Eco-Fiction and the Emerging Writer

As an educator, I work with a lot of students emerging as writers. Most of these students are moving through undergraduate and graduate courses and finding their path through storytelling. In the last few years I’ve worked with more and more writers in the genre of speculative fiction, particularly in the genre of fantasy. Students are emerging in a culture of immersion into video games, graphic novels, video games, books, role playing games, cosplay, and other elements. It makes sense that the concept of world building is an important vision for fantasy writers. With these trends, we see writers take on these genres because of their experience, passion, and ability to write alternative experience. A few weeks ago I read an article about fiction around nature, the concept of eco-fiction. And while I wasn’t surprised by this genre distinction, it related back to the emerging writers I work with and thought, why aren’t they writing about this. 
Eco-fiction is a branch of literature that is nature oriented (non-human) or environment-oriented where the impact of humans are the central tenet of the story. Not surprising that it emerged in the 1970’s environmentalist vision of the world that hearld in Earth Day and other important values around conservation and natural preservation. It makes sense that a book like Overstory by Richard Powers is a high profile title with the vision of eco-fiction at its core. 
This makes sense as a crossover genre for writers who have worked in the realms of fantasy, to move into the concept of eco-fiction. Typically, fantasy writers are really good at creating hybrid characters or concepts for their stories. Fantasy writers are really skilled at showing irony and societal change through a slightly different lens. In our time of environmental concern and activism, the emergence of eco-fiction as a speculative tool, a social activist tool, and a near future vision makes sense. I don’t think all fantasy writers should be writing eco-fiction, but it is clear that so many of the skills honed in fantasy could transfer into the world of eco-fiction. In the preface to Where the Wild Books Are: a field guide to eco-fiction, Jim Dwyer mentions, “Dana Stabenow, for example, is an Alaskan Inuit ecofeminist author who has written both mysteries and science fiction.” It is clear nature and ecology as a mode to represent storytelling is diverse. When you think about the poetry of Mary Oliver and her natural vision of the world, Annie Dillard’s vision of nature brings poetry and essay creativity and vision into the view of literary and the general reading public. He defines in his preface that eco-fiction covers the focus of Lawrence Buell — that “non-human 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. The human interest is not understood to be the only legitimate interest. Human accountability to the environment is part of the text’s ethical orientation. Some of the environment as a process rather than as a constant or a given is at least implicit in the text” Some of the elements that we would think about in terms of an alternative universe is growing. Dystopian and natural cataclysm has been an emerging vision from a variety of writers, but because of the emerging prevalence in the studies of how we are affecting the environment, literature is moving along with those trends. While Overstory is a great example, the eco-muder mystery Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk won the Nobel Prize in 2018. 
Being a storyteller or a novelist is about defining the world you write in. It is clear that the escape and visionary worlds of fantasy are important to emerging writers. Diversifying the skills of writers to work in a variety of themes, different modes (plays, poetry, novels), genres, and other professional writing opportunities. This gives writers a dynamic and visionary approach to their own work, their own ideas, and the possibility of having their work appear in a variety of different ways. That starts when we realize how valuable and skilled writers can be and make small adjustments and changes to the way they see the world.  
As we consider what we read and what we are interested in writing, it is important to trace the emergence of genres that are moving to the forefront of our bookstores, our bestseller lists, and into our conscious reading habits. In the end, it may not be what we thought we would write, but it is what is important now. Check out reading lists of eco-fiction and read a few. And then think about how those ideas fit into your vision of writing, thinking, and creating. 
Further Reading

Fact and Philosophy in Novels

When Tolstoy begins Anna Karenina, he begins with “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It is a classic opening for this epic book. The next line is “Everything was in confusion in the Oblonsky’s house.” What is the difference between these two sentences? One feels like a fact or a truth from the author, while the next sentence sounds like story. It is clear, Tolstoy is opening with this for a reason and it will be clear in a few more sentences. But he opens with an authorial fact, and then begins his story. There is a debate that Tolstoy was a master of omniscient point of view and did in fact weave his own visions of the world into the narrative. That being said, when we discuss the concept of truth and literary cognitivism, are we learning something attached to a story here or from the author. And does the opening line hold more weight if it isn’t woven into the story yet?

At the beginning of a novel we are playing with the edge of immersion and there, often, we don’t hear from the characters or the plot, but we hear something that holds us above all else. A fact, a concept, a philosophical idea hangs there, and then we are dropped into the novel. When you look at American Book Review 100 Best First Lines from Novels (other than Tolstoy) most writers drop you into something that looks like story or conflict. But what happens when we are told something that sounds like a fact or truth? Are we to assume that this is the voice of the author? Or someone else? Tolstoy, like all writers who start with a statement of fact or truth, quickly move into the stories to contextualize the fact that they are giving us. Do we see them as truth or do we see them as a set up for the next few pages (or the entire book). 

