14 November, 2011Issue 17.3EnvironmentLiterature

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Ecocriticism

Chris Maughan

Lit and EnvironmentTimothy Clark
The Cambridge Introduction to Literature and the Environment
Cambridge UP, 2011
270 Pages
£55
ISBN 978-0521896351

 


The title of Timothy Clark’s The Cambridge Introduction to Literature and the Environment may strike many as obvious, or perhaps even dull, especially in light of the titles of numerous other introductions to this emergent intersection of literary study. Take, for example, Glotfelty and Fromm’s The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology or Lawrence Coupe’s The Green Studies Reader: From Romanticism to Ecocriticism or, indeed, Lawrence Buell’s tantalisingly framed The Future of Environmental Criticism. All seem intent, in their titles alone, on carving a new niche. It is hard to tell whether it was Clark’s decision to forgo this nomenclatorial investment, or whether it was simply sober editorial demands. Nonetheless, Clark’s rather pedestrian title ultimately complements his own awareness of the various conceptual problems that afflict this intersection and the difficulty in pulling together the disparate strands of output ascribed to it.

The title is, in short, a surprisingly strategic gesture. In my view, Literature and the Environment works as the first serious attempt to cover this intersection as an intersection, not as something which from first principles the commentator wishes to set up as a “new approach”. Whilst this is clearly something Clark has his doubts about, repeatedly referring to ecocriticism’s “faltering” contributions to environmental causes, it also remains something for which he preserves a significant degree of optimism. It is the foundational neutrality of his approach that permits him this dual position. Clarke is able to stand at a distance and function first and foremost as a critic, unimplicated in the case that is being made the world over for ecocriticism’s literary inauguration.

Of particular interest to Clark in this regard is the notion of a definitive ecocritical methodology. Given particular focus are claims that ecocriticism, due to its dependence on claims originating from the environmental science community, lends itself particularly well to interdisciplinarity, and that the distinctive feature of ecocriticism is the “multiple literacy” exercised by its proponents and demanded from its readership. “Ecocriticism”, Clark claims, “often subjects itself to an ethic of truthfulness, accuracy and coherence of a kind more often associated with scientific or professional academic work”. However, concluding a fairly scathing close reading of essays by two self-proclaimed interdisciplinary writers, Stephen Jay Gould and Ian Marshall, Clark reflects, “In sum, ‘narrative scholarship’ of this kind serves perhaps as a reminder of just how difficult rigorous interdisciplinarity would be”.

The book itself, however, is anything but a categorical write-off of ecocriticism’s capacity to achieve such a methodological novelty; rather, it is better seen perhaps as a call for redoubled efforts toward attaining a true interdisciplinarity, that is, one “attentive to strict modes of argument, to scientific method, as well as subject matter”. In this regard, Clark’s attitudes are best reflected in the respect he has for the biologist and writer Donna Haraway, whose notion of “multiple literacy” Clark frequently refers to as a promising paradigm for successful interdisciplinary methodology. As his scepticism suggests, however, he maintains that this approach remains far from full realisation.

What might also strike readers is the lack of reference to conventional fiction. There is a lot of literary theory, a lot of discussion of environmentalism in a direct sense, but proportionately less straightforward literature connected to it. This is, in part, a function again of the breadth of Clark’s brief (“literature” after all isn’t necessarily literary), as well as a tentative endorsement of Robert Root’s idea of the value of a “creative non-fiction”. It is also perhaps an intimation that any lack is in fact a result of the unprecedented scale of contemporary environmental problems; that is, we are still waiting for literary responses commensurate with the scale of environmental realities. Via this approach, Clark repeatedly taps into a very fruitful debate about the “literary space” which sees him not only arguing for the literariness and value of interdisciplinary writing and non-fiction, but also interrogating the very stability and usefulness of fiction itself.

Take for example Clark’s interest in Anne Dillard, who courted controversy in her 1974 Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, in which she had presented fiction as fact, apparently regarding the latter mode as more efficacious than the former. So too, the problems encountered in the work of writers such as Gretel Ehrlich, who, in her 2004 novel, The Future of Ice, often “asserts as given scientific fact” things that are, according to Clark, “very inaccurate”. Due again to the close proximity of her writing to scientific inquiry, Clark concludes that “Ehrlich’s revisionist project is not refuted by her errors in basic science, but it is surely undermined” (my emphases). These examples are just two of many attempts made throughout the book that seek to “democratise” the literary field and contest generic hegemonies. “Such well used procedures of reading”, he claims, “usually treat fiction and non-fiction in the same way, as the arena of competing cultural representations and identity claims”. In doing this Clark raises important questions about the function of literature in the face of environmental crisis (real or perceived). But it is here, perhaps, that Clark falls short. Despite repeatedly raising these questions, there is little or no explicit attempt made to offer answers. In a field that is demonstrably about how we might prevent or mitigate environmental damage, Clark offers no real framework for considering literature’s capacity in this regard.

The combination of Literature and the Environment’s appreciation of the breadth of its field, added to those moments when it reveals problems within it (a feature structurally imbedded through the “quandaries” Clark has scattered throughout the book), ultimately frame this intersection as intriguingly amorphous. Particularly for students of the field, this will no doubt be encouraging: the problems and inadequacies that Clark highlights are presented as reasons to engage rather than as fatal flaws. This enticing quality is something that is supported by Clark’s own palpable enthusiasm for the intersection. Though he is often eager to lodge his concerns regarding the occasionally “opportunistic” nature of ecocriticism and its purported methodologies, it is obvious that he sees a future in it, a sentiment no less evident in the text’s closing lines, which see Clark “anticipating the daunting but exciting kinds of literacy essential in the centuries to come”, to which “ecocriticism offers its emerging and still faltering voice”.

Chris Maughan is reading for a PhD in English at the University of Warwick.