Amitav Ghosh coined the term “petrofiction” as the title of his review of Abdelraman Munif’s quintet of novels Cities of Salt in the March 1992 issue of The New Republic. There Ghosh pointed out just how few novels about the “Oil Encounter” between the United States and the Middle East had up until then ever been written. Munif’s work was, in Ghosh’s view, the exception proving the rule that “the history of oil is a matter of embarrassment verging on the unspeakable, the pornographic.” But if in 1992 Ghosh meant by petrofiction simply a fiction directly concerned with the oil industry, then, in a 2012 issue of the American Book Review with a titular focus on “petrofiction,” Imre Szeman argued that the term ought to be construed far more capaciously – and controversially – as a grand new periodizing gesture. Munif’s Cities of Salt and Upton Sinclair’s Oil! are self-evidently petrofictions in Ghosh’s sense, because they are explicitly about oil. But if, as Graeme MacDonald speculates in the same issue, “all modern writing is premised on both the promise and the hidden costs and benefits of hydrocarbon culture,” then “is not all fiction from, say, The Great Gatsby (1925) to The Corrections (2001) ‘oil’ fiction?”
What prompts Szeman and MacDonald to reposition petrofiction as a literary period instead of a genre? In the two decades between Ghosh’s petrofiction and Szeman’s, the oil era became retrospectively more visible with the rise to prominence of environmentalist discourses. By the turn of the twenty-first century, the consequences of the productive and demographic explosion of the Great Acceleration since 1950, enabled largely by the burning of hydrocarbons, became much clearer, and more disturbing. With the popular introduction of the concept of the Anthropocene Era in 2000, a new environmental awareness emerged: that petroleum is not an infinite energy resource, and that, even if it were, it cannot continue to be burned at the current rate without causing the earth’s climate to change in ways we are not fully able to predict, and to which we may not even be able to adapt. What will it mean to the way we read cultural works that they were created under the shadow of a transformation – wrought and accelerated by the widespread burning of hydrocarbons, and, crucially, felt most by those least responsible – about which they were largely unaware, but in which they were almost wholly imbricated?
The concept of petrofiction originally denoted fictions explicitly about oil; two decades later it was extended to mean fictions written during petromodernity, a period that stretches as far back in some definitions as the early industrial era in the 1750s. Petrocriticism, then, is that branch of literary criticism specializing in petromodernity for which the concept of the “energy regime” is the most significant mode of historical and literary-historical periodizing; to paraphrase Patricia Yaeger, instead of the political unconscious, petrocriticism supposes the energy unconscious. We might say that petrocriticism is a name for the intersection where climate change (see Jennifer Wenzel’s entry) collides with literary criticism by way of the hermeneutics of suspicion (see Rita Felski’s entry). A petrocritic may be someone looking to say something about texts about oil; she may also be looking for oil in cultural places where it is otherwise unspoken or unspeakable, at once too close, too far, and too immense to be immediately perceptible; and she may be looking, in fictions, for the profoundly uneven distribution of oil’s benefits and consequences to peoples and territories around the globe.
Ghosh, Amitav. “Petrofiction.” The New Republic 2 March 1992: 29-33.
Macdonald, Graeme. “Oil and World Literature.” American Book Review March-April 2012: 7 and 31.
Szeman, Imre. “Introduction to Focus: Petrofictions.” American Book Review March-April 2012: 3.
Yaeger, Patricia. “Editor’s Column: Literature in the Ages of Wood, Tallow, Coal, Whale Oil, Gasoline, Atomic Power, and Other Energy Sources.” PMLA 126.2 (2011): 305-326.