A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
Dec. 9, 2010 Volume 41 / Number 3

Jim Dwyer in costume for a role in a Shakespeare play at the Blue Room.
Photo of a man sitting in chair

Introducing Jim Dwyer

In November 2010, Jim Dwyer, author of Where the Wild Books Are: A Field Guide to Ecofiction, presented his paper “What Is Ecofiction and Why Should We Read It?” at the sixth annual This Way to Sustainability Conference. The paper answers in multiple ways the questions Dwyer poses in the title.  It also presents an overview of notable American and international authors who express, through their stories and characters, their concerns about the relationship between humans and nature.

Dwyer’s field guide is the result of his personal study. He writes that he has read “over a thousand novels, several thousand reviews, and hundreds of critical works related to ecofiction,” and he inspires his audience to read texts “ecocritically.” In his paper, Dwyer discusses genres of ecofiction such as graphic novels and magic realism. He also discusses the way Hollywood often waters down and misinterprets the messages of eco-novels. He explains the distinction between nonfiction and fiction in their abilities to impact readers. He suggests that fiction has more power to deliver an emotional message and inspire action.

Dwyer briefly examines the political nature of ecofiction and its relationship to feminist, civil rights, Chicano, and Native American movements of the 1970s and 1980s. For more, see a truncated version of Dwyer’s paper below, “What Is Ecofiction and Why Should We Read It?”  [If you are interested in the complete paper, without cuts, contact Dwyer.]

Jim Dwyer is the Bibliographic Services librarian at CSU, Chico and has been a Chicoan since moving here in 1986. Dwyer, also known by his pen name and stage persona Reverend Junkyard Moondog, writes nature poetry, songs, haiku, and love poems, and also participates in poetry events and competitions. Dwyer is a member of the Living Karaoke Band, which will be performing Monkees and Kinks (MonKinks) on Dec. 26 at Down Lo in Chico. An environmental and peace activist, he is the author of the annotated bibliography Earth Works: Recommended Fiction and Nonfiction about Nature and the Environment (Neal-Schuman Publishers, 1996) and chapbook The Sun, The Stars, The Moondog (1999). This year, he completed Where the Wild Books Are: A Field Guide to Ecofiction (University of Nevada Press, 2010).

Melissa Cheatham, Public Affairs and Publications

What Is Ecofiction And Why Should We Read It?

—By Jim Dwyer for This Way to Sustainability Conference, CSU Chico, 11/ 5/10

One of the most significant developments in literary criticism over the previous quarter century is the proliferation of an ecocritical approach to literature. Cheryll Glotfelty notes a curious disconnection between previous literary scholarship and the real world: “If your knowledge of the outside world were limited to what you could infer from the major publications of the literary profession, you would quickly discern that race, class, and gender were the hot topics of the late twentieth century, but you would never suspect that the earth’s life support systems were under stress. Indeed, you might never know there was an earth at all.”1

Although definitions of ecocriticism vary, it might be simply described as a critical perspective on the relationship between literature and the natural world, and the place of humanity within—not separate from—nature. Ecocriticism arose from the development of a greater understanding of ecological processes, concern over the intensification of global environmental degradation, deep ecological philosophy, the green movement, ecofeminism, and the emergence of scholars whose formative years occurred during a time of great political, social, and environmental ferment in the 1960s and 1970s. Some of their immediate precursors, such as Glen Love, Ann Ronald, Wallace Stegner, Thomas Lyon, and Joseph Meeker, who were already studying the relationship between nature and literature, also embraced a more specifically ecological approach. Their work, in turn, had been informed by classic nature writers such as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and John Burroughs.

In the early 1970s, a veritable fusillade of new fiction emanating from the environmental movement exploded on the American literary scene. As with the new feminist fiction, these books weren’t mere escapism, even though many were action-packed and entertaining. These novels drew, not just upon an emerging environmental movement, but also upon the feminist, civil rights, Chicano, and Native American movements of the time. The protagonists and other characters are a rich mix of gender and ethnicity. Primary authors from this period include Edward Abbey, William Eastlake, Peter Matthiessen, Jim Harrison, Ursula Le Guin, John Nichols, Margaret Laurence, Ernest Callenbach, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Kate Wilhelm.