An authorial insertion is something that plays on the idea that we are definitively hearing from the author. It is an idea that sits outside of the story. Victor Hugo was famous for philosophically meandering between history and the stories he created. It gave context to history and his story. It requires a trust that the reader is willing to understand that philosophical element and continue to learn facts, and resolve the story that we are reading.  

In James Harold’s paper titled Literary Cognitivism, he suggests authoritative truth can be difficult. “When I read William Styron’s historical novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, I might come to know a handful of specific facts about the 1831 Virginia slave rebellion; more importantly, I might learn how even acts of kindness can be cruel in context to slavery; and perhaps I can even come to know something about what the life of a slave might have been like in that era. Styron’s book is carefully researched and gets a great deal of history right, but he employs inventions and speculation as well. Without consulting historical sources, I cannot be sure what is invented and what is not. Or consider the claim that I have acquired knowledge about kindness in context to cruelty; this is not a historical claim, but perhaps an ethical one. And we might wonder whether, if we read literature in order to acquire knowledge, we are reading it as a work of literature. More worrisome still is the possibility that rather than increasing my stock of knowledge, this novel, written by a white author trying to imagine the mind of a black slave, may reduce or corrupt my understanding of American race slavery”(2). This article brings deep thinking into what we want to know in terms of facts and what we want to understand in the terms of art. And there is some significant questions if you are thinking in terms of reading literature as a finder of factual things. Tolstoy’s opening line in Anna Karenina is a philosophical statement that most agree with. It isn’t a fact to be proven — but to be thought about. 

It is through the novel that we acquire experiences and come to understand the world. But in the end, we can say that a novel gives us undisputed facts. But I still believe that we come closer to human truth as a philosophical reckoning in the novel than we do in other forms of art. We play the game of “imagine” so well, and play along the idea that this could happen to someone; and in turn we can imagine that it has happened to us all, every time we open the cover of a new book and begin a new story. 

Harold, James. Literary Cognitivism. Noël Carroll and John Gibson (eds.), Routledge Companion to the Philosophy of Literature (forthcoming).


Over the last few weeks, I’ve been connecting and interacting with Rhizo15 created by Dave Cormier and an ever expanding group of thinkers, educators, and creative people. The idea behind the collaborative connective course is to discuss the topic proposed every week. How and what that conversation looks like is something that is defined by the people involved.

On Dave Cormier’s blog, he explains that “Rhizomatic learning is a way of thinking about learning based on ideas described by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in a thousand plateaus. A rhizome, sometimes called a creeping rootstalk, is a stem of a plant that sends out shoots as it spreads. It is an image used by D&G to describe the way that ideas are multiple, interconnected and self-replicating. A rhizome has no beginning or end… like the learning process.”

During this course, there have been some fascinating conversations, connections, and interdisciplinary ideas that have really changed the way I look at learning. Two projects that inspired me to action was the idea of subjective learning. I took two students in my writing course who were doing really well. I asked them to take the last two weeks of the course and explore and create a subjective learning experience. I wanted them to advance some idea or work they started in the course and bring it back to me. I wanted them to have the freedom to explore, work, and change their vision of learning and hard work. The results of that experience are coming in a blog post that will end up HERE. The other creative idea was to write a story about a student that is involved in a rhizome course. It is a strange story about a girl who begins a class that never starts and ends up realizing that she isn’t the student, but the teacher, the student, and the curriculum. Check it out in its rough draft form here.

The most impressive and exciting part of this experience was the complete and utter uncertainty I felt entering this very open and creative group. It wasn’t that I was fearful, I simply didn’t understand how it worked. I didn’t understand how to get in, how to participate, and how to give people feedback. It seems that social media (Facebook and Twitter) were the nexus, and people established blogs to expand their ideas and post different kinds of media (photos, video, articles, and even radio). There is so many good reasons to jump into the world of unconventional learning. It is in this type of experimental thinking and change that we can develop some of our most significant and unseen drivers to push our learning, thinking, and connections to one another. Check out my blog and read some of my thoughts on this world of unlearning and subjective ideas in and out of the classroom.

Seeing Is Believing

by Ron Samul

When I was a kid, my dad and I were in the supermarket. A woman tripped over a cord in the frozen food section and hit her head on the freezer case. My father quickly ran to her and helped. He was a trained Vietnam medic, EMT, and firefighter. It was a given that he would help. As I watched the woman recover and the staff come out to help, I went over and did my part. I moved the cord so more people wouldn’t trip over it. Why did I do that? What was happening that empowered me to take action? When I saw my father helping someone, I wanted to help too. While I couldn’t offer medical assistance, I could go to the root of the issue, and help prevent this from happening again. The reason that I was empowered was because I had witnessed someone else acting. The fact that this story is still in my working memory proves that watching someone inspires action from others.

