Do writers feel environmental URGENCY enough?
"An environmental writer, Derrick Jensen, says salmon don’t need more books written about them. They need clean, fast water and the dams to be busted up. [...] real [...] writing today would frame and reflect our misuse of the world, our destruction of its beauties and wonders. Nobody seems to be taking this on in the literary covens. We are all just messing with ourselves, cherishing ourselves. [...] Cultural diversity can never replace biodiversity, though we’re being prompted to think it can. We live and spawn and want—always there is this ghastly wanting—and we have done irredeemable harm to so much. Perhaps the novel will die and even the short story because we’ll become so damn sick of talking about ourselves." -Joy Williams
Q: For those of us living in the "First World", where we feel the effects of environmental destruction less immediately and severely, while at the same time being the world's heaviest contributors to it—if we're going to be writing, should the writing be reflecting this ambient urgency in some way? If so, how? If not, are there decent ways to defend playing make-believe during a crisis? (03.12.16)
The quotation from Joy Williams irks me in a big way, so let’s deal with that first. Setting up a false dichotomy between cultural diversity and biodiversity is senseless: it’s asking us to rank one over the other when humanity requires both (and more besides). As for “literary covens”, at least Williams seems honest enough to locate herself within one, and to identify that “ghastly wanting” and a need for “real writing” within her own work.
Our world informs our art. Often, our worlds are too narrow. Too comfortable. Too homogeneous. Instead of sniping about fictional forms, let's broaden our worlds, ask painful questions, go to uncomfortable places. Fiction is, inherently, a place of urgency. Without urgency, the work falls apart.
Yes, we need to see the natural world with clearer eyes. We need to learn more, teach more, work more, in order to address our desperate environmental crisis. But let’s not fall for the straw man of "this newfangled obsession with cultural diversity will slay the salmon". We were already accomplished salmon-slayers. It’s just that some of us are hoping for a new scapegoat—and that is itself a wasteful distraction, not to mention another form of “ghastly wanting”.
Avocado. Ripe and ready Avocado. That’s what the packet promises me. As I tenderly peel away the shrink-wrap and un-nest this dragon egg, my senses prepare me for disappointment. It is cold and firm to the touch, there is no smell of that buttery green loveliness and when I push my knife into it my ears register an unwanted crunch.
A promise has been broken. I’m livid.
The modern millennial in me debates taking to Twitter, prostrating my grief before the retailer and demanding justice. The logical side of me beats the millennial over the head with giant encyclopaedia kept only for this purpose; because Internets.
I know the life journey of this avocado; Carefully Picked 48 hours ago in Peru, Zimbabwe or somewhere similar, it has been stored at a specific temperature that will allow it to ripen at the correct pace as it’s flown around the world, transported all over the UK, shelved and then picked up by my ungrateful hands. And, according to some maths genius who took the time to figure out rate of ripening = temperature x time, it should be ripe.
The UK is Europe’s biggest importer of Avocado, with the label of ‘superfood’ comes a raping of lands around the world with serious effects for the environment and the local people. I know this, yet I still buy them. I try and buy them from the right sources but I haven’t stopped buying them. Why? Enjoyment. Enjoyment and expectation.
Just as the avocado is a product of its environment, so am I.
They say writers write what they know and I think the same can be said of people and global issues. If it's not happening to us, it’s as though it’s not happening at all. Reading about it, watching it on TV, hearing it on the Radio 4, doesn’t make it real for us, not until we experience it first hand.
Do I think that we should be writing more about the bad things that are actually occurring in the world and not the make-believe things that we do? Yes, but the real problem is that it will still be read like fiction.
We can't prescribe 'suitable' and 'unsuitable' subjects for novels. Writers are motivated by all kinds of things - some by world crises, some by the inner workings that explore what humanity is made of. All of these have relevance, provided they're done well, of course. We need to look at our selfishness, generosity, hopes and fears just as much as we need to look at our external world, our shrinking glaciers, our refugee camps, our political regimes that make people leave their homes. The way we use the planet and other people comes from our inner urges, so exploring them is not self-indulgent navel gazing. Martin Amis said 'there are no "no-entry" signs in fiction'. We write about what moves us, what makes us ask questions, what makes us want to illuminate or search for a truth. It actually doesn't matter whether that comes from an 'issue' or not. Good writing outlasts fashions and issues anyway.
