Rethinking a Genre ‹ Literary Hub


If there was a contest for the most hated genre, nature writing would surely take the top honors. Other candidates – romantics, say – have their detractors, but are fiercely defended by practitioners and fans alike. When it comes to nature writing, however, no one seems to hate container and content more than nature writers themselves.

‘Nature writing’ has become an expression of cant, stigmatized and banished from useful existence, and I would be happy to see its removal from current discourse,” essayist Robert Macfarlane wrote in 2015. When David Gessner , in his book sick of natureimagined a party attended by his fellow naturalist writers, he described a thorough misfire: “As usual with this crowd, there are a lot of listen and observe pass, not much cheerfulness.

Critics, for their part, dismissed the genre as a “solidly bourgeois form of escapism”, with naturalist writers indulging in “solace literature” and “fiddling while the agrochemicals burn”. Nature writers and their work are variously portrayed, fairly or not, as misanthropic, condescending, and just plain embarrassing. Joyce Carol Oates, in her essay “Against Nature”, listed nature’s “painfully limited set of responses” to her subject by scathing all caps: “REVERENCE, AWE, PIETY, MYSTICAL UNITY” .

Oates, apparently, was unconsoled.

The persistence of nature writing as a genre has more to do with publishers than with writers. Labels can usefully tie books together, giving everyone a better chance of staying afloat in a flooded market, but they can also reinforce established stereotypes, limiting those who work in a genre and excluding those who don’t fall under its definition. . As Oates suggested, there are countless ways to think about and write about what we call “nature,” many of which are urgent. But nature writing, as defined by editors and historical precedents, ignores all but a few.

The genre of nature writing emerged in the late 1700s, at a particular time when nature, as seen by European and North American intellectuals, was no longer terribly mysterious but not yet endangered. Scientific classification of species had brought a certain apparent order to undomesticated landscapes, enabling writers like William Bartram, a botanist who traveled the American South shortly before the Revolutionary War, to perceive not a tangle of flora and fauna, but “an infinite variety of animated scenes, inexpressibly beautiful and pleasant.

These “appreciative aesthetic responses to a scientific view of nature,” as the writer and naturalist David Rains Wallace described them, were the product not only of their time and place, but also of their culture and class. Scientific views of nature are not the only possible views, of course, and as many anthropologists and linguists have pointed out, the concept of “nature” as a collection of objects, distinct from but subordinate to humans, is also far from universal.

In the 19th century, many thinkers who we now call nature writers opposed the original project of the genre. While Ralph Waldo Emerson viewed human transcendence as the primary goal of the non-human world, his rebellious protege Henry David Thoreau was more interested in other lifeforms for their own good, and more willing to get his boots literal and metaphorical dirty. John Muir, however notoriously dismissive of the human history of the Sierra Nevadahad unusually egalitarian ideas about other species, even viewing lizards, squirrels, and gnats as other occupants of the planet.

As I learned while researching my book beloved beasts, a history of the modern conservation movement, the rise of ecological science in the early 20th century made it increasingly clear that the boundaries between humans and “nature” were more linguistic and cultural than physical. Rachel Carson, who has cited Thoreau as one of her primary influences, further expanded the genre of nature writing by linking the fate of other species to the fate of human bodies.

There are countless ways to think about and write about what we call ‘nature’, many of which are urgent. But nature writing, as defined by editors and historical precedents, ignores all but a few.

However, any genre can only extend so far, and the limits of nature’s writing are written in its very name. Nature writing has always tended to treat its subject matter as “an endless variety of moving scenes” and, although the affiliation and approaches to the genre have diversified somewhat in recent years, its laureates resemble its founders: predominantly white, predominantly male and predominantly from rich countries. Poet and essayist Kathleen Jamie calls them Solitary delighted males.

Meanwhile, writers of all genres and disciplines wrestle with the relationship between humans and the rest of life, recognizing that while writing about other species is often about wonder and upliftment , it is also, inevitably, a question of survival – the survival of all species, including our own. Amitav Ghosh, whose novels often follow the connections between species and habitats – humans and snakes, tigers and dolphins, land and sea – recently published The curse of the nutmeg, his second book-length essay on the literature, history and politics of climate change. (The first was The great inconveniencepublished in 2016.)

Science fiction writer Jeff VanderMeer returns again and again to the unstable boundaries between humans and other species, most recently in his novel Salamander Hummingbird. Margaret Atwood, an avid birdwatcher, wrote that the sight of red necked crakes “walking through the undergrowth” in northern Australia inspired his dystopia MaddAddam Trilogy. Historians like Dina Gilio-Whitaker, the author of As long as the grass growsand Nick Estes, author of Our history is the future, documenting the damage done to Indigenous cultures and all species by centuries of capitalism and colonialism. These works and many others recognize that humans are both observers and participants in the web of life on earth – and that our roles, while often destructive, can also be constructive.

Today, the genre of nature writing reminds me of the pace of climate change in journalism: the stakes and scope of the profession have grown to the point that the label is arguably worse than unnecessary, misrepresenting the work as narrower than it is and restricting its potential audience. The state of “nature”, like the state of the global climate, can no longer be appreciated from a distance, and its literature can no longer to be confined on a single shelf. If we have to give it a label, I say we call it survival writing. Or, better yet, write.


Michelle Nijhuis’ book beloved beasts is available from WW Norton & Company. Copyright © 2022.


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