Saturday, April 16, 2011

Nature writing

This semester I get to/have to (some days I can't decide) write a 15-20 page essay on some element of craft in fiction. Thanks to my gift of indecision (too many interesting possibilities), I took well into the first month of the semester before I decided on a topic, and once I decided, I bought a ton of books and essays on such a thing called "ecocriticism." In the field of literature study (or any art form perhaps), you have different modes of criticism: historical criticism, deconstructionist criticism, feminist criticism, marxist criticism. In the last 40 years, ecocriticism has emerged as a way to view art:
If the creation of literature is an important characteristic of the human species, it should be examined carefully and honestly to discover its influence upon human behavior and the natural environment—to determine what role, if any, it plays in the welfare and survival of mankind and what insight it offers into human relationships with other species and with the world around us. Is it an activity which adapts us better to the world or one which estranges us from it? 
- Joseph Meeker in The Comedy of Survival
I examine four short stories for what they say about the human relationship to the world around us: "The Last Good Country," by Ernest Hemingway; "Theories of Rain," by Andrea Barrett; "Phantom Pain," by Lydia Peelle; and "The Boundary," by Wendell Berry. Below is an adaptation of my rough-draft introduction to the essay, a little introduction to what ecocriticism and nature writing are good for. Thanks for letting me wax a little academic on you.

Most studies of “nature writing” focus on non-fiction books and essays and the pastoral wilderness setting. But literary fiction has plenty to add to the conversation about the non-human living world of which we are a part. Many novels and short stories show the natural world playing an important role. Whether their authors intentionally wrote “eco-literature” or not, the writers have represented the land, plants, animals, or weather in the story’s world as a vital actor in the narrative. 

“Ecocriticism becomes most interesting and useful…when it aims to recover the environmental character or orientation of works whose conscious or foregrounded interests lie elsewhere” (Robert Kern in The ISLE Reader). Whether obvious or discreet, the environment acts upon the characters, and vice-versa, in a way that informs the reader about the characters, and ultimately about the reader him- or herself.

Fiction’s “made-up” narrative can often hold up a mirror truer than reality to remind us how intimately we are connected with the world around us. “Human beings are the earth’s only literary creatures,” writes Joseph Meeker in The Comedy of Survival. “From the unforgiving perspective of evolution and natural selection, does literature contribute more to our survival than it does to our extinction?” 

At the risk of sounding too utilitarian, eco-readers ask whether a piece of fiction is useful in teaching us how better to survive in the future, with as much of the earth still intact as possible. They might argue that fiction which regards the non-human world with only cursory interest, as a mere stage prop (or setting) for its human characters, tends to further the ego-centric view that has contributed to unchecked use of the resources we find in the world around us, with often disastrous consequences. 

On the other hand, fiction that quarrels with the dominant voice--the inherited ways of seeing the world--plumbs deeper than shared intellectual slogans of "going green" and contributes to a counter-cultural movement of eco-centric progress.

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