If you watched the Oscars, you heard more than one award winner plead our planet’s case. Like The Hunger Games educating children about our global food crisis or George Saunders’ "The Semplica-Girl Diaries" satirizing America’s exploitation of women from third-world countries, fictional stories urge readers to grow, questioning how they—and we as a species—can improve very real and terrible situations, but is that why we read?
In my calling as a botanical writer by night and environmental educator by day, the mantra for connecting with readers and students alike is “show, don’t tell.” If we’re going to champion the literary message of this era as environmental responsibility, writers must show our call to stewardship, by all means lavishly concealing our warning within the land of make-believe. As Madeleine L’Engle advised, not allowing the higher purpose of our work to parade “like a slip hanging below the hem of a dress” makes a much stronger impact anyway*. No need to write about salmon indeed.
*from Walking on Water, Reflections on Faith and Art
I breathe in sun-up
and conjunction to choke.
There will be no virgin
object there, then.
Each operating mask
spills off, bulging mania
to the simplest, reddest hue.
The reef stands icier
in the surgeons,
a last cue to tip-off,
like trilling scrabble
with a bird of paradise.
Further down the mud-
road, palm fingers unfurl,
the predicate’s definite
articles. Daylight shrivels—
detonating every participle.
below the guts,
a designer skin bunches
against the abdomen—
later, bones threadbare
The plantains barely
twitch, the trellises’
in malignant fugues,
the reef static; Hush—
My home, Louisiana, is directly, urgently, dreadfully affected by climate destabilization and man-made ecological disasters. That is not an exaggeration. The Bayou Corne sinkhole, for example, has devastated a community, shattered people’s lives, destroyed a beautiful landscape. Local coastal erosion leaves many not only homeless, but without even the land under their feet. Invasive species obliterate local flora and fauna. I could go on and on and on and on. I am a first world citizen who acutely feels the urgency of environmental destruction, and while I have written about it and continue to, it has not been the focus of my work.
There are many urgent questions in this world. And I, perhaps selfishly, often want to explore others, focus my eye elsewhere. Many I choose are small in comparison, I suppose. And it is perhaps fair to say that, in my writing, I, like others, am often just “playing make-believe.” But anyone who studies cognition will tell you the importance of make-believe. It is where we learn. It is where we grow. And it is where we connect. About many, many things. This is why we write, I think. It is certainly why I write.
Just as there is a privilege in being able to ignore a large issue, maybe the largest issue out there, simply because you feel disconnected, there is also privilege in being able to forsake small ones that loom large only for those in their grips. This is one reason I am wary of prescriptive urges, especially when turned to art, even those that demand the very best from us—that we try to save our world.
This again is about our ‘duty’ as writers to examine privilege, but before we can consider making privilege a conscious part of our art, we need to be aware of it. The question asks if we should be showing some of the urgency of our world in our fiction, but if the urgency is solely based on an intellectual understanding it will come across as preachy, and interfere with the story. As writers we may need to open our reading to books from other cultures who understand the urgency of the world differently—not so we can then write from their perspective, but so we can examine ourselves and our stories through the lens of the rest of the world.
The end of the world needn’t be examined through an apocalyptic lens as in World War Z (the book not the movie). I read a book called Swarm by Lauren Carter in which the death and possible rebirth of the world was told through the character’s concern for a swarm of bees. I have a book I’m working on in which the end of the world is played out through the life of a photographer. When we create a compelling story, the theme will appear fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus.
We have always played make-believe.Writers fiddled with their pens or chisels or quills while Rome burned. This is not news.
Can we, and should we, become a part of the solution, or at least not sit idly by? I don't honestly know. We are offering entertainment and escapism, I suppose. Do our works all have to be preachy and a spur to social change?
