Faculty

The Subfield That Is Changing the Landscape of Literary Studies

March 21, 2016

A burgeoning subfield of literary studies that focuses on human beings’ impact on the environment is changing the curricula of English departments across the country.

Climate fiction — cli-fi, for short — often depicts a grim future of a changed world, portraying how humanity must deal with years of environmental neglect. The genre, which has seen a fourfold increase in published books in the past six years, according to data collected by Eco-fiction.com, is giving professors and students a bevy of books outside of environmental studies to anchor discussions of climate change and its consequences.

Students grow up hearing gloomy assessments of what awaits them, says Ted Howell, a graduate student in English who taught a cli-fi course at Temple University: "The future is going to be a really big problem. You guys were totally screwed by the generations before you." Cli-fi reinforces that message but can also provide a useful nudge. "The worlds in these books are very dystopian, but they’re also meant to frighten you into action," he says, "like the vast majority of dystopias do."

The courses, which include such titles as Solar, by Ian McEwan, and the MaddAddam trilogy, by Margaret Atwood, often ask students to analyze the author’s new world and discuss how likely or unlikely the events outlined in the book really are, Mr. Howell says.

"We began the class by talking about Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Jungle and how these books have created change throughout the world," says Mr. Howell. "I’m not claiming that cli-fi lit would have anything like that impact, but just the idea that fiction can have that impact and isn’t just light reading is important."

“The worlds in these books are very dystopian, but they're also meant to frighten you into action.”
Cli-fi courses have grown rapidly in frequency, says Dan Bloom, a journalist who is often credited with having coined the term, in 2008. Three years ago, there were only a handful of courses at North American colleges that would be considered cli-fi, he says, but that number has ballooned to at least 100 since then.

One of the keys to the courses’ popularity is that the books can be presented as relevant and relatable to issues students have heard about, says Richard Crownshaw, a senior lecturer at the University of London. He believes that his own cli-fi class offers students a chance to discuss how society sometimes tries to avoid having difficult talks about the damage that is being done to the earth.

"These novels are a tool to explore how climate change is continually subjected to a form of cognitive dissonance, and, therefore, the novel can change how we sometimes fail to think about climate change or displace the problem onto future generations," says Mr. Crownshaw.

But the courses have occasionally drawn criticism from scholars who wonder whether it is a good idea to base a curriculum around books that could be viewed as "less literary," Mr. Crownshaw says.

That criticism is understandable, says Sina Farzin, a sociology professor at the University of Hamburg, who is organizing "Fact and Fiction: Climate-Change Fiction," a workshop next month in Germany. "This is not all great literature if you would measure by purely literary standards," she says. Cli-fi authors comprise a large range of people, such as scientists and activists, which means the novels may not turn out as classics that stand the test of time.

That idea misses the point, Mr. Crownshaw says, adding that the aim of his class is to examine all kinds of texts, from the high-brow to the mainstream.

Still, the books are capable of communicating complicated ideas to a broader range of students, stripping away scientific jargon and explaining the long-term environmental damage, says Wai Chee Dimock, a professor of English at Yale University who presided over a panel on cli-fi at this year’s Modern Language Association meeting.

“This is not all great literature if you would measure by purely literary standards.”
"Cli-fi, and any kind of science fiction, is the best gateway to science for many American students," Ms. Dimock says. "Literature has the potential to get to the max number of students without intimidating them, alienating them, or boring them."

And because the courses are normally taught in English departments, which draw a diverse cross section of students, they can offer insight about the nuances of climate change to a student population that might not study it otherwise.

While scholars tend to support the classes, that sentiment isn’t always echoed outside academe. Some observers, especially online, have assailed the books as essentially propaganda, indoctrinating students with misinformation, says Jennifer Wicke, a professor of English at the University of Virginia. Ms. Wicke says she has been confronted by people on social media who claim her class is teaching a "dangerous notion."

"What are you going to do?" she asks. "The comments are attacking what they perceived as an agenda. But there is no literature or science, worthy of that name, that supports a different stance. It just shows that these kinds of courses are wanted and needed."

Ms. Wicke, like many others who teach cli-fi novels, says there is a groundswell of interest in them, and professors think they are the cusp of something big.

"These kinds of courses have put it all on a new footing, and there is a kind of level of urgency, of insight, of research, and new information coming out of it. It’s transforming business as usual in literature studies."