As critics joined the ranks of readers, a new term emerged: ecofiction. A look back at the literature reveals that ecologically oriented fiction had existed over a century previously, and that it can be considered an important precursor to contemporary ecofiction. …

My criteria for determining whether a given work is ecofiction closely parallel Lawrence Buell’s: “1.The nonhuman environment is present not merely as a framing device but as a presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural history. 2. The human interest is not understood to be the only legitimate interest. 3. Human accountability to the environment is part of the text's ethical orientation. 4. Some sense of the environment as a process rather than as a constant or a given is at least implicit in the text.”2

Although most any text can be analyzed ecocritically, some are inherently more ecological than others, including many works of contemporary fiction. Fiction that deals with environmental issues or the relation between humanity and the physical environment contrasts traditional and industrial cosmologies, or wherein nature or the land have a prominent role is sometimes called ecofiction. The earliest use of "ecofiction" I encountered was as the title of a seminal 1971 anthology containing both science fiction and mainstream stories. Perhaps due to ecocriticism's relative infancy, there is not even consensus on spelling. The terms “environmental fiction,” “green fiction,” and “nature-oriented fiction” are sometimes used interchangeably with “ecofiction,” but might better be considered as categories of ecofiction.

Ecofiction is a composite subgenre composed of many styles, primarily modernism, postmodernism, realism, and magic realism, and genres primarily mainstream, Westerns, mystery, romance, and speculative fiction. Speculative fiction includes science fiction and fantasy, sometimes mixed with realism, as in the work of Ursula Le Guin.

Ecofiction has deep literary roots and a rich and growing canopy of branches. [ …It is] not uncommon for ecologically oriented authors to write in many different forms: poetry, fiction, literary or philosophical essays, environmental activism, and natural history. Edward Abbey, Mary Austin, Jim Harrison, Barbara Kingsolver, Rick Bass, and Leslie Marmon Silko are good examples of nature-oriented authors who have mastered many forms.

Ecofiction is also a component of two related literary phenomena that Patrick D. Murphy terms “nature-oriented literature” and “environmental literature.” [Murphy describes it in this way:] “Nature oriented literature is limited to having either nonhuman nature itself as the subject, character, or major component of the setting, or to a text that says something about human-nonhuman interaction, human philosophies about nature, or the possibility of engaging nature by means of or in spite of human culture.” Murphy observes that environmental literature “does not stop at describing the natural history of the area, but instead, or in addition, discusses the ways in which pollution, urbanization, and other forms of human intervention have altered the land or environment. It treats human action in defense of, or in behalf of, wild and endangered nature.” Advancing Murphy’s argument one step, one might term fiction that focuses on environmental action or the green movement as “green fiction.” The purpose of such texts is “to propel people back into the rest of nature with new perspectives and frames of reference.”3

Since the Earth’s current ecological crisis knows no boundaries, it is hardly surprising to find ecofiction being written and read almost everywhere. Before embarking upon this study, I believed that contemporary ecofiction was primarily a product of the American West in the 1970s. I still maintain that that time and place can be considered the golden decade of ecofiction, but having been exposed to such a wide variety of relevant, first-rate work in my armchair travels, I now appreciate just how wide the world of ecofiction truly is and reject my earlier unintentional provincialism. Great authors from around the world include those both familiar and unfamiliar to American audiences. Canada’s Margaret Atwood is one of the world’s most popular and respected authors, but how many of you have read anything by her Nova Scotia colleague Lesley Choyce? Other notable international authors include Jean Rhys and Jamaica Kincaid from the Caribbean; Alejo Carpentier, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Isabel Allende from South America.

