Over the weekend, I reviewed local Canberra author Irma Gold’s debut novel, The breaking, and described it as belonging to the eco-literature “genre”. I thought it might be interesting to explore this field a little more.
I’ll start with definitions, because, does it really exist? Wikipedia doesn’t have an article for eco-literature, but it does for ecofiction, which it describes as
the branch of literature that encompasses nature-oriented (non-human) or environment-oriented (human impacts on nature) works of fiction. While this super genre’s roots are seen in classic, pastoral, magical realism, animal metamorphoses, science fiction, and other genres, the term ecofiction did not become popular until the 1970s when various movements created the platform for an explosion of environmental and nature literature …
This definition is broad, and encompasses what I call “nature writing”. However, eco-literature, as I’m using it, accords more with definitions/discussions I found at a wide range of sites. They all say it differently, but the essence is that eco-literature, today, is largely used for works which the Carnegie Library describes as offering “a literary lens through which to explore the natural world and the many threats it faces in our modern world”. In other words, these books focus on “environmental issues” (my emph.), as The Conversation‘s Ti-han Chang says in “Five must read novels on the environment and climate crisis”.
The other point I’d like to make is that some, though not all, see this “genre” as encompassing all forms of literature. EcoLit Books keeps to fiction, calling it
a super-genre of writing that straddles all genres (mysteries, thrillers, literary, children’s). We often refer to it as “fiction with a conscience.” (their emph.)
However, The Wire’s Rajesh Subramanian, who wrote “Could Eco-Literature Be the Next Major Literary Wave?” in 2017, sees it as encompassing
the whole gamut of literary works, including fiction, poetry and criticism, which lay stress on ecological issues. Cli-fi (climate fiction), which deals with climate change and global warming, is logically a sub-set of eco-literature.
I like this, but now, having made this point, I’m focusing on fiction.
Eco-literature in Australia
While The Conversation is an Australian site, Ti-han Chang is based in England, and her five books are non-Australian. However, in 2016 Overland published an article by Rachel Fetherston on Australian eco-fiction. She starts from the point of view that the Australian population is indifferent to nature. Is this true? Anyhow, she asks:
can fiction play a role in enhancing our connection to local species and habitats? The expansion and appreciation of less anthropocentric and more ecocentric literary works may well be a silver bullet.
She argues that while Australia has a good tradition of ecocentric writing and ecophilosophical thought, it “pales” compared to that of the US where there’s been a dramatic rise in the humanities’ engagement in the issues. Australia, she says,
needs to provoke a more public and accessible discussion of the modern environmental crisis, and eco-fiction presents a powerful means of doing so. It is not too late for Australians to embrace ecophilosophy, especially in regard to our own specific environmental concerns. But how can such concerns be translated into fiction?
Fetherston just names a few books, including two dystopian novels, James Bradley’s Clade and Charlotte Wood’s The natural way of things (my review). Clade, she says, is “a world-shaking, cross-generational work of climate fiction that” presents “a truly Australian approach to climate change”, while Wood’s novel “is based strongly in ecophilosophical thought. Her characters become increasingly less human, more animalistic, and more connected to the landscape”.
Fetherston goes on to say that “depiction of the human as animal is … a theme that appears to be emerging more and more within our nation’s literary circles”. Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the Animals, she says, explores similar themes, though it’s “not focused specifically on Australian landscapes and animals”. Different, but related, I’d say, is Laura Jean Mackay’s The animals in that country, which won this year’s Victorian Prize for Literature and which looks at animals and their language from, say the critics, a new and non-anthropomorphic way.
Fetherston is clearly interested in this field because a year ago, she wrote an article for The Guardian. She quotes “renowned nature writer Robert Macfarlane” who “lamented” the deficient “creative response” to the climate crisis and who argued for the arts to be involved in debating, sensing and communicating the crisis. She names more books in this article, including two which look at the bushfire issue, Mireille Juchau’s The world without us and Alice Bishop’s collection of short stories, A constant hum (Kim’s review). Further, she writes, Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book (Lisa’s review) “addresses the strong ties between colonisation and climate catastrophe”.
I named a few books in my introduction to my review of The breaking, but I’d like to add a couple more here. Cassie Flanagan Willanski’s collection of short stories Here where we live (my review) draws strongly on the environment, with stories looking at it from various angles, including climate change, the impact of tourism on the environment, and caring for the environment. Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and light (my review), comprises three sections, of which the middle one, “Water”, is a long dystopian short-story which posits a future world populated with mutant plantpeople alongside humans.
Eco-literature might be more politically-focused than some environment literature, but it is still a rather broad church, and is, I believe, increasingly preoccupying our writers, for good and obvious reasons.
Fetherston ends the first article I quote, with
It is time for our writing and art to focus on the non-human: the increasingly vulnerable, apparently insignificant lives and habitats that make Australia’s natural heritage so special and sublime.
And, not just that, but critical to our physical and mental survival and well-being. I’m glad to see more and more writers embracing it, from multiple perspectives.
Now, over to you. Do you read “eco-literature”? And it so, tell us your favourites?