It’s about a year since I published my second novel, To See The Light Return. I wrote it as a love letter to climate activists. I thought it might entertain, encourage and amuse at a time when caring about having a biosphere viable for future generations felt like swimming against a tsunami of individualistic materialism. Boy, what a difference a year makes! Now, with cleaner skies, and dolphins frolicking in Venetian canals, more and more people are realising how human activity directly correlates to pollution. Calls for action on the climate and biodiversity emergencies to be taken with as great a dispatch as we have seen for COVID-19 (or greater, in the case of the UK and the US) are coming from all quarters. We know that action is possible when the threat is recognised.
So, from an individual, materialist author’s point of view, that’s more readers then, surely. Unsurprisingly, not so much.
I knew climate activists would be a niche market. It turns out to be even nicher because, understandably, no one who is busy working to keep our planet liveable for humans and other species has much downtime. Or, it turns out, much appetite for reading anything that isn’t full of information about how to accomplish that laudable end. As I didn’t have time to write the book for many years, for exactly those reasons, I am not surprised. But I am disappointed. Why can’t you make an exception in this case, I think, a little forlorn.
It’s been a discouraging year, from this narrow perspective.
I have had some amazing reviews. One reader told me she burst into tears as she read the end of the book, because it held out the vision of something hopeful, something other than the individualist, materialist world of 2019. I was touched and delighted. This was exactly the response I had been hoping for. It tipped the scales, balancing out the year of slog, the slow sales and rebuffs from independent bookshops that only buy from wholesalers. The silence from prospective reviewers, too busy being serious to take a moment for a bit of fiction. A bit of fluff from an unknown noveller.
But here’s the thing. Fiction is a serious business. What we read informs our view of the world and our expectations. The principal impetus to write TSTLR was being unable to find much to read that represented the world as I see it or, more importantly, that represented it as I and other earth protectors would like it to be. That looked at all that materialist individualism and found it lacking; not ‘normal’ but alienating, frustrating, arid. I wanted to be an alternative voice offering an alternative vision.
And more important, reading fiction can increase the reader’s capacity for empathy. In my own work I write from many different characters’ points of view. I find myself experiencing empathy, even for my villains and – according to my reviews – my readers feel it too. In a time when our society is becoming increasingly polarised and divided, our ability to put ourselves in the minds of those with whom we do not agree, to see why they might feel the way they do, needs to be exercised, toned, not left to atrophy. Reading data-driven nonfiction might give us the tools to win an argument, but will it help us reach agreement or understanding?
ps, if you’re wondering, earth protectors, eh? check out the life work of the much missed Polly Higgins and the Ecocide team.