Joan Thomas: Patricia, the first real conversation you and I had was shortly after you moved to Winnipeg, when we met for dinner and both ordered the grilled cauli or some such delight. Through the conversational gambit of plant-based diets, we fell into talking about how we approach the climate crisis as writers. I knew that you and I were not alone in this preoccupation, but I’d never before talked about it with another writer. Put that down to dread, or a sense of helplessness, or my acute distaste for chewing over self-evident truisms. But you and I jumped in, and I came away dazed with relief at not being alone with my thoughts about this.
That was several years ago. I have grown increasingly grateful for your fierce insistence on living and writing within the reality of our planetary fix, and on doing both so vibrantly. Today everyone is talking more about this issue. My third novel, The Opening Sky, written between 2010 and 2014, was (at least in its author’s mind) about the psychic burden of denial. Now, five years later, I’m approaching the climate emergency with a different emphasis—because the age of denial is over.
Again I’m struggling to find a form that can address a reality that renders old preoccupations irrelevant. I’ve always liked Jonathan Dee’s definition of the novel as “a document of consciousness.” But I want to ask you: do you think there’s still a place for contemporary novels written in a realistic mode, character-driven novels with their emphasis on the inner life, on social norms and relationships? Novels that probe individual subjectivity and individual concerns? Or does this just perpetuate the very thinking that got us into this mess? And if we don’t write this, what do we write?
Patricia Robertson: Joan, my colleague Sharon English and I have just spent a whole issue of CNQ magazine trying to answer this question! (The issue, titled “Writing in the Age of Unravelling,” is out now.) And to get directly to your question about novels written in a realistic mode, I can’t do better than quote the novelist and essayist Amitav Ghosh from his book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Ghosh’s argument is that we are in an imaginative crisis as well as an environmental one because the modern novel was shaped in a very different era by what he calls “the grid of literary forms and conventions” that coincided with the rise of industrialism and a bourgeois lifestyle, along with the growing accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere. The modern novel, he says, banished the improbable and the fantastic in favour of the everyday. Thus contemporary forms of realism are not equipped to respond to ecological crises on a planetary scale, in part because such crises confront us with the monstrously improbable, and also because modern techno-industrial capitalism defines the human and the urban as our central concerns.
I guess I’d argue that that is why speculative fiction has been better able to come to imaginative grips with what is happening, though too much of it has turned dystopian. But I’d also argue that what we call “realism” no longer reflects reality. When we have rulers who lie constantly and who use social and other media to manipulate reality, we’re already in a science fiction dystopia. The contemporary literary novel has to come to terms with its limitations and consider some radical responses. One—and here I’m drawing on the magnificent work of the UK’s Dark Mountain Project—is that of de-centering the human, of moving away from seeing humans as a unique life form with a special role on this planet. Such revisitings are already underway, from Richard Powers’ The Overstory, in which trees play a central role alongside humans, to Australian author Ceridwen Dovey’s short story collection Only the Animals, in which real-life historical animals are the protagonists. I would argue that we have to restitch ourselves back into the fabric of the natural world, from which we’ve monstrously severed ourselves, and that it’s the job of writers to help us do that.
JT: Patricia, you are so fluent in writing about this . . . I feel like your straight man, the naive realist. Yet I’m determined to come at this subject, today’s essential, imperative subject, from where I’m at. No doubt the modern realistic novel is circumscribed by the thinking of the society that produced it, but it’s what I know how to write. And maybe because of my childhood, which was fantastic in its own way, with lurid images of hell and the devil, and Christ hovering in the clouds and snatching believers away, and horses wading up to their bellies in blood, I am adamantly committed to writing about this world as I experience it.
I have never been a fan of fantasy or futuristic fiction. Casting into the future to portray the horrific consequences of our behaviour today– somehow it lets us defer the reckoning. I love what you say about de-centering the human, though – what a rich, moving, fertile way to frame things. But my deepest interest continues to be in humans, their psychology and emotions, in how such intelligence can co-exist with such blindness and folly. I feel as though we have not begun to plumb the depths of understanding ourselves, as events so starkly expose the inadequacy of our old ways of seeing.
