By Martha Kean
The twenty-tens are coming to an end; the decade where having a YouTube channel became a profitable career path, where political debates moved from debate chambers to Twitter feeds and so-called ‘millennial’ culture swept across the globe like a pandemic. So, in amongst all of that, has the good old traditional book been long forgotten? Surprisingly, the evidence suggests not.
In fact, fiction appears to have a renewed importance in today’s society. This can perhaps be evidenced by the restored success of independent bookstores in recent years. Whilst 2016 marked the lowest number of independent bookstores on UK high streets since 1995, they have ever since been on the rise according to the Bookseller’s Association.
These stores, rather than just stocking and selling books, are tapping into increasing public demand for spaces where story-telling and literary discussion can flourish. From intimate book readings in Paris’ quirky Shakespeare & Company to a packed calendar of events in the infamous LGBTQ+ bookstore Gay’s the Word, independent bookstores serve as testaments to a perhaps growing need for community spaces in politically divisive times. Each independent bookstore has its niche – be that LGBTQ+ representation at Gay’s the Word, radical politics at Housmans or unheard female voices at Persephone Books – which in turn facilitates a discovery of marginalised or overlooked voices of the past and present.
fiction is now transcending the written page and acting as a tool of empowerment in oppressive times
For many, disenfranchisement with the current state of affairs has defined the past few years, and this is palpable in the fiction we’re seeing published. The publication of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, as a sequel to her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, felt perhaps more pertinent today in light of Donald Trump’s isolationist, androcentric politics than she could ever initially have anticipated.
Indeed, the sight of women dressed as handmaids at Trump protests earlier this year is one of particular poignancy, and demonstrates the frightening proximity of speculative dystopian fiction and modern-day reality. Yet, it’s also somehow inspiring to see how fiction is now transcending the written page and acting as a tool of empowerment in oppressive times.
This is perhaps the essence of the fiction of the past decade; its concerns are often tangibly and overtly derived from those of our society at large. So, as the climate clock keeps ticking, it is perhaps unsurprising that the past few years have given rise to a relatively new branch of science fiction in the form of the ‘cli-fi novel’: fiction that explores the impacts of climate change. By incorporating scientific fact, cli-fi asks readers to confront the problems associated with the anthropocentric focus of our world.
Cli-fi has become a vehicle for open exploration and discussion about a topic that, despite this year’s global climate movement, remains controversial. Books such as Ashley Shelby’s South Pole Station and Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour serve as powerful examples of this genre; the former in its exhibition of immense idiosyncratic scientific knowledge and the latter in its illustration of the complexities and obstacles posed by climate deniers within the ‘climate debate’.
Perhaps then, rather than having been damned into obsoletion by the cultural changes of the past decade, fiction has instead obtained a newfound purpose within the political climate of the era. Whether that means empowering people to protest, exposing the facts behind the climate crisis or starting conversations about under-represented issues, fiction is undeniably playing an active role in social movements.
As a tidal wave of Conservative MPs take their seats in Parliament and unstoppable fires rage across Australia, we welcome in the twenty-twenties with what many consider a frightening level of uncertainty. If fiction can act as an agent of change, it’s going to have its work cut out for it.
Image: freestocks.org via Unsplash