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Monday musings on Australian literature: Eco-literature

May 24, 2021
Book cover

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.

Definitions

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?

Charlotte Wood, The natural way of things

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”.

Cassie Flanagan Willanski, Here where we live

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?

28 Comments leave one →
  1. May 24, 2021 23:39

    The mother of eco-Lit is “of course” Ursula Le Guin with The Word for World is Forest.
    Here in Oz I think older writers had a very good appreciation of the Bush, but probably saw it as unchanging (drought notwithstanding). Think Miles Franklin, Joseph Furphy, Eve Langley. None of them seemed to see large scale land clearing as creating problems for the future, for instance, though salt pans and huge gullies from erosion were soon apparent.
    Eco-Lit is probably a post-60s thing.
    And let me put in a plug for Jess White who is working on an eco-fiction novel as we speak and whose A Curious Intimicay was an interesting look at early nature writing.

    • May 25, 2021 08:10

      I haven’t read her, Bill (I know, I know) but if I’d been writing internationally I would as kso gave had to mention Margaret Atwood, perhaps as her successor in speculative fiction.

      Good point re our earlier writers. One person born in the 19th century with an awareness of the threats to nature, to forests in particular, is the Scottish American John Muir. He has to be on the broader (ie incl. Non-fiction) EcoLit pantheon.

      Generally though I agree that EcoLit as we know it is a post-1960s thing.

    • May 25, 2021 08:11

      Oh, and thanjs re Jessica White. I must read A curious intimacy. I do look forward to her next books, as I know this area interests her.

  2. May 25, 2021 03:02

    I’m surprised at that comparison between the levels of interest between USA and Australia about eco issues as reflected in literature. The way the USA economy operates flies in the face of climate concerns. It’s built upon the car, with little alternatives in the way of public transport beyond the metropolitan cities, Getting Americans to give up their vehicles and aircon is a mammoth task.

    Anyway, I shall get off my soapbox (cardboard not plastic) and get back to the real topic of eco fiction 🙂 That definition by EcoLitBooks wasn’t rather all encompassing. “fiction with a conscience.” doesn’t just cover environmental issues – what about gender inequality, racial equality, poverty, forced marriages etc etc…..

    • May 25, 2021 08:19

      Thanks Karen. I think America, perhaps more than some places, is a land of huge contrasts, so both attitudes to ecological life and thought sit side-by-side. Think John Muir, Thoreau etc. Their tradition remains I think?

      Good point re that definition. You are right. I susoect, though, that they weren’t intending to mean the “only” fiction with a conscience but that one of the definitive aspects of this writing is conscience? That sentence could sound exclusive though I can see.

      • May 28, 2021 03:43

        True, its very much a divided nation. Californians will be much more well disposed to the eco arguments than those in Texas given the latter’s economic wellbeing is so tied to oil.

  3. May 25, 2021 06:41

    Most interesting, ST ..
    I feel that this genre must be referred to as […]-literature because only those willing to READ ‘literature’ will enjoy it.
    But that’s just me .. 😉

    • May 25, 2021 08:25

      Do you think M-R? I think you are putting too high a plane on “literature”? Also, I think many writers in this area want people to enjoy it, so they strive to write enjoyable, accessible fiction. Irma Gold expressly said in the conversation I wrote up that she’d like her book to raise awareness in people and to encourage them to think about travel and how they engage with another culture, but above all she hopes people will enjoy reading her book.

  4. May 25, 2021 08:57

    There are 12 tagged Cli-Fi reviewed on my blog, all but two are Australian. (Judging by publicity emails I get, I suspect that there’s a lot more in genre fiction, but I don’t review that.) See https://anzlitlovers.com/category/category/clifi/

    First and foremost, there’s Richard Flanagan’s The Living Sea of Waking Dreams, which is angry about the indifference the critic suggested; then, Wolfe Island, by Lucy Treloar; Daughter of Bad Times, by Rohan Wilson; The Glad Shout, by Alice Robinson; Dyschronia, by Jennifer Mills; Sannah and the Pilgrim, by Sue Parritt (which is Sci-Fi for Bill); Anchor Point, by Alice Robinson; A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, by Jane Rawson; plus, as you mention above, The Swan Book.
    I wouldn’t have tagged The Natural Way of Things as eco-lit. If it was, I missed the message!

    • May 25, 2021 09:05

      Lisa, Sannah has space ships! But I agree with you about TNWOT. Not sure about the Swan Book – its theme is anti-mining.

      • May 25, 2021 09:22

        I was wondering anti-mining, Bill, and would throw in Madelaine Dickie’s Red can origami. I think they do fit because why are we anti-mining? Surely it’s largely, to do with environmental destruction in one way or another?

      • May 25, 2021 13:45

        Published in 2014 Sannah is an early example of cli-fi. (From my review):
        “The world of the 25th century created by Parritt is more grim than any of the predictions we’ve seen, but it’s based on an entirely possible situation. Australia is reduced to desert, with agriculture possible only in the northern states, peopled by the brown-skinned descendants of environmental refugees from Pacific islands lost to the rising seas. Power rests in the hands of the Whites down south, and they enforce submission to this apartheid with an arrogant military force.”

