12 December 2015
While in the North of England we have been dealing with the consequences of Desmond’s stormy visit, which left us in the dark for a couple of days, armies of diplomats have been negotiating in Paris to find an agreement to keep global warming below 2°C. The COP21, the 21st edition of the yearly United Nations Climate Change Conference, is due to close today – but will overrun to tomorrow. It’s all about communication. As is literature.

Literature – Why?

But what does literature have to do with international negotiations – especially in the French context, where Roland Barthes declared the death of the author in 1968, urging readers to focus on the text rather than its relation to the world?

Well, the good news is that the Author is alive and kicking, even if his/her kicks can hardy compete with those of the mediatized football stars in terms of reach and repercussions. Nevertheless, the “Maison des écrivains et de la littérature” (House of Writers and Literature) had invited French and Francophone authors to say their word about climate change in the framework of the events accompanying the COP21.

The 30+1 10-minute long speeches received in response were meant to be presented by the authors themselves in a special session at the French National Assembly on 14th November. This had to be cancelled, however, due to the Paris terrorist attacks the night before. But the texts have been published as a book (Du souffle dans les mots: 30 écrivains s’engagent pour le climat)and France Culture, the cultural channel of the French national radio, broadcast a selection of five talks.

But why should writers (also) speak about the climate, rather than just scientists, politicians, and… footballers? We can ask with the authors of the call: “What can language do in this world of images, immediacy, and emergency we live in?”

Failed elections show that having a good argument, power, or fame might still not be enough to convince audiences. Words matter. While literature should not be reduced to finding the most powerful words for a message, it can offer a powerful way of communicating ideas. Cognitive narratology has demonstrated the impact texts can have, and literature does have a massive history in this respect – think of the Werther effect, the wave of copycat suicides after the publication of Goethe’s first novel. Such an outcome was presumably not Goethe’s aim, but it suggests that literary authors can also help a good cause.

Literature? How?

Politics in literature had bad press towards the end of the last century, not the least due to the structuralist movement into which Barthes’s provocative death sentence of the author also inscribed itself. This was a reaction against the kind of utilitarian writing Jean-Paul Sartre described in his 1948 essay What Is Literature?, and against criticism focusing on the author’s biography and psychology.

We are now, however, witnessing the rehabilitation of ethical considerations in literature as well as in criticism – a synthesis of sorts, which aims for a balance between aesthetic and social perspectives. The former rejection of literary engagement can be attributed to its confusion with committed literature: while the latter means writing primarily in the service of a (political) cause, the former is simply allowing literary quality to also serve an (ethical) cause. The call to writers encouraged this attitude, and the result has been compared to the literary tradition of great Romantic writer-speakers from Chateaubriand to Victor Hugo, rather than to Sartrean commitment.

Literature? What?

Nature has been one of the major themes of literature ever since the Greek bucolic poets, and contemporary authors did not wait for the COP21 call to warn against the damages we are making to it. Cli-fi, or climate fiction has now become an entire new genre of popular literature, and “highbrow” authors have also engaged with the issue in very varied forms. In French literature, Antoine Volodine’s dystopian novel Terminus radieux (2014) pictures a postnuclear Siberia, Laurent Mauvignier’s Autour du monde (2014) offers an all-too-real description of a tsunami, and Eric Chevillard’s seemingly absurd Sans l’orang-outan (2007) imagines the end of the world with the extinction of orang-utans. Criticism has also duly followed suit, making literature and environment one of its emerging fields of enquiry.

In the literary responses to the call, genres and approaches vary. Francophone Algerian author Boualem Sansal speaks of the “primitive chaos” that awaits us in the vicious circle of natural disasters and human violence, Marie Desplechin addresses a call to children to care more and do better than their parents, Agnès Desarthe imagines a conversation with her nephew at a time when eternal snow has disappeared, Eric Chevillard lets an endangered animal species report to a human parliament, to mention but a few. Each offers a different perspective, sending a wake up call in their own literary voice. Because it will not be enough to let diplomats stay up negotiating.