The last several decades have seen a remarkable turn toward cli-fi: novels and stories that imagine in various ways and seek to raise the alarm for the consequences of catastrophic climate change. But neoliberalism exerts a palpable force on today's publishing industry, making one question whether that industry is simply a cultured arm of the capitalist menace that threatens the ecological future of the planet. How ought we negotiate the tensions created between these different vectors at work in contemporary literary production?

The so-called "genre turn" in global literary fiction straddles this ambiguous intersection; the turn to popular genre forms can be understood, in part, as a consequence of the many contemporary writers who have found non-realistic genres useful in addressing speculative futures shaped by ecocide, and as a function of publishing companies' efforts to maximize short term profits. Genre helps the global conglomerates that dominate today's literary field minimize risk by imitating previous successes, targeting preexisting audiences, and emphasizing rapid production and repeat consumption: fast pace, seriality, sequels, and spinoffs.1 It's little surprise then, that under the conditions of the consolidated global publishing industry, literary fiction has come to more closely resemble, and be more readily adaptable to, the genre franchises that dominate film, TV, and video games. Whereas some critics have applauded "the genre turn" as a waning of elite prejudice against historically-derided genres,2 and have seen sophisticated works as an embrace of alternate forms and epistemologies that facilitate utopian imaginaries,3 this essay challenges such sanguine views. How does the industry's promotion of genre, and the corporate matrix through which its novels are marketed globally, compromise the political and aesthetic work of writers of cli-fi? How can a historically-oriented genre criticism attend to how the publishing industry's embeddedness in neoliberal conditions shapes and mediates the genres that it brings to market?

I first began thinking through these questions when writing about Ursula K. Le Guin's Lavinia, a minor character elaboration that recounts the events of Virgil's Aeneid from the perspective of the epic hero's wife. Le Guin published this anti-war novel in 2008, when it was clear that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was founded on falsified evidence and producing an unmitigated disaster. But the book came out under an imprint of Hachette, which at the time was a subsidiary of the French conglomerate Lagardère, which owns major television and radio stations, publishes Harlequin France, Elle, and Paris Match magazines. Lagardère was, until 2012 (such mergers and sell-offs happen fast), the largest private French shareholder of EADS, the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company, a multinational high-tech partnership that owns Airbus and manufactures everything from communications satellites to cruise missiles and pilotless drones. It should be no surprise that the capital of the culture industry is impossible to separate from that of any other industry. But thinking about that imbrication forces to the fore some difficult questions, like: how do we evaluate the politics of an anti-war novel published by a media conglomerate that is owned by a defense contractor?

A similar tension emerges when we turn to media and corporate ecologies through which contemporary cli-fi is produced and circulated. If literary and cultural scholars are interested in neoliberalism, I think we ought to concern ourselves not only with how certain texts and genres specify or represent or formally register the conditions of neoliberalism, or how such texts and genres and their formal strategies enable us to imagine alternatives to these conditions. If we are interested in neoliberalism, we ought also to examine the force neoliberal conditions, like the consolidation of the global publishing industry into the hands of several mega-conglomerates and the monopolistic retail dominance of Amazon, exert on contemporary literary production and consumption: on authorial choices, on publication and marketing practices, and consequently on what a wide array of far-flung readerships tend to buy and read. Sarah Brouillette and David Thomas make a similar point in a critique of the Warwick Research Collective's Combined and Uneven Development, which undertakes a new theory of world literature. The Collective formulates its theory without touching on the role of the global publishing industry in producing and disseminating that literature. Brouillette and Thomas posit, sensibly, that: "if you leave the mediating factor of the nature of the production of culture out of your analysis, you risk leaving out some crucial dimensions of your object; that is, some crucial dimensions of the world-literary itself perhaps cannot be understood in the absence of analysis of the global production of literary works targeted at selected readerships."4 If this premise has merit, then I think there is a lot of work to do as the Warwick Collective's omission is a commonplace one. Take, for another example, a Post45 forum last year dedicated to "Forms of the Global Anglophone."5 In the course of seven articles on this topic, there was not a single mention of the predominant "mediating factor" that is the global publishing industry. Whereas, if you ask me, "the Global Anglophone" signifies nothing more accurately than the literature that is written or translated into English, and produced and circulated globally via that industry. Undoubtedly, a great deal of the conspicuous absence of the industry can be attributed to scholars' resistance to the hegemony of the English language and to the neo-imperialist practices of corporations based in Western metropoles practices that are carried out under the banner of the global. And yet, I would contend that studying such practices, and texts that circulate in English, need not reinforce this hegemony that we can study how such corporations mediate the literary today through a critical lens, and can better formulate our critique when we have a better understanding of its object.

