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CULTURE | 09-10-2019 15:00

The laboratory of now: how literature deals with disaster

Distinguished authors Jonathan Lethem and M. John Harrison discuss contemporary life and literature at FILBA literature festival, sparking debate over the creation of fiction among chaos.

“The laboratory of now.”

So responded renowned United States author Jonathan Lethem, when asked last weekend how he would entitle this moment of living in constant confrontation with disaster. 

After hearing from some of the pre-eminent minds in the arts at the International Festival of Literature in Buenos Aires (FILBA) this past week, Lethem’s title seems apt. It not only describes the present, it covers the circumstances surrounding the rapidly evolving nature of contemporary literature.

“Disaster is already here,” professed acclaimed British science-fiction author M. John Harrison in an interview with Lethem two weekends ago at the festival. “Who wants to read disaster when they’re living through it?” 

What Harrison encapsulates herein is the paradigm of the literary moment. When outside lurks a hyper-polarised culture, dominated by hyper-conservative, hyper-isolationist leaders, what role can the literary world play? Are they to be facilitators of disaster, assisting the public in the digestion of a new reality, or rather, creating spaces for escape from the chaos that is the 21st century?

Lethem’s take was to explore the ability of the arts to reduce; to create a space whereto one can escape in order to understand.

“It’s a controllable universe—the world of literature—it’s a world of equipping yourself to cope with reality. Reality is vastly more disjointed and unfair and extensive. The size of experience, the complexity of experience: these things are all reduced in the arts. Even if it’s supposedly dark and confronts you with the intricacies of something very difficult, the truth is it’s also a form of coping. It’s a lens for thinking about these things.”

The question is: how can one write through, from inside of disaster. What more can a writer do than observe; document; publish? 

Modern evolutions

Disaster is not new, but the pace of it, its ubiquity, access to it: these are uniquely modern evolutions. 

At the event, Lethem and Harrison spoke of historically tenuous moments as invigorating spaces through which to create. However, they were then asked if the current moment produced a feeling to the contrary—a kind of creative paralysis.

“Yeah,” Harrison responded, inevitably calling forth quiet laughter from the audience. “I feel it every day, as I wake up now. And, every two or three days, I ask myself the question: ‘Given the way I’ve learned to write and given the context I’ve learned to write inside, what on Earth can I contribute?’” 

The 74-year-old continued, attempting to explain this debilitating sensation: “It may well be you spend your life [pause] anticipating the disaster – that you write fiction that is anticipatory of the disaster. But, it tells you nothing about how to write once the disaster is actually happening around you.”

On the fear that follows being a writer in the modern era, the author of the 'Kefahuchi Tract trilogy' contemplated: “I’m 75 years old. I’ve spent my entire career, my entire life since 20 writing in a certain way to encounter a certain set of political circumstances, and they are blown away.” 

The auditorium hung silent in the profundity of Harrison’s lament. It was broken only by his concluding chide, “So if anybody could help me with that, I’d be very grateful.”

After acknowledging the remarkableness of the British author's response, Lethem – the author of the award-winning Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude – attempted to offer a bit of hope, not only to the questioner but perhaps also to the man whose work, as he made clear from the start of the event, he greatly admired. 

“Everything I know tells me that I’m part of a species that is collective, intersubjective. That we make realities, we make communities, we make ourselves—what we mistake for our individual selves—out of the spaces between us, and that this is the answer to almost every one of my loneliest and darkest thoughts.”


In a time when artists, writers and perhaps all sentient creatures are constantly confronted with disaster and yet expected to continue on, there is hope in the greater machine of creation—this aggregate body of art. In the lonely pursuit of answers, the collective dialogue grows. And thus, the need to be understood as greater than the individual self is paramount, now more than ever. 

“There’s an immense value in historical understanding,” Lethem, 55, explained. “It shows you that the world is transforming under your ground at all times, and the assumptions of present day fiction are only assumptions that are unstable.”

This instability is in fact producing a generation of writers, whose formative years occur inside disaster, that seek to read and create literary forms capable of reflecting and interrogating a multitude of chaos.

“My younger students—they’re not interested in ordinary prosaic realism. They need something that interrogates, that uproots it and shows the instabilities that are part of our present experience,” he added.

It is precisely this sentiment that has led him to his title of the current moment: this laboratory of the now.

“There’s my title,” he proclaimed, “That’s the moment we’re living in. Everything is an experiment.” 

Sara Gierc

Sara Gierc

Writer and undergraduate student at New York University studying English literature and creative writing.


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