My sense is that the writers in the Dark Mountain project have moved to a place most of us are not yet at: they assert that the collapse of civilization as we define it is inevitable, and the artists’ role is to help us envision what will come after. Am I right? And I think I’m writing for people like me—dealing with a lot of grief and rage but not prepared to give up hope (“The more hope you have, the more hope you have,” to quote Margaret Atwood.) I love your expression “to restitch ourselves back into the fabric of the natural world,” but I wonder if that can’t be done through forms people are familiar with and relate to.
PR: Joan, the truth is that all fiction is speculative. Realism is as much an imaginative construct as anything else. The labels, as the late great Ursula Le Guin frequently argued, are absurd. “Realism is also an ideology, one that can obscure reality as much as it can illuminate it,” says the American writer Theodora Goss. “I write fantasy because the reality I see around me is fantastical, so that fantasy becomes a new realism, representing our reality, the reality of the twenty-first century, more accurately than the old realism, which was formed in the nineteenth….” This truism was certainly understood by the novelists of eastern Europe in the last century, along with the South American practitioners of what became termed magic realism.
My own fiction keeps one foot firmly in consensual reality, but also opens up to other dimensions—call them fantastical if you want—that we know humans experience. The wildland firefighter in a recent story of mine, “Fire Breathing,” ends up communicating with the trees around him. The story is still human-centred, but it makes room for other consciousnesses. I think this is the kind of thing Dark Mountain is seeking—not just imagining what comes after the 10,000 years of the Holocene, now ending, but how we navigate our way through this collapse. And relearning the Indigenous view that humans are not central but are absolutely dependent on other life forms, especially plants, seems to me an essential part of that transition. Your own wonderful recent novel, Five Wives, achieves a similar decentering of the “civilized” western human by depicting the destruction our civilization has brought in its wake, and the poignant absence at the heart of the book of the displaced Indigenous peoples, whose extermination is ongoing.
Like you, I feel grief and rage and a kind of hope-in-the-face-of-hopelessness, but I completely reject the idea that we must emphasize the hope. As Greta Thunberg said so bluntly, “I don’t want your hope. I want you to act.” Most climate scientists I’ve read about are not hopeful at all; they’re deeply pessimistic and suffering ecological grief. It seems to me that facing the terrible truth of where we are is the first step, and then using the grief and rage to propel us forward. And writers and artists should be at the forefront of that truth-telling.
JT: Patricia, so well said. I love the observation that “Realism is also an ideology, one that can obscure reality as much as it can illuminate it.” Yes, of course, we are not really talking about form and genre here, but about what we are prepared to see, whether the intent of our stories is to entertain, to reinforce the status quo, or to take us into “the unravelling”? Given that reality today is “monstrously improbable,” then the monstrous and the improbable become the stuff of realism.
I have never before felt I had so much to write about, never before had such a sense of writing into the unknown, breaking new ground. I’m astonished that so much current fiction is written as though the world is a static backdrop. We’re still at the point where, to acknowledge the collapse of eco-systems and societies with them is to have your novel labelled as topical, issue-driven, or even didactic. How can this crisis not be the overarching preoccupation of all serious fiction? If your characters are indifferent to the slipping away of life as they knew it, how can their blindness not be the focus?
I feel bereft, though, of much of my old literary vocabulary. What lyricism there is in my work comes from images of the natural world. Nature is the ground in which my characters centre themselves, find consolation and vitality, regain a sense of proportion, locate the miraculous. But these days I can’t write about the natural world without anguish. I’m also deprived of a structure that moves towards greater insight as a form of closure; the truths my characters might move towards are very dark. Even in this exchange with you—it’s in my bones to want to find an affirming note to end on. So I turn to these words from one of Dark Mountain’s founders, Dougald Hine: “One of the roles of art under the shadow of climate change can be to create spaces in which we are able to stay with unbearable knowledge without falling into denial or desensitization.”
That’s good, eh. I get that.