In America, while war raged in Europe, The Grapes of Wrath was in the theaters. But the 1940 Best Picture Oscar didn't go to it, and it didn't go to The Great Dictator. While Hollywood and movie-making are not identical to novel-writing, these are the same people who are buying, or not, our books. Romance and horror will always sell. Margaret Mitchell didn't write Gone With the Wind in order to point out the indignities suffered by the slaves; she wrote it to tell the story of a rich, spoiled white woman. 50 Shades of Grey isn't about income inequality, either.
There is nothing wrong with escaping, either by reading or by writing. My only concern is to make sure not to paint over the truth. The slaves aren't singing and smiling and loving their work. Even the mousy career girl in 50 Shades should have to play bill roulette on occasion, wondering what she'll do when she's got six monthly bills and only enough to cover five. Even her inner goddess can't fix that.
The number of books churned out by most Harlequin authors is far more than Harper Lee ever completed. Her work is remembered, yes. But those people's bills are being paid; they are legit authors just like she was. I think we are allowed to be the frivolous writers if we want to, and if that gets our names out there. It doesn't always have to be social change and school.
I live in Miami, one of the cities most at risk from our environmental destruction, so I find myself asking these kinds of questions all the time. Sometimes, I look out the window if I am driving around, and see all the millions of people in millions of cars on these 12 lane highways—everyone whizzing around going somewhere "important" and think "We are such strange creatures, we humans". We are the most successful colonizers on Earth—way more effective and invasive than kudzu, killer bees, or Ebola. Not least because of the fact that our huge brains make it possible for us to carry out this biological imperative while simultaneously hiding our immediate awareness of the fact that every step we take (or mile we drive) is contributing to what feels like an inexorable slide towards environmental collapse. All we think is, "that was a great cup of coffee" or "wow, traffic is moving quickly today."
This question of thought versus action, writing versus doing, is also something I have thought about many times in the last few years. As an entrepreneur whose job it is to think up new things, brainstorm new opportunities, and build consensus, I live in the world of ideas all the time, but ideas are nothing without action. Perhaps as writers and concerned citizens we need to think about the allocation of our energy the way we think about our nutrition—in the same way we all need more leafy greens, we all need more action. How would we change the way we spend our time if we thought we only had a year left to live? Every minute would need to count—at least for me. Perhaps we should meditate on that every morning, and see whether our priorities and self-absorption would shift. I agree that salmon don't need books. The question is, do we need salmon more than we need books? If so, then what can we, as writers, do about that?
OK, wow. First of all, I find Williams's comments interesting, provocative, and also a little off-base. Who says we're all just cherishing ourselves? Is she equating the push for equity and inclusion in publishing with a narrow-minded, human-centered view of the world? Does she imagine that people calling attention to social injustice are all going home from their protests, propping their poster-board signs against the wall, and thinking, "The hell with the spotted owls!" Social justice is tied inextricably to environmental justice. The right, fair, and equitable treatment of people is tied to the right use of our shared planet.
Just this morning I listened to a report on the radio about poor immigrant communities in Miami being displaced by richer neighbors... because of rising ocean levels. That happens all over the world. It's not as simple as poor or disadvantaged people being in harmony with the natural world, and rich capitalists exploiting it in ways that injure everyone (but mostly poor people.) [...] but it's also ridiculous to think that human beings can somehow pay meaningful attention to the planet, and draw back from the ways we're destroying it, without grappling with our own social and cultural pathologies.
But I guess what I'd say is that in this situation, in a world that is teetering in many ways on ecological breakdown, I agree with Williams that we can and should do more. Everyone, not just writers, should do more. And sometimes it feels hopeless and solipsistic to be a writer. And maybe in some ways it is. But I also have some pity for the poor writer (because I am one, and I know how ridiculous and miserable and burdensome a path it can be.) Most of us suffer a fair bit, under the terms of our culture, to do what we do, and most of us get very little reward.
