I recently came across a wonderful piece in The Atlantic exploring some of the ideas that have been rattling around in my head ever since I started Ekostories. Using Dr. Seuss classic The Lorax as a starting point, author Lydia Millet makes a case for the importance of activist-minded fiction. What role should literature play in voicing the great and pressing challenges of our time? Should it convey messages and courses of action? What constitutes preaching? What can transcend it?
Here are a few sections that resonated with me:
On the urgent need for eco-literature:
“Shouldn’t the cascades of extinction and rapid planetary warming register in our literature? And yet, despite the fact that most Americans support the work of saving species from winking out, and increasingly support strong action to curb climate change, the highly rational push for the preservation of nature and life-support systems often appears in the media—and certainly appears in most current fiction—as a boutique agenda. Climate change is shifting that marginalization, but not fast enough.”
On what makes the Lorax powerful:
“What makes The Lorax such a powerful fable is partly its shamelessness. It pulls no punches; it wears its teacher heart on its sleeve. This is commonplace and accepted in children’s stories, but considered largely undesirable in literary fiction…”
On the need to change that notion in literature:
“But I happen to believe in the urgency of now. I don’t accept the proposition that ours is a historical moment like any other, that we can handily shrug off our duty to the future by placing ourselves in an endless, linear continuum of progress that makes its share of errors but is finally, comfortingly self-correcting. Rather I follow the strong evidence for the singularity of this human era, its unique power to make or break that future, directly linked to tipping points associated with climate catastrophe and the irreversibility of extinction. I cleave to science and the need to communicate science, or at least the products of science. Beyond and within science, love: not the love we have for ourselves, but that greater love we forget or take for granted in daily life, the love of otherness. The desperate need for otherness. And I suspect there’s no place, in art or journalism or politics, that isn’t ripe for that discussion…”
On how to convey the message without becoming preachy:
“In fiction, philosophical, political, or religious ideas tend to be most convincing when they arise organically out of a character. And the only way I know how to make characters is by voice, the texture of personality inside a narrative. If you can establish a voice that can get away with being somewhat abstract, that’s part of the battle. And part of it is simple charisma….”
As someone who is wary of simple didacticism in stories, I found cause for reevaluating not only my own critical lens, but also my creative output. Perhaps there are ideas that demand to be expressed more urgently, more open-heartedly, from a place of utter shamelessness. It need not diminish a narrative’s power if done skillfully, and at need.
What do you think about the moral obligations of fiction? Should there be any at all? If yes, how do you think one should approach it?
Featured image of The Lorax © 1971 by Dr. Seuss. All rights reserved.