The End of the World?

I read a thought-provoking blog this week ( which has been nagging at me ever since.

 I’m paraphrasing enormously for the purpose of summary, but the basic gist was that the post-apocalyptic fiction so popular at present offers a cosily comforting picture of survival after catastrophe that is so at odds with what an apocalypse would really mean that it’s not just fictional, it’s irresponsibly dangerous, given the blog writer (Matthew Cheney)’s belief that we are living through an environmental apocalypse at present.

 I’ll quote one line in particular: “To imagine yourself as a survivor [in a post-apocalyptic world] is to evade the truth and to indulge in a ridiculous fantasy.”

 The blog resonated with me because I happen to agree that environmental collapse is likely, if not imminent, and (probably because of this) environment is a feature of my books, although I don’t write what I would classify as post-apocalyptic stories. The blog made me think about the responsibilities of writers. I like to think of myself as a responsible human being and a responsible writer. It’s uncomfortable to even consider the idea that I’m fiddling while Rome burns – and that I’m distracting others by asking them to listen to my playing when they could be throwing water to dowse the flames instead.

 But if I were being belligerent, I would refer back to the quotation above and point out that the whole point of fiction is that it is a fantasy. Fiction is very, very often described as escapism, and mostly with the suggestion that this is a good thing – escape from whatever is unpleasant in your life into the world of a book. But if this escapism allows us to evade unpleasant truths that must be faced for our survival, does that change the matter? Surely it has to. One of the most positive aspects of fiction is that it provides a safe space for challenging and unpalatable ideas to be explored, precisely because it isn’t real. But perhaps we don’t deserve a safe space. Perhaps, instead, we need to have our faces rubbed in the disaster we have caused and continue to perpetuate. But being entirely pragmatic – who’d read a novel pointing that out?

 I want to shrug off the suggestion that fiction should be accurate to this or that truth, and point out that books don’t exist to wave a banner for one cause or another. However, I do believe very strongly in fiction as a power for good. Stories are how we talk to ourselves as a civilisation, across space and time, and I absolutely believe that fiction plays a role in moving the world towards a future that is better than the past and is worth aspiring to. (Note, I don’t claim that this is the correct view of fiction, but it is my view.)

 In the end, I have decided to accept my disquiet and carry on (and I use that phrase deliberately). Some fiction will be comforting, some will be disturbing and both roles are equally acceptable and perhaps equally necessary. Any book on its own will buckle if the weight of changing society is placed on its single spine. If this blog has made me think more carefully about what I write, then that’s good, but the most important thing, I believe, is that we keep writing and telling stories. I’m sorry if this response is glib, but I have to believe that as a civilisation we will navigate a way through our stories (fictional and real) and that there will be something worthwhile at the end.

Fortunately, just as I was uploading this blog, I saw something on twitter that seemed an apt way to close:

“Art should disturb the comfortable, and comfort the disturbed.”

Hear, hear.

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