If we want to examine the ways neoliberal trajectories have resulted in the economization of the cultural sphere, and see what that economization looks like in practice, we might begin by looking at some of the effects of consolidation in the publishing industry, and how its increasing movement toward monopoly ramifies in the practices of today's mega-publishers. Conglomeration is a major feature of the neoliberal period, and while monopoly is viewed in economic terms as a win for efficiency, it has often been thought to have deleterious effects on culture and freedom of thought. When we look at several of the initiatives that Penguin Random House has undertaken since their 2013 merger, a few trends resolve into view. First is the way the umbrella structure of today's mega-publishers allows it to use specialized imprints to trade on the symbolic capital of prestigious literary brand names. Secondly, that structure allows it to tailor its products to local markets and identity groups that the industry reconceives as target publics. Thirdly, we see the economization and commodification of cultural goods, such as ecological consciousness and the value of the canonical literary tradition. Here is where, one might suspect, cli-fi also fits in; just as global publishers successfully market otherness and exoticism, bringing a diverse range of voices to readers in Western metropoles, are they also keen to provide green alternatives to educated readerships with whom books with an environmental bent will resonate?

To see how the imprint system functions within conglomerate publishing, take for example Penguin Random House's launch of its Hogarth Shakespeare series in 2015, for which it commissioned an all-star roster of contemporary writers to novelize the Shakespeare play of their choice, annexing the brand names of those writers to that of the biggest of all time, as well as to the illustrious history of Hogarth Press, founded by Leonard and Virginia Woolf in 1917. After its storied history publishing modernist works that commercial houses would be unlikely to take on, and after Virginia's death, Leonard sold the press to Chatto and Windus in 1946. Random House, owned by German media giant Bertelsmann, acquired Chatto in 1987, and merged its operations with Penguin in 2013. Penguin Random promptly resuscitated the Hogarth imprint as "a home for a fresh generation of literary talent."6 Hogarth demonstrates the way the umbrella structure of corporate publishing preserves prestigious imprints as subsidiaries that cater to niche audiences, and retains storied names in publishing to plaster on the spines of books. The very word "imprint" captures perfectly the symbolic authentication operating here, making it seem as if the Woolfs themselves gave the series their stamp of approval.

Penguin Random is well-aware of the way such imprints allow it to maintain a variety of brand identities, each of which is supposed to have creative independence. Consider copy from PR's release of its new corporate wordmark, which it says

underscores the importance of the written word to the company's culture and work and will most often be paired with one of Penguin Random House's 250 widely recognized and respected publishing divisions, imprints, and brands. The brand system... is flexible and can be employed not just at the publishing level, but also territorially. The imprints and brand symbols also can continue to stand alone without the brand-system pairing for example, on the spines of books. The visual connection between the wordmark and each publishing symbol creates a mutually enhancing and reinforcing brand identity for both. On the one hand, it denotes the global scale and reach of Penguin Random House, and on the other, it showcases the individuality and creativity of the company's diverse publishing portfolio. This unifying visual synthesis represents the singular ability of Penguin Random House to nurture a universal passion for reading by publishing the very best books for all ages and interests, and connecting them to the widest readership worldwide.7

In this revealing copy for the release of a trademark we see how the claim to cultural value persists within this highly economized context. The conglomerate asserts its global territorial reach and brand identity, but also its commitments to the "written word," to "nurturing a universal passion for reading," and to publishing quality literature: "the best books for all ages and interests."

Not content with the brand names of literary celebrities alone, Penguin Random recently launched SJP for Hogarth, harnessing the reputation for taste Sarah Jessica Parker obtained by playing a writer and shoe connoisseur on TV, to the editorial brilliance of Molly Stern who published The Martian, Gone Girl, and Ready Player One, but has since left Penguin for Hachette. And while it might be easy to dismiss such a venture as the publisher's obvious effort capitalize on our celebrity-obsessed culture, it also testifies to the important role gatekeepers continue to play within the book trade. Here the recommendations of a trusted taste-maker like SJP help guide consumers through the flood of contemporary literary production.

We also see Penguin Random's use of its vast array of imprints around the globe for initiatives like the construction of the Struik Nature Library, a collection of field guides and nature books, at the Jan Marais Nature Reserve Eco Centre in Stellenbosch, South Africa, on Earth Day 2014, through its imprint Struik. Again, it is easy to dismiss the sponsorship of such an initiative as a case of green-washing, and it surely also is that. But the environmental and cultural politics of a corporation founding an institution like a nature library are complex. Here we see the promotion of environmental education and literature, but also an initiative that bears all the marks of sustainability or "socially responsible development," a hallmark of neoliberal efforts to source environmental stewardship in the private sphere.

