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Writing for good in the contemporary novel of purpose

A rescue worker battling a bushfire in South Australia, 2015. Department of Fire and Emergency Services/AAP

Writing for good in the contemporary novel of purpose

A rescue worker battling a bushfire in South Australia, 2015. Department of Fire and Emergency Services/AAP
Anchor Point (2015), by Alice Robinson. Author provided

In March 2015, when the days remained long and hot, so dry that the paddocks around my house were tinder, my debut novel Anchor Point was published.

The events of the novel occur under pressure from exponential environmental fragility and climate change.

As 2015 has worn on, cooling, growing bitter, as the rain failed to arrive, I’ve been invited to speak and write on the idea that “writing for good” – writing to enact positive social change – is a valid and important thing for fiction writers to do. A session at the upcoming National Young Writers’ Festival speaks to this topic.

I am deeply touched by the inherent optimism in this notion: that writers and artists who direct their work toward the prevailing issues of the time can somehow alter the real world, for the better.

The lineage of writing for good

Literature is constructive as well as reflective, and there is certain power in this.

Historian and literary critic David Masson, in British Novelists and Their Styles (1859), observed the development of novels written out of “contemporary earnest”:

We have to report, as characteristic of British novel-writing recently and at present, a great development of the Novel of Purpose.

This trend, of course, was not limited to Britain, but it certainly grew in strength across the nineteenth century.

Literary scholar Amanda Claybaugh, in her book The Novel of Purpose: Literature and Social Reform in the Anglo-American World (2007), finds that such nineteenth-century novels sometimes related to social reform movements and sometimes did not. Yet all took their “conception of purposefulness” from the desire to change society.

Fiction can underwrite understandings of what is deemed desirable and appropriate by a given culture; what is unacceptable, what is feared and abhorred. Novels rising from moments of conflict and hardship sharpen focus on the inequalities and struggles of those times.

In doing so, such narratives raise awareness of key social issues and potentially move the culture toward empathy, understanding, change – or else underscore unfortunate cultural resistance, the failure of those things to eventuate.

A literary history

Many examples of this phenomenon already exist in literature across the world.

Author Alice Walker at the 2005 premier of Oprah Winfrey’s Broadway musical The Colour Purple. Keith Bedford/Reuters

The Colour Purple (1982), Alice Walker’s gruelling novel of gender inequality and racism in 1930s Georgia, was published in the early 1980s. It simultaneously showcases conditions for black women before the civil rights movement and draws attention, by comparison, to the shortcomings of contemporary race and gender relations in the movement’s wake.

More recently, Dave Eggars’ novel What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng (2006) lays bare the heartbreaking difficulties and deep resilience of the refugee experience. It portrays the life of one Sudanese “Lost Boy” fleeing his nation’s civil war for the United States.

Children’s author John Marsden. Glen Woodhead/AAP

In an entirely different kind of book, John Marsden addresses the refugee experience. His poignant and distressing illustrated work for children, Home and Away (2008), sits within the Australian context.

These texts exert complex cultural pressure around contemporary issues, inviting the reader to inhabit the terrible, but authentic, experiences they portray.

Such books write into the heart of historical and current difficulties with intrinsic hopefulness, spotlighting dark times so that they can be seen clearly for what they are.

In contrast, dystopian novels such as George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), Robert C. O’Brien’s Z for Zachariah (1974), Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), P.D. James’ The Children of Men (1992) and Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now (2004), to name a few of my favourites, wrestle with the future.

Literary possibilities

Offering visions of frightening social, political and environmental breakdown, such novels convey the fear that our legacy will be danger and unrest, the future a terrifying context where humanities’ core qualities – capacity for kindness, compassion, cooperation – will be tested, even altogether razed.

So often these speculative narratives arise from periods of perceived genuine threat to our real-world way of life: slavery; industrialization; the spectre of nuclear obliteration; the AIDs epidemic; the digital revolution. By portraying perilous imagined futures, dystopian narratives help illuminate the cultural anxieties of the present day.

This is also true of the climate change novels currently surfacing in Australia and globally. According to UCLA Journalism and Media Fellow Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow, in her article Cli-Fi: Birth of a Genre (2013), the threat of climate change has become:

too pressing [for authors] to ignore, and less abstract, thanks to a nonstop succession of mega-storms and record-shattering temperatures.

Some novels, like Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003), Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), Jane Rawson’s A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (2013) and James Bradley’s Clade (2015) imagine grim social, political and humanitarian crises that could arise in response to profound degradation of the natural world.

Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2003. Stephen Hird/Reuters

Others, like my own, are set in the early stages of environmental and systemic breakdown, when there remains a narrow possibility for turning things around.

Either way, just as the threat of nuclear war felt imminent in the 1950s, making way for the anxious cultural sense that bombs could drop at any moment, climate change is also imminent – and this is reflected in the stories we are telling.

But unlike the threat of life in a radioactive world, the impacts of climate change are now actual, and inevitable. While science can tell us what climate change is likely to look like in various regions from an ecological perspective, we just don’t know for sure what our lives will be like as significant change comes to pass.

Writing for the future

A work of fiction is a guess, a possible response to a question we have no other way of answering.

As another hot summer looms, as I contemplate my little children who stand to inherit the issues we are now failing to adequately address, as I turn in disgust from the governmental inertia around climate change in Australia, it feels clearer now than ever before that fiction writing alone cannot alter the collision course with disaster we seem determined to create.

A firefighter battles an out-of-control bushfire in Western Australia in 2015. DFES WA/AAP

Whatever optimism there may be inherent in the ability of writing to enact meaningful change in the world, it seems both a heavy duty to bestow to individual practitioners, and too little too late.

When I think of writing for good in the context of writing about climate change, I see that there is power in fiction’s capacity to illuminate unknown futures for those living now, to show what life might be like in climatically altered circumstances, how they could be survived. I see that there is good, also, in recording our cultural despair in fiction as a message to those in the future.

We once imagined the perils of your experience, and we are sorry.

The National Young Writers’ Festival takes place in Newcastle, October 1-4. Details here.