The Novel Way: A Discussion on Genre

2013 is seeing the new literary term ‘cli-fi’ (climate-fiction) trending. On Friday May 31st 2013 The Guardian’s Rodge Glass gave a concise history of the genre cli-fi which has been said to have been the cause of debate regarding its place in the literary world.

Glass considers all literary terms to be reductive and all labels simplistic and questions just how far the new term can go to encourage people to read fiction on the subject of climate change. The debate revolving around the confinement of (fictional) literature to a genre or multiplicity of genres has been of great interest to me and I will go on to discuss how cli-fi can work within the general debate. Some (non cli-fi) literary novels that fuel the debate for me in particular are:

1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte


Classified by some as a Victorian novel and by others as a romance novel, as well as many other options, there is no clear cut genre in which this novel is placed in. Critics often choose to focus their views on the novel’s most popular genres (these possibly being Romance, Bildungsroman and Victorian as well as a consideration of Gothicism being present.) Critic Jessica Cox notes that a response by Bronte to G. H. Lewes’s “offers one possible explanation for the confusion of genres in Jane Eyre, and suggests that while Bronte favoured realism, she was forced to adopt the conventions of more sensational genres in order to find favour with publishers.” As a female writer Bronte was faced with patriarchal opposition with regards to her career and not only did she have to write under the alias of a man (Currer Bell) but also had to impress publishers by writing about subjects that would be favourable with male readers.

2. Tomorrow When the War Began by John Marsden (The Tomorrow Series: Book One)


Published by Macmillan Children’s Books, the classification of the novel as a children’s book is questionable, what with the mention of group orgies as a possibility on the camping trip at the beginning. Perhaps classifying it as a novel for young adults is more suitable.

Fictional literature, if any good, is written with a view that it should be open to a degree of personal interpretation from the reader. One person might for instance, perceive William Golding’s Lord of the Flies to be about a struggle to maintain law and order on the island where a group of boys are confined with little or no hope of rescue. Another reader might choose to examine the postcolonial aspects (i.e. the negative perceptions that the colonisers (England) had against those they colonised) that the text offers. And of course some readers will not consider the two aspects as mutually exclusive, but see them as working in tandem. Therefore the same room for personal interpretation should be allowed to exist for genre classification.

Genre classification does have its place in literature as Rodge Glass explains that “whenever a literary term gains traction it is a chance to examine not only what it says about the writers who explore the new ground but also the readers who buy it, read it, discuss it.” Understanding the target audience for a novel is important if novels are to be read and if the writers are to get the credit they deserve. Genre classification serves this purpose quite well.

Does it look likely that novels dealing with climate change and global warming will become popular now a label has been attached to them? Nathaniel Rich whose novel Odds Against Tomorrow appears to be acknowledged as cli-fi believes that “we will increasingly see more novels that incorporate ecological themes as more people begin, or are forced, to contemplate the catastrophic ways in which we have transformed the planet.” However it seems that some people are apprehensive that the subject matter presented as fiction will gain the interest of publishers who have been said to ‘glaze over’ when climate change is mentioned, according to Caroline Michel. It is hard enough to sell non-fiction books on the topic!

Both sides of the argument regarding the general necessity for genre are equally interesting. Personally I believe genre classification does have a tendency to increase the potential for some novels to go unread by people who would readily consider reading the novel if they knew that their favourite topics were covered in the novel but are put off by certain genre types they personally consider to be unfavourable. However without some classification of sorts it would be hard, if not harder, to determine who is reading what and how they come across what they are reading. This is the case particularly with the emergence of climate-fiction and it is essential for the survival of the novels that deal with climate change and global warming to have a classification in order to give some indication of its popularity or possible lack thereof. Perhaps our libraries and bookstores need to be a bit more liberal with where they place their numerous copies of novels so they serve all the potential genres in one novel and can reach more people. This ought to be the case with underrated or emerging novels in particular.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. robinson

    I enjoyed reading this article but… it’s apparent that “cli-fi” is nothing new, we just have a new buzz-word to describe it. I don’t like the term (my mind associates it with “clitoris fiction”, of the appalling Fifty Shades type). But we do need a new genre.

    As the world knowingly embraces climate destruction, and we reap the whirlwind, islands will be lost, coastlines, then streets and cities flooded. Continents may perhaps become lethal or altogether uninhabitable, and eventually, a much reduced mankind may be reduced to living in polar colonies, or on space platforms orbiting our once abundant planet.

    As that happens – like a global, inevitable, unstoppable, slow motion car crash – authors will more fully focus on the actual decay and destruction around them, and their observational fiction may not neatly slot into the overcrowded dystopian / apocalyptic / post-apocalyptic genres, alongside Planet of the Apes, Level 7, or The Day of the Triffids, et al.

    So yeah, a new genre, to reflect new times. O brave new world!

    • Tanya Kaur

      Cli-fi has recently been plagiarised according to its originator Dan Bloom who created the term in 2007 and therefore it emerges more and more now than it did 5-6 years ago.

      I do agree that it helps to have this genre as our planet and the environment becomes a forum for debate each day.

      Thank you for reading 🙂

  2. Norminton

    Look up Finnish writer Risto Isomäki, who has published many cli-fi novels. I am sure some of them have been translated too. One is “Sarasvatin hiekkaa” (could be loosely translated as “Sands of Sarasvati”). It had interesting ideas,

  3. Filiberto Crinklaw

    Continuing the discussing of ‘cli-fi’, I’ve always thought that climate change is best dealt with in a ‘lit-fic’ manner rather than in Science Fiction (and I speak as an SF fan) simply because of its nature. Unlike nuclear apocalypse, it isn’t a ‘novum’ – a big convulsion after which the world has forever changed.

    Instead, it will doubtless play out more like a mid-life crisis – creeping up on us in increments until one event or another (the introduction of rationing, the evacuation of a port city) makes you look up and notice that – like our own mortality, it’s already bearing down on you, there’s was never going to have been anything you could have done about it and the situation you’ve got yourself at this point in is nobody else’s fault but your own…

  4. Dan BLoom

    good post and I like the cli fi genre term, and the future will decide whether it is a subgenre of sci fi or a genre of its own. We shall see. Good post, BRAVO and all the comments too!

  5. Danny Bloom

    YAHOO MOVIE NEWS TODAY “sci fi cli fi we all cry THE END IS NIGH”

  6. Danny Bloom

    YAHOO MOVIE NEWS TODAY “sci fi cli fi we all cry THE END IS NIGH”

  7. Danny Bloom

    FC, good comment above re NOVUM, yes. So …Nathaniel Rich’s new novel, would it be called CLI FI or LIT FIC? I just read it this week, very well worth reading, but more comedic and snarky and comic than a serious climate novel but very well written, so maybe LIT FIC. Tell me if you read it. the ideas of NOVUM is very well worth exploring MORE

  8. Tanya Kaur

    I’m really happy how people are personally interpreting the genres that novels are classified within.

    Thank you all for the comments.

  9. Nilson Thomas Carroll

    Late post, but: I had never heard of cli-fi until I read this article. I wonder if it’s still a term used now (in 2014). I’ll have to google it later…

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