Meanwhile, back in the Pacific—much of the fiction being written in and about Australia and Oceania is by people indigenous to the region. Their Earth-centered cosmology is somewhat similar to that of Native Americans. Emergence tales, legendary characters, aboriginal Dreamtime, and other mythical elements are frequently strong elements of fiction from these cultures. The genre known as magical realism takes more specific form as “native realism” in North America and “maban realism” in Australia. (Louis Owens, Leslie Marmon Silko, Thomas King, and Gerald Vizenor are good examples of American Indian authors incorporating native realism in their work.) … Considering the similar experiences of cultural and environmental devastation visited upon Native American and Australian populations over the past few centuries, it is not surprising that both have transformed their ecologically based stories into more modern forms of literature. It should be noted, however, that important differences also exist between and within these cultures, and that all but the most fantastic literature reflects specific historical and cultural contexts. …

The Wind in the Willows was first published in 1908 with wondrous illustrations by Paul Bransom. The Arthur Rackham illustrated version from around 1940 is also considered a classic. My parents probably first read it to me when I was around 3. It’s not just a cute animal story like the watered-down Disney version, which disappointed me terribly. … It is also a commentary about the destruction of the British countryside by industrialization, especially by the railroads that in many ways prefigures Richard Adams’ Watership Down written over 60 years later. The critters in both books are fighting for their own survival. When I was 11 and they started developing the fields behind our house for a subdivision, inspired by The Wind in the Willows, I recognized the threat, pulled survey stakes, buried any tools left lying around, and filled in holes at night, and even monkey wrenched a bulldozer once by putting a crowbar in the treads. After that they never left equipment out at night. When my parents asked what my friend and I were doing, I just said “playing war,” but we were really waging peace.

So, why should one read fiction in addition to, or even in place of, other forms? McGill University Geography professor or drummer for The Guess Who? Garry Peterson notes that “How people use and relate to nature is determined in large part by the models, theories, and stories that people use to describe how human society and nature work. These concepts provide the mental infrastructure that underpins much of human action. Stories can help people reflect on their own models, and perhaps help them better understand their own ways of thought as well as those of other people.”4

A primary distinction between nonfiction and fiction is the degree to which the imagination is invoked. According to Jonathan Bate “The dream of deep ecology will never be realized upon the earth, but our survival as a species may be dependent on our capacity to dream it in the works of the imagination.”5 American Liturature professor Lawrence Buell observes that acts of “the environmental imagination … potentially register and energize at least four types of engagement with the world.”6 They can connect people with the experience and suffering of other beings, including animals, with places they have been or where they may never go, with alternative futures, and with a sense of caring for the planetary environment. Imaginative literature is best suited to engaging people intellectually and emotionally, providing them a greater personal stake in the text itself, and making them care. Good fiction is frequently less didactic and more nuanced than nonfiction, delivering its messages by implication. Personal engagement minus didacticism equals inspiration. Just ask a group of environmental activists whether they were more influenced by author Ed Abbey or by green theoreticians and philosophers. Stories are powerful.

Action springs from consciousness, sensitivity, concern, optimism, and inspiration. Much modern American fiction is labeled “apolitical.” However, one might argue that “apolitical” art is actually quite political in that it tends to support the status quo and provide an escape from environmental, social, and political realities. Ecofiction is frequently highly political. Novelist and poet Barbara Kingsolver insists that “The artist’s maverick responsibility is sometimes to sugarcoat the bitter pill and slip it down our gullet, telling us what we didn’t want to know.” Noting that political literature is more commonplace in Europe, Asia, and Latin America than in the United States, Kingsolver rejects the false dichotomy between “pure” and “political” art: “Good art is political, whether it means to be or not, insofar as it provides us the chance to understand points of view alien to our own.”7 Art, in whatever form, can provide a different lens to view the world and an impetus to action.

  1. Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm, eds., The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996), 16.
  2. Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), 6.
  3. Patrick D. Murphy, Farther Afield in the Study of Nature-Oriented Literature (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000), 1, 4-5, 42.
  4. Garry Peterson, “Ecological Fiction,” http://www.geog.mcgill.ca/faculty/peterson/ecofiction/ (Aug. 24, 2004.)
  5. Jonathan Bate, The Song of the Earth (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), 38.
  6. Lawrence Buell, Writing for an Endangered World: Literature, Culture, and Environment in the U.S. and Beyond (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 2.
  7. Barbara Kingsolver, High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never (New York: Harper Collins, 1995), 228, 234.