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).

What Is A Writing Journal?

New Writing for the Hollihock Writer’s Conference 
“Your writing journal is a record of your thought process through time. It will evolve as the months and years pass, and it will become a powerful tool. Not only can you think and process your ability on the page, you can also see the history and the arc of ideas as they develop. It can be very powerful to see where you’ve been and realize where you are all at once.” – Read More Click Here 

https://www.hollihock.org/single-post/2019/07/19/What-is-a-Writers-Journal

They’re Only Words – Yes and No


Sometimes books find a way into your life and you wonder how they synched into your life so well. We picked Citizen by Claudia Rankine as our common read on campus. It was the right book at the right time. Not only did the students have an open dialogue about race and social issues, we also spoke about the importance and relevance of language in the way we speak, socialize, and even protest. It was very powerful. And then the election happened. And strangely – it was the students who were well prepared. While there was shock and despair – Citizen as a book helped us have a very difficult conversation. We had talked about racism, inequality, society, power, protest, and hate. And then we had to talk about how all those ideas culminated into how we were feeling after the election. And it got me thinking about this. 

One of the things I hate about myself is the part of me that just accept things because there is nothing I can do about it. On election day night, I went to bed shocked and sad. But I also was saying – there is nothing you can do about it. I didn’t want to tell my kids. I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want to talk to my students about it. And I sat and simmered. 

Slowly, I woke up, along with other people and realized how absurd this all seems. But there is a part of me that just says – okay accept things. I hate that part of me. I wish I would just flip out and say something I will regret. I wish I could pull out the plug that stops me. I never speak out when it is the right time. I always speak out after, or save it up and dump it on someone who can’t effect change.

This election has might have pulled the plug for me. If this president, this election, this future is where we are going — why hold back and sit passively for something to happen? 

What is that? Professionalism? Fear of being rude? Do I lack some kind of courage or morality? I feel like I am shedding this acceptance. But I need to define it and find out what it is that keeps me quiet or accepting of these things. 

In an article A Pedagogy of Refusal: Re-Essentializing the Word “No” in the Trump Era linked here, sharpened the point clearly for me. It was acceptance in the form of “yes, I will accept this.”  

“We must instead, he said, distance oursleves from our propensity to say “yes” and re-essentialize refusal into our social systems to affect change. When I said, “yes,” even passievely, to Trump’s presidency that day with my pricipal, I had denied the humanity of all of the people whose maringalization Trump will perpetuate. I am complicit in their oppresion.

We live in a society where saying “yes” is more important than saying “let’s think this through.” A society where “I agree” is more acceptable than “I challenege you to think differently.” Our operation under a pedagogy of acceptance has brought us to where we are today; our constant “yes”ing has left us with a president who has never been told “no.”


I suppose I’ve woken up quite a bit from it all. I don’t want to watch it. I want to do something about it, and it feels like there is nothing to be done. I suspect that things are going to be difficult for the incoming president. But I also think that we have to continue to not accept where we are going and make every single step like walking on glass. 

But it has also snapped me out of a malaise that things are fine, even when they don’t work in my favor. I don’t accept things for what they are. 

“We must bring refusal back into the American dialogue. We must make statements like “I cannot accept that” as powerful as “I agree with you.” We must re-essentialize the word “no” into the American vocabulary and psyche, and say it fiercely to all of the forces who have brought about the election of Trump.” 

It will take me some time, but I will have to practice and be diligent in my use of the word “no”. I know it is difficult. But I will gladly shed the part of me that I hate the most — the part that nods my head and waits for someone else to say something. 

One of the things I spoke to students about all semester in discussing race, social issues and Citizen by Claudia Rankine, was that language is nothing but symbols and sounds. But they can change us. They can spur protests, movements, solve problems, and bring on chaos. Words start wars. Words bring about the birth of a country. We all saw this semester that it will take courage to say the things we believe, and for that will be better people, in a better community. 

I still continue to listen to Trump and realize that there isn’t anything there – no sincerity, no reality, no truth. Words are don’t matter – until they cut, push, and move people to action.