When historians fall out

Richard J Evans squares up to Timothy Snyder.

In this week's London Review of Books, the first four letters are devoted to discussing Richard J Evans's damning review of the American historian Timothy Snyder's recent book, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. In one of the missives, the distinguished historian of Poland, Norman Davies, writes that Evans's review had treated Snyder as "an egregious interloper fit only to be chased from the parish", while in another letter a leading historian of the eastern European Jewry, Anthony Polonsky, argues that "Evans attacks Snyder for overemphasising the sufferings of the Poles at the hands of both Stalin and Hitler, but Snyder's figures for Polish casualties are lower than those usually cited, and they reflect the most recent research."

In his review of Snyder's book published in the 4 November issue of the LRB, Evans berated Snyder for his focus on the geographical area (Belarus, Poland, Ukraine, the Baltic States and Western Russia) that gives the book its title, Bloodlands: "By focusing exclusively on what he calls the 'bloodlands', Snyder also demeans, trivialises or ignores the suffering of the many other Europeans who were unfortunate enough to fall into Nazi hands." Evans went on in his review to list Snyder's apparent omissions from his account of Nazi and Soviet mass extermination, and accused him of writing with a geographical and historical myopia: "The fundamental reason... for the book's failure to give an adequate account of the genesis of the Final Solution, is that Snyder isn't seriously interested in explaining anything. What he really wants to do is to tell us about the sufferings of the people who lived in the area he knows most about."

In another of the letters in this week's LRB, Charles Coutinho points out that the particularly caustic criticism given by Evans in his review, may in part be due to a similarly disparaging critique of Evans's most recent book, The Third Reich at War, written by Snyder and published in the New York Review of Books in December 2009. Evans admits as much in his response to the letters (published alongside them), though is far from being apologetic:

Charles Coutinho does indeed put his finger on one of the many reasons Snyder's book made me so cross, which is that Snyder devoted all of what was meant to be a review of The Third Reich at War in the New York Review of Books to making erroneous and unsubstantiated claims about my supposed ignorance of Russian and Eastern European history. At the time I wondered what made a supposedly serious historian fall into such egregious error. After reading his book, I now know: it's Snyder, not me, who has an incorrigible desire to drive out fellow historians he sees as "interlopers" from what he considers to be his own "parish".

This debate will no doubt continue, with further salvos of letters from eminent historians addressed to eminent journals to be published in the future. The only thing that seems certain in this academic maelstrom is that, even if the historical veracity or value of Snyder's Bloodlands is questionable, the historiographical impact of its publication is not.

Read David Herman's New Statesman review of Bloodlands here.

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How “cli-fi” novels humanise the science of climate change

The paradox is that the harder climate-fiction novels try, the less effective they are.

When the Paris UN Climate Change Conference begins at the end of November, the world’s leaders will review the climate framework agreed in Rio in 1992. For well over 20 years, the world has not just been thinking and talking about climate change, it has also been writing and reading about it, in blogs, newspapers, magazines – and in novels.

Climate change fiction is now a recognisable literary phenomenon replete with its own nickname: “cli-fi”. The term was coined in 2007 by Taiwan-based blogger Dan Bloom. Since then, its use has spread: it was even tweeted by Margaret Atwood in 2013:

It is not a genre in the accepted scholarly sense, since it lacks the plot formulas or stylistic conventions that tend to define genres (such as science fiction or the western). However, it does name a remarkable recent literary and publishing trend.

A 21st-century phenomenon?

Putting a number to this phenomenon depends, partly, on how one defines cli-fi. How much of a novel has to be devoted to climate change before it is considered cli-fi? Should we restrict the term to novels about man-made global warming? (If we don’t, we should remember that narratives about global climatic change are as old as The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Biblical story of the flood.) If we define cli-fi as fictional treatments of climate change caused by human activity in terms of setting, theme or plot – and accept there will be grey areas in the extent of this treatment – a conservative estimate would put the all-time number of cli-fi novels at 150 and growing. This is the figure put forward by Adam Trexler, who has worked with me to survey the development of cli-fi.

This definition also gives us a start date for cli-fi’s history. While planetary climatic change occurs in much 20th-century science fiction, it is only after growing scientific awareness of specifically man-made, carbon-induced climate change in the 1960s and 1970s that novels on this subject emerged. The first is Arthur Herzog’s Heat in 1976, followed by George Turner’s The Sun and the Summer (published in the US as Drowning Towers) in 1987.

At the turn of this century, Maggie Gee and TC Boyle were among the first mainstream authors to publish climate change novels. In this century, we can count Atwood, Michael Crichton, Barbara Kingsolver, Ian McEwan, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ilija Trojanow and Jeanette Winterson as major authors who have written about climate change. The past five years have given us notable examples of cli-fi by emerging authors, such as Steven Amsterdam, Edan Lepucki, Jane Rawson, Nathaniel Rich and Antti Tuomainen.

Creative challenges

Cli-fi is all the more noteworthy considering the creative challenge posed by climate change. First, there is the problem of scale – spatial and temporal. Climate change affects the entire planet and all its species – and concerns the end of this planet as we know it. Novels, by contrast, conventionally concern the actions of individual protagonists and/or, sometimes, small communities.

Added to this is the networked nature of climate change: in physical terms, the climate is a large, complex system whose effects are difficult to model. In socio-cultural terms, solutions require intergovernmental agreement – just what COP21 intends – and various top-down and bottom-up transformations. Finally, there exists the difficulty of translating scientific information, with all its predictive uncertainty, into something both accurate and interesting to the average reader.

Still, cli-fi writers have adopted a range of strategies to engage their readers. Many cli-fi novels could be classified as dystopian, post-apocalyptic or, indeed, both – depicting nightmarish societies triggered by sometimes catastrophic climate events. A future world is one effective way of narrating the planetary condition of climate change.

Some novelists are also careful to underpin their scenarios with rigorous climatic predictions and, in this way, translate science fact into a fictional setting. Kingsolver, who trained as an ecologist, is the best example of this – and Atwood and Robinson are also known for their attempts at making their speculations scientifically plausible. Also, cli-fi novels, particularly those set in the present day or very near future rather than in a dystopian future, tend to show the political or psychological dimensions of living with climate change. Readers can identify with protagonists. To some extent, the global community is represented in fictional everymen or everywomen. Or, often, it is through such characters that science is humanised and its role in combating climate change better understood.

Can cli-fi lead to change?

Could cli-fi affect how we think and act on climate change? The paradox is that the harder cli-fi tries, the less effective it is. Many writers want to inspire change, not insist on it: the line between literature and propaganda is one that most novelists respect. Literature invites us to inhabit other worlds and live other lives. Cli-fi at its best lets us travel to climate-changed worlds, to strive there alongside others and then to return armed with that experience.

In Paris, the UN will seek a global agreement on climate action for the first time in more than 20 years. There is plenty of climate change fiction out there to help provide the mental and psychological space to consider that action.

The Conversation

Adeline Johns-Putra, Reader in English Literature, University of Surrey

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.