A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
May 13, 2010 Volume 40 / Number 6

Photo: From left, Matthew Bently and Dane Cameron


Where the Wild Books Are: A Field Guide to Ecofiction

Where the Wild Books Are: A Field Guide to Ecofiction, authored by Jim Dwyer (Meriam Library), is a one-of-a-kind book in which he analyzes ecofiction historically, literarily, and by genre. The book is the result of more than 30 years’ work, beginning with his earliest reading of the genre in the 1970s.

What drew Dwyer to the genre and kept him going was his concern about the environment. As important, he said, is that they are “really fun books—lots of action and excitement. Others are more spiritual and philosophical.” He reads about two books a week, and half of those continue to be ecofiction.

Dwyer defines the genre, which includes more than 2,000 titles, as works that relate to nature and the environment. He discusses only about 500 of the titles. “I’ve cast my net broadly internationally,” said Dwyer. “Even though I and others originally saw ecofiction as mostly a product beginning in ’60s and ’70s in the western United States, the deeper I looked, the more international it became and the further back it went.”

Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang may be the most well-known ecofiction book, said Dwyer. Abbey’s book galvanized hundreds of thousands of activists and was responsible for many organizations, including Earth First.

One of the subcategories in the book is science fiction. Dwyer named two well-known writers as examples in this genre: Ursula Le Guinn and Kim Stanley Robinson. Dwyer said that he prefers the term “speculative fiction” more than science fiction, because it combines science fiction, fantasy, and realist elements. “Speculative fiction poses the question, ‘What if?’ and takes off from there. Science fiction is not infrequently a step ahead of science.”

Another strong section is mysteries. “The ‘whodunnit?’” said Dwyer, “becomes the ‘whodunnit to the Earth?’” The seminal eco-mystery writer is John D. McDonald, who wrote books about the problems relating to the development of Florida and the collusion between big business and corrupt government. “McDonald had a huge influence on mystery writers from the ’50s to the present day, especially Carl Hiaasen,” said Dwyer. “Hiaasen is like McDonald’s wacky literary grandson. One of Hiaasen’s books is titled Hoot, but all of his novels are a complete hoot.”

Ecofeminism is one of the strongest and most interesting elements of ecofiction, said Dwyer. Feminism and the environmental movement were around for a long time, he said, but both of them came into their own in the late ’60s, both politically and literally. The tradition goes back to Willa Cather and Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

Gilman, in particular, said Dwyer, related the oppression of women and the oppression of the land. “One of Gilman’s characters,” said Dwyer, “is thrown into a mental hospital for being outspoken about both the oppression of the environment and of women. Willa Cather wrote about working with the land and not ‘taming’ it. Likewise, she didn’t believe in the taming of women. Her protagonists, like Antonia, are strong, resourceful, wise women.”

There is a chapter on Native American and Canadian writers and an international chapter including Australian/New Zealand/Pacific Islander writing. “There are certainly major tribal differences, said Dwyer, but the unifying factors among the authors are strong. “One of the surprises to me,” said Dwyer, “is the similarity of fiction written by Native Americans and Australian Aboriginal authors. Many of authors are of racially mixed identity, which adds a sociological and political level to the work. Mixed race Native American authors include Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich, and Louis Owens. Their Pacific counterparts include Mudrooroo, B. Wongar, and Kiana Davenport.”

“The advantage of fiction over nonfiction, in terms of its ability to influence and move people, is that it reaches readers, not just intellectually, but emotionally,” said Dwyer. “It gives them more of a personal stake in the preservation of the environment. Stories are powerful!”

It turns out that many authors of ecofiction, said Dwyer, are also either poets or essayists and nature writers. Peter Matthiessen is a good example of this. “The Snow Leopard is a nonfiction work that is highly literary and spiritual. The same consciousness can be found in At Play in the Fields of the Lord, a work of fiction.”

Dwyer’s hope for his book is to introduce more readers to many lesser known but very high-quality and important authors, such as Kay Kenyon in science fiction, Brenda Peterson in ecofeminist fiction and romance, and Jim Harrison, a “brilliant novelist, poet and essay writer.”

Dwyer shopped a version of this book to publishers in 1993. At that point, no publishers were interested. “I was ahead of the curve, so I ended up publishing a book called Earth Works that included nonfiction, literary nature writing, and about 700 works of fiction.” Earth Works was an annotated bibliography, Where the Wild Books Are is a more in-depth literary study, said Dwyer.

Kathleen McPartland, Public Affairs and Publications