This week (4/14) in the New York Times Sunday Review, there was an article titled Raising A Moral Child by Adam Grant. In this article, he poses that we need to empower our children and allow them to act. But how do we do it? In the cited study and narrative, he concludes a fascinating fact: action speak louder than anything else.

“The most generous children were those who watched the teacher give but not say anything. Two months later, these children were 31 percent more generous than those who observed the same behavior but also heard it preached. The message from this research is loud and clear: If you don’t model generosity, preaching it may not help in the short run, and in the long run, preaching is less effective than giving while saying nothing at all.”

It seems that what my father did, and what this study concludes is that seeing actions, inspires others to action. What is really interesting is that he suggests that “in the long run, preaching is less effective than giving while saying nothing at all.” It seems counterintuitive to think that my father didn’t sit down with me and turn this moment into a life lesson as to why he helped this woman. His actions has already empowered me. In fact, in context to the article, I was more likely to give my help because he didn’t preach to me his intent and purpose. What he did was notice that I helped by moving the cords, and told my mother how I had helped.

It is a tricky world of empowering children, giving them

a sense of purpose, and shaping them into caring, empathetic people. However, sometimes telling or “preaching” a value will not help someone understand. They simply have to see it. A picture, in this case, could be worth a thousand words.

Awhile back, my step-daughter was in the hospital for a nasty bloody nose. While waiting, I was outside and noticed a man helping someone from a van into a wheelchair. Moving this person from the car to a wheelchair was tricky for one person. I quickly rushed over and offered some help, stabilizing the wheelchair and helping get the person seated. It took less than a minute, and they were very kind in their thanks. Once they were inside, my step-daughter said, “You like to help people, don’t you.” I just nodded.

Ron Samul is an educator and writer living in New England.

Divergent Pages

In a writing project that merges newspaper articles and fictional narrative together, we put the reader (and the writer for that matter) in a divergent storytelling place. A place that is more objective, offering and alternative to the portion they’ve already. I suppose I should explain this further. The writing project is based on narrative fiction that you might typically read, mixed with newspaper articles that give an alternative version of  what you have just taken on.

Aesthetically, I’ve been thinking about this concept. Why would I want to write an article about my chapters or narrative that revolves around newspaper articles? What if they confuse the reader? What if it makes the reader question the narrative? This intersection of the novel offers a heterotopian crossing of two forms, fictional narrative and news reporting. Even if it is fictionalized, newspaper articles hold a certain form, a certain ideal that they should be straight forward and factual. However, fiction is based on creating something that is not real and crafting it into a believable artifact. What we expect from these two different concepts, fiction and newspaper articles, contradicts the modes in which we get information. More over, it suggests that the truth isn’t the narrative or the news articles, but something that is somewhere in between – in the connections and ideas made by the reader. The form, design, and construction of the story is already built to change the reader’s mind even in the first few pages. A vignette of a woman who is hit by a fish falling from the sky, matched by an article that suggests plausible reasons that this might happen. Or the next section where the main character meets a boy who has been missing for awhile. After she has a strange but innocent moment with the boy, we find out there is a search for the boy and the suggestion that he is probably dead. These two opposing forces place the reader to decide what to make of those two opposing angles of the story. This become partly interactive because the reader can chose which element of the story holds more weight. But it isn’t that simple. Sometimes, the two opposing elements agree, sometimes – they fight one another, and sometimes, they don’t even seem to connect. Could someone read all the articles, and then read the narrative? Or could they read the narrative and then add in the articles at the end, like a scrapbook of articles that support the book. 
An idea that was floated around during a workshop was the possibility that a reader might be instructed to watch a small video clip or read a series of blog postings… stop reading the book… and do something else and bring back some knowledge to the narrative. It might be a complicated move through archives, videos, and other information accumulations – or it might be look at a few paintings online to understand what the characters in the book are seeing when they work with an art dealer. Interactivity doesn’t imply synchronicity to the story or the plot although most interaction is based on logical choice of (A) or (B). The vast inclusion of information and ideas that can be merged into narratives is as fascinating and engaging as people felt about The DiVinci Code or other books that remixed their common knowledge of history and art and gave them a new story. 
Looking for new ways to keep the novel out of the grave doesn’t mean that the novel has to become something unrecognizable, but it should connect with the digital, physical  and shifting changes of what we expect from interactive screens, interactive concepts and ideas. We don’t always have to make our novels interactive, we don’t always have to be innovative. Yet, we should be keen to look at where and when we can shift with the digital and physical art that surrounds us. 

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