Finally, in this thin sampling of its global ventures, we see Penguin Random expanding into East Asian markets.8 PRH East Asia's initial catalogue in October 2018 offered some 90 titles in English. Here their copy boasts that "because the further opening of the Southeast Asian market for international literature is to be accompanied by the promotion of local writers, the authors in Penguin Random House SEA's debut catalog include literary voices from Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Korea, and India, as well as the United States." As to the genres of such a venture, Penguin Random says its "adult nonfiction" will "feature a comprehensive selection of books on economy, self-help, business management, spirituality, global issues, technology and much more." While "the fiction section for adults is a mix of exciting works in thriller, fantasy, essays and anthologies, drama, short stories and other genres." Penguin Random House SEA also claims it will have "a major focus on children's and young-adult literature. With a view to encouraging a love for reading."9 Again we see how literary values, like the love of reading and the promotion diverse local voices, persist, if in transformed shape, in the business plan of the conglomerate. We also see, in Penguin Random's acquisitions of worldwide imprints, one way in which the publishing industry follows neoliberal logics of perpetual expansion and growth: keep producing different kinds of products, in all genres, and keep expanding into new markets, particularly those of the Anglophone world.

To what extent do these production conditions influence the writing of contemporary fiction? Having posited the necessity of reassessing our reading of the politics of cli-fi by taking into account the neoliberal publishing matrix through which that fiction is produced and circulated, I want to briefly show that the tension I have outlined is something today's writers of cli-fi wrestle with, and that it produces an agonized relation to their own work, which can be detected within their novels. Across the field of contemporary cli-fi, we see writers depicting and critiquing neoliberal conditions but also meditating on their own books' commodity status and worrying over the ineffectiveness of literary texts and the seeming impossibility to intervene meaningfully in those conditions. My primary example here will be Chang-Rae Lee's 2014 novel On Such a Full Sea. But one can see similar worries expressed in David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas (2004), Margaret Atwood's Maddaddam Trilogy, and Octavia Butler's Parable novels all books put out by what are now Penguin Random imprints. Cloud Atlas has often been lauded for its global and transhistorical vision of colonial and capitalist exploitation, and for its environmental consciousness. But it also savages a publishing industry that is ever more concerned with celebrity authors and scandal, in its "Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish" sections, and while the novel's interlocking or nested narratives form an ingenious structure, they also dramatize a series of misfires in reading and reception, where the power of the narratives we read is lost on their readers or viewers within the novel. This is most dramatic in the "Sloosha's Crossing" section, in which the Sonmi story is delivered in a language that Zachry cannot understand, and he only registers as a "beautsome" shimmering.10 Both Atwood's and Butler's novels depict the disastrous consequences of neoliberal deregulation, privatization, and monopoly to the point where private contractors have replaced all functions that were once reserved for government entities. At the same time, in these novels, few people read anymore, making the poems of the God's Gardeners and Lauren Olamina's Earthseed psalms another set of texts that are legible to us but impossible to circulate meaningfully within the novels' diegetic worlds. Additionally, Atwood's at-least-half-mocking depiction of the green ideology of the God's Gardeners looks to betray an ambivalence about, if not an undermining of, her own novel's ecological agenda.

In Lee's On Such a Full Sea, refugees have fled the poisoned rivers of their homeland to work in a labor colony in "New China," in the formerly-blighted U.S. city of "B-Mor," where they farm fish in giant tanks as the oceans have been rendered inhospitable to marine life for consumption in the elite "Charter" communities. The novel follows Fan, the best diver in B-Mor, as she leaves the safety of the labor colony to find her missing boyfriend Reg and travels through the anarchic "Counties," and into the Charters billionaire enclaves that look a little like today's Silicon Valley. Here we see a satire of hipster authenticity and the exploitative practices of corporations. Fan finds her brother, now a billionaire software, who attempts to construct a mansion that resembles the gritty B-Mor of his youth. And we learn that drug companies may have kidnapped Reg and have designs on Fan's unborn child, because the companies suspect Reg and the fetus may have a mysterious immunity to cancer, or C, which kills everyone in the novel's world sooner or later.