So in a sense it seems unfair, almost bullying to tell authors that they shouldn't write what they're called to write (android wars or white middle-class divorce tragedies or bodice-ripping romances) because the world is crumbling around us. [...] but in another sense it's just reality. And as you point out, most of the world has it much harder than those of us living in the West, at a relative arm's-length from some of the hard realities that places like Vanuatu, for instance, are facing. I'd never judge an author for writing what she's called to write, as long as she does it with integrity and honesty... but that doesn't change the fact that those ocean levels are rising, those landfills are filling, those mountains are getting leveled, and we're all on the hook for it, sooner or later. (Pay now or pay later, I guess—that's what it comes down to. But everybody pays.)
Derrick Jensen's The Culture of Make Believe first introduced me to bio-urgency. The image I will always remember is a plane full of clueless Americans speeding towards earth's final combustion. Reading about the end of natural resources and how we got there really impacted me. I wanted to spend the rest of my life hugging trees. I told everyone I knew about the missing Salmon. How they struggled. And how we must pay attention. Bio-Diversity Matters!!! I searched for ways to volunteer on Earth Day, but I soon spent almost every other day distracted—killing off the planet like everyone else I knew living in denial.
It's further into the plane ride of Earth's destruction, yet I still write about my life and its shortcomings. I explore race, blame and inconvenience. I consume African American and gay issues. I combine fear and love into poetic stories about everyday people striving for excellence. Yet my stories aren't saving the world or the environment. I'm barely even sharing them. I also enjoy reading about over-indulgent characters and their fantastic adventures. Forgetting reality is just as urgent as preaching environment to the unsave-able Earthling. Maybe that's the new science fiction novel I will write because of this prompt.
Thank you for reminding me of what's really important.
Place has always been an interest in my fiction and nonfiction, and the emotional lens is usually one of loss, in which places defined by identity, memory, and personal experience are threatened, or some aspect of dislocation emerges in the intersection between character and place. Rising sea levels mean coastlines are changing, but it means too that the personal landscapes they contain are changing too.
There are many writers who portray setting deeply in their work: Charles D’Ambrosio, for example, whose essay “Seattle, 1974” is a portrait of time and place virtually inseparable from the memory and experience of its author; Joan Didion’s iconic images of California, from the levees of the Sacramento Delta to the freeways of Los Angeles; the stories of Stuart Dybek, who portrays Chicago’s Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods in a lyric style whose magnified detail reveals the essence of what it means to experience place. Each of these writers has, in different ways informed the use of setting in my own work, laying the groundwork for my own approach.
And we know places change. We take our own terra firma for granted, whether our street or our continent, believing the familiar is somehow changeless. But we know too that proverbial stakes are inevitably pulled up, that families sell houses beloved for decades, that nature rearranges the landscape with wind, water, fire, hurricanes, earthquakes. We know climate change has our oceans rising and weather patterns shifting. Even a futurist model like the one developed by the international team of scientists, with its plan to pump sea water deep into Antarctica’s ice sheet and rocket it miles into the air, would bring irrevocable change to a continent of wilderness protected for decades from scientific and military interests. Will the treaty forged in 1961 be overturned in order to salvage the coastlines that are slipping away under the sea? One way to know is to look to literature—not for what will happen, but for how it will feel, and how the human heart responds when the known places disappear.
I'm a firm believer in "write what you want to write". Should we be aware of environmental issues and do what we can to help? Absolutely. Should we write about it? Only if you want to.
For me, reading and writing is an escape. Other folks have a far more intellectual side to their writing, and that's fine too. But do I particularly feel the need to justify my hobby? No, not really, but I guess I could make a stab at it, or this going to be short.
While I don't know a huge amount about Salmon, I did used to work in construction, so I know a fair bit about the Environment, and the effects of what I used to do. I think now that I spend my time sitting at home, tapping away, I have a smaller carbon footprint as I'm not travelling around all the time. I usually use public transport or my bike, or my feet. I don't user paper much, as everything I do is online. I walk my kids to school, buy locally, compost stuff, have insulated my house, and all the other good bits and bobs that I can do. Am I perfect? Hell no. I do what I can, and try and vote into power those who I think can make the best change for a sustainable future.
But I also enjoy playing make believe, and maybe by giving people a place to play in their heads, without having to worry for a moment, we're actually making people happy. Happy people tend to think more about others, and try and make other people happy. Can happy be beneficial to the environment? I'd like to think so.