        • May 25, 2021 18:04

          That’s fascinating Lisa. I thought agriculture is more likely to be only possible down in Tassie, but I haven’t researched this issue. Should we all be moving north!

    • May 25, 2021 09:16

      Thanks Lisa. I have quite a few Cli-fi tagged on my blog too, mostly Australian, but not as many as you I think. BTW I was surprised by The natural way of things, but I can see Fetherston’s argument, though it’s not central to the sort of eco-lit I think of. It’s political about people and animals in a different way.

  5. May 25, 2021 19:07

    Robbie Arnott’s books Flame and The Rain Heron are both eco-lit and ones I highly recommend. Charlotte McConaughy’s Migrations is also climate change based.
    I’ve been using the tag – eco-dystopian for these books as I find that they seem to be set 10 mins in the future with things on the edge of going bad. Cli-fi is another tag I’ve seen around for these books.

    One of my favourites to date is a US writer – Richard Powers and The Overstory.
    And I’ve just finished reading an eco-poet, Louise Crisp, who is based in the Gippsland – Snowy area.

    • May 25, 2021 23:17

      Thanks for all this Brona. I nearly mentioned Last migrations, but I hadn’t remembered about Robbie Arnott whom I also haven’t read.

      Thanks for recommending Louise Crisp. She sounds interesting, and I love the Snowy.

      Coincidentally, I was lunching with a good friend and ex-reading group member (because she moved to the coast) and we were talking books of course. She said all her group really disliked Overstory, whereas my group read it last year (it was the month my mother died so I didn’t) and I think pretty much everyone loved it! Fascinating,eh?

      I use Cli-fi, eco-literature, and nature writing as tags.

      • May 26, 2021 08:12

        That’s why I love books so much – something for everyone! But then I’ve had so many people tell me how much they loved Crawdads 🤷🏼‍♀️ (which is more nature writing rather than cli-fi)

        I may look at my tags for environment books. When I looked quickly last night, I realised there was no way to have climate non fiction and fiction and now poetry with the one tag other than environment and climate change which also being in other books. The refining of tags fascinates me & wastes time in equal measure 😂

        • May 26, 2021 08:35

          Watch out for my review of Crawdads! Next one up, maybe today, hopefully tomorrow at the latest.

          And yes, I have exactly the same feeling re tags.

  6. May 26, 2021 11:14

    I always thought eco-fiction was the climate change stuff that’s been coming out for a couple of decades, but really ramping up in the past couple of years. Stuff like Annihilation by Jeff Vander Meer. I might be confusing myself with climate fiction, though, which must be popular because Google brought up loads of suggestions.

    I will say I would happily read a nature book — eco-fiction, if you will — just full of stories about New Zealand’s Kea birds.

    • May 26, 2021 11:38

      Thanks Melanie. I think its understandable that most recent eco-fiction is climate change focused, but writers have been concerned about human impact on the environment – logging, over-development, draining or redirecting water, etc for a long time? But then again I’m a bit long in the tooth and remember those days!!!

      Kea birds? Why them in particular?

      • May 27, 2021 05:45

        I read a nonfiction book called The Bird Way back at the start of the pandemic, and much is made of the playful, mischievous Kea bird. They sound like a problematic delight, and I want to know more.

  7. buriedinprint permalink
    May 28, 2021 07:57

    Well, since you asked, I’ve had my head stuck in this particular rabbit hole for almost a year, working on a pair of articles for a Canadian magazine. (61 books so far. Some days I cry. *smirks*) You’ve done a great job summarizing and defining. One book that is often hailed as an instigator is J. G. Ballard’s The Drowning World, which was published in 1969 I believe, which I mention only to underscore your point that this shelf has been bursting with books for decades. My year’s reading has been broadly on the climate crisis and specifically on women’s fiction and Canadian women’s fiction (directly confronting this crisis) and there is seemingly no end in sight. A site that I discovered recently that seems to have a tonne of great reading recommendations (and even a spreadsheet) is here: https://dragonfly.eco/ Not that you likely need any help adding to your TBR.Heheh But I’ll look forward to hearing what else you’re discovering in this vein.

    • May 28, 2021 08:11

      Thanks Buried. Ah, good for you. You must tell us when the articles are published, though I suppose we won’t be able to access them.

      I actually found that website after I scheduled my post but before it posted. I nearly went back and played around with my definitions and descriptions but decided mine was good enough – and that they would send me down more and more holes. It’s a great site though isn’t it?

      I’ve heard of Ballard, but if anyone had asked me about him, that’s about all I’d have been able to say.

      61 books? That would be enough to depress you for a decade!

    • May 28, 2021 09:14

      I love Ballard and think I have read everything he has written. My impression is that his eco disasters are the result of nuclear war, though that may just be an implication carried forward from his earlier works to his later.
      Interestingly, the only story I ever had published, in a university magazine in 1970, was of rising sea levels flooding Melbourne, so it must have been an idea that was in the air even back then.

      • May 28, 2021 11:24

        Maybe you’re one of the places I’ve heard him on?

        I think it’s interesting that eco-fiction has been around for a long time but the drivers have changed. I was thinking about the population growth and “small world” issues of the 1960s, but had forgotten – silly me – about the postwar nuclear concerns that drove so much fiction (eco-fiction and others) from the 1940s to 60s in particular.

        Ah, good one Bill.

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