But in many ways the more significant drama of On Such a Full Sea is that of the struggle of the people of B-Mor, who narrate the novel in the first-person plural, to maintain the coherence of their "we." This corporate narrator is a cunning choice on Lee's part, committed as the B-Mors are, to their communal labor ideology, in which individuality is sacrificed for the good of the community, and the community takes pride in the unparalleled quality of the fish it produces for elite consumers in the Charters. But as Fan and Reg inexplicably depart and a rumor circulates that B-Mor fish might cause C, the price of fish plummets, sending the B-Mors into a crisis that shakes their once-unified communal spirit. And the legend of Fan's adventures threatens to further undermine their commitment to labor on behalf of the uber-wealthy Charters.

But early on in the novel, the narrators admit that "the story of what happened after" Fan departs, the story that occupies most of the novel, "is well-known, or at least it has been recounted by everyone in B-Mor...many times over...." The narrators admit they "can't help but build on what [little] is known" about Fan: "our elaborations not fantastical or untrue but at times vulnerable to our wishes for her, and for ourselves."11 The story of Fan thus becomes admittedly a fiction the B-Mors tell themselves. And while Fan becomes something of a folk hero, the fictionality of her exploits notwithstanding, inspiring a mild unrest in the community despite her mythic status, the narrators wonder if her story will produce more than a trivial ripple on their sea, if they will soon "have forgotten how impassioned we became along with the details of the cause."12 By the end of the novel spoiler here the price of fish rises, and the narrators think "this period of disturbance, would appear to have passed. It's like a dream irrepressibly vivid and captivating when it was happening but now nearly impossible to remember, not just its details but the very fact of it. We just slept through it is the sensation."13 Here, Lee betrays some anxiety that even the most inspiring fictions will not undermine the systems they circulate through, from the inside, but merely offer "vivid and captivating" dreams that become impossible to remember when we wake. If this is any indication, writers of contemporary cli-fi may recognize that their works may only cause faint ripples on the rising seas of our neoliberal present.

On Such a Full Sea imagines a future shaped by climate catastrophe. At the same time, it prompts us, in depicting the circulation of Fan's story and its social insignificance relative to the price of fish, to account for the ways that the political effects of popular narratives are mediated and indeed constrained by the social and economic contexts in which they are produced and consumed. Cli-fi writers like Lee thus affirm the argument of Brouillette and Thomas, that literary and cultural scholars interested in neoliberalism or climate catastrophe must consider "the mediating factor of the nature of the production of culture," in evaluating the political work of literary texts.14 We must balance our interrogation of the politics expressed within such texts with a recognition of how those texts function in the global literary marketplace and serve the neoliberal interests and practices of conglomerates like Penguin Random House: expansion into new markets, leveraging of contemporary or canonical celebrity brand names, use of genre as a tool to minimize risk, and cooption of literary value and green politics.

Jeremy Rosen is Associate Professor of English at the University of Utah. His first book, Minor Characters Have Their Day: Genre and the Contemporary Literary Marketplace, was published as part of Columbia's "Literature Now" series in 2016, and his current project "Genre Bending" considers the adoption of forms of popular genre fiction by acclaimed writers of literary fiction.


  1. See Jeremy Rosen, Minor Characters Have Their Day: Genre in the Contemporary Literary Marketplace (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019). []
  2. See, most prominently, Lev Grossman, "Literary Revolution in the Supermarket Aisle: Genre Fiction Is Disruptive Technology," Time, May 23, 2012, []
  3. See, for two prominent examples: Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (London: Verso, 2005); Ramón Saldívar, "Historical Fantasy, Speculative Realism, and Postrace Aesthetics in Contemporary American Fiction," American Literary History 23 no. 3 (Fall 2011), 574-599.[]
  4. Sarah Brouillette and David Thomas, "First Responses," Comparative Literature Studies 53, no. 3 (2016) 505-534; 511.[]
  5. See[]
  6. See more information about Hogarth here.[]
  7. "Penguin Random House Debuts Global Brand Identity, Underscores Commitment to Creative Core," Penguin Random House, June 3, 2014.[]
  8. "Broadcasting & Informing, Giving Voice to Authors & Ideas," Penguin, July 11, 2018.[]
  9. "Penguin Random House South East Asia Unveils Debut Publishing Program," Penguin, March 6, 2019.[]
  10. David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas (New York: Random House, 2004), 309.[]
  11. Chang-Rae Lee, On Such a Full Sea (New York: Riverhead, 2014), 38.[]
  12. Ibid, 342.[]
  13. Ibid, 390.[]
  14. My thinking here is also indebted to the argument John Guillory made back in 1993, that the canon debate was "limited by its reduction of the political to the instance of representation," and "still lacks an analysis of how the institutional site of canonical revision [the academy, higher education] mediates its political effects in the social domain." See John Guillory, Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993), 8. []