Perhaps I'm just a bald hippy, but if we’re not allowed to stare out of the window at dragon shaped clouds, or imagine an ant could play the bagpipes, then I think that's a shame.
Write what you want to write, read what you want to read, and look at the clouds.
Sometimes a question is more potent than a single answer. To ask ourselves if we should spend more time focusing on the reality of environmental destruction is to raise consciousness in one of the most fundamental ways. The destruction of the natural world, the situation we face, is indeed being discussed by writers of brilliance and conscience. David Gessner, for example. As we live in a world on the brink, it’s not enough; as I ponder the question I feel there are not enough writers giving this element of their souls due space. The sense of urgency we feel—or do not seem to feel—is as complicated as we are, individually and as a culture. The question of how much we should be reflecting on the impending doom of our ecosystem is a call that some find it more natural to answer. Why? Nihilistic reflex or denial? The question haunts us. Provokes us. Dares us to forget that there is no internal struggle without air to breathe. The stakes of our stories can aim higher, become more elemental. We might address the toxic situation within us, the distortion of human values, how we are out of sync with reality and sanity—in whatever story or medium we choose for expression. It is more than cliche to say that each of us is a microcosm of a very unstable world.
I believe wholeheartedly that writing is one of the greatest catalysts for change. That is a large part of why I write. That being said, fiction in particular is so good at inciting change because it touches people emotionally. They are able to connect with characters and their struggles. The source of writing’s impact and potential to incite change is also the reason environmental concerns seem to fall through the cracks. You said it: most of us do not feel environmental destruction. It’s not something that invades our daily lives. While that’s not sufficient to preclude it from being good material for a story, it does make it more difficult to represent. It might appear more frequently symbolically or as a thematic aside, rather than as the main focus. It is difficult for a writer to emotionally represent a topic with which he or she has little experience.
I think it demonstrates a failure on the part of more people than writers that the effects of environmental damage are not more widely understood. It is a reflection of the “first world” mindset (out of sight, out of mind) and our extreme lack of cultural awareness. It has always been the role of writers to force people outside of their own skins, and I have no doubt that writers will play a great role in catalyzing change and inspiring awareness. But it will not be without a good deal of research and effort.
I've been mentioning this thing lately—the angst of the environmental effects of painting pictures (my Real profession). Books are easier to recycle. It just comes extremely naturally to create stories that deal somehow with our environmental crisis. I do not force myself. I also have a bunch of Star Trekkish ideas I will insert in my stories, because I think some engineer/professional could actually make it work or get an inspiration. No, I don't think I'm going to save the planet, though. In my stories, I want to offer a possibility (I don't like to use the word hope, it's somehow too illusory), even though it's as absurd as my characters. It's more like making the subconscious work, to come up with a possibility. That's also why I categorize my stories tragicomedy. I want to look at where we stand, but not forget to laugh, and see a window ajar.
Should we stop writing and go be activists? You can do both, and sacrificing your nature as a creative person is not going to work in the long run. We all have our place. And it would be horrible if everyone produced only ecologically aware novels...
If we're talking about fiction writers, I don't think they have an obligation to write about any topic in particular. A novel or short story hopefully is sparked by a genuine interest that can't and shouldn't be forced. Fiction is meant to be enjoyed in leisure, not to save lives (though sometimes I suppose it can). What's wrong with looking inward? There is a reason writers chose to be writers, and not politicians or scientists or even journalists.
That said, I think writing that resonates the most is truthful writing. One of the best feelings I know as a writer is to feel that I have depicted something as accurately, as emotionally, as least-superficially as I could. Because of this, I think, many writers create worlds and stories that reflect the real-life problems they find most pressing, most urgent. To create a hierarchy of urgencies that ranges from better to worse, more to less important, takes away from the freedom that sparks the kind of work I'm most interested in reading.
image (top): Inside the Swimming Pool, 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art by Ajari via Wikimedia Commons
An understandable tension exists between the urge to demand more from ourselves and the voice that tells us pleasure is its own justification. And maybe there should be tension. At the very least: tension. It's a start.