society, which resonated with my readers in the wake of the Ottawa Freedom Convoy, leading to reflection on the need to come together even when we disagree. Finally, Weather ends unresolved, which disheartened some readers but delighted others: “I'm kind of glad [Offill] didn't go to the “Everything's gonna be okay kind of mindset” because that would have been a rip off to me.” This sentiment echoed research regarding how to best motivate climate change action: hope or fear?

As I continue my analysis, I expect to find even more contradicting themes and opinions. One reader brought up a provocative question: “What is the purpose of writing these stories?” All the authors I chose sought to bring hope to their readers. According to my participants this was achieved with varying degrees of success. But the question remains, why do we write and read cli-fi? Are we looking for solutions? Is it morbid curiosity? Do we really believe that cli-fi can change our behaviour? By observing groups of readers as they discuss cli-fi, I believe we can begin to understand the role that these novels play in society.

Misty Matthews-Roper is a PhD Candidate at the University of Waterloo’s School of Environment, Resources, and Sustainability researching the role that cli-fi stories play in our social understanding of climate change. When not reading books, you can find Misty out running in the woods or hunting mushrooms.

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