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Writing fiction cannot replace activism, but it can shine a light on problems that demand action, author Lauren Groff told students Wednesday. 

Paraphrasing the poet William Carlos Williams, Groff noted that although literature cannot save lives, it is still crucial to humanity: “Poetry has never saved a life, but men die every day for lack of it,” she said. 

“I do believe that fiction can make one slowly turn one’s eyes to the things that matter,” Groff told students during a virtual reading and Q&A. “And it has, since the inception of fiction as an art form. There is a lot of social progress that has happened because fiction writers have written about what’s important.” 

Groff, one of this year’s Bingham Visiting Writers, often features the effects of climate change and the danger and beauty of the natural world in her books, which include the novel Fates and Furies and the short story collection Florida. The environment in a given story is a source of internal and external influence on its characters, and serves as a powerful image. Groff said she avoids “apocalyptic” writing about climate—stories where one hero emerges to solve a major problem—because the issue requires collective action.

“Talking and writing about climate is not going to keep the glaciers from melting, but the constant awareness is what keeps you focused and moving in the right direction with other people,” she said.

Groff read a passage from her forthcoming novel, Matrix, which explores the interactions of power and environment in the life of a young French woman assigned to lead an impoverished English abbey and its nuns. 

Groff spent time with students in English classes during the day. The reading and Q&A was open to students and faculty involved in the Humanities Workshop, a consortium of Boston-area public and private schools. Founded by Milton English teachers Alisa Braithwaite and Lisa Baker, the Humanities Workshop studies major social issues through the lens of the humanities. This year, the workshop is focused on climate change and climate justice. The Bingham Endowment Fund for Creative Writing was established in 1987 to benefit the Creative Writing Program. The fund brings prominent authors to campus.