It’s been a great year for reading! Or, at least, every year is a great year for reading, and I’ve never done as much as I’ve done this year. Strange as it seems, the year in which I’ve worked hardest is also the year I’ve read the most, by every metric. The majority of it was probably to offset the noise around me—but a not-insignificant minority was for inspiration, and for optimism.
But as I look back at my year of reading, I find some odd themes. For one, whenever I’ve been utterly bewitched by a writer, I have gone to the bookstore and bought as much of their oeuvre as possible (I know this because one, and only one, aspect of my expenses has been driven up). For another, when I think of what I’ve read—particularly nonfiction—it’s often not because of what the book is ostensibly for (insofar as books have singular purpose, which they do not), but because of something else entirely. So let’s take a gander:
1. EpistemologyI’ve spent much of this year daydreaming about how people seem to know things with such certainty. Every year is like this, obviously, but this one far more than others. Imagine my frustration at the knottiness of the answer. What is Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies about? For me, it was a demonstration of an idea that simply the act of constructing fictions about oneself (within an act of fiction) makes the fictive more real. So, of course, when Florida came out, I threw myself at it as if it were my last allowed love affair with a book—and found something very similar, because I went looking for it. Many other things satisfied the same itch. Victor LaValle’s The Changeling, Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, Camille Bordas’s How to Behave in a Crowd were more like works of philosophy than fiction.
This was probably not altogether helped by the fact that I was simultaneously reading Seneca’s Consolations, Montaigne’s Essays, Plutarch’s Fall of the Roman Republic, and Lucretius’s The Way Things Are, and all manner of skeptical philosophers. I say this not to give myself a pat on the shoulder for being oh-so-academic: I quite literally went back to the source, so to speak, whenever things seemed even the tiniest bit off, both in real life and in literature, only to return far more confused. That, then, let me down a rabbit hole of “post-structuralist” literary theory. What that really means is: I’ve been hearing some names over and over for years now, and finally felt embarrassed enough to actually read them. And so I read Roland Barthes’s S/Z and The Pleasure of the Text, Jacques Derrida’s Writing & Difference, and although I likely understood the bare minimum, I understood enough to feel deeply suspicious that anything I subsequently read could have some actual import towards understanding the world or myself. Rachel Cusk’s Kudos, like the other two books in the Outline trilogy, then furthered the case for literature bearing no relation to reality. I wondered if I’d ever get away with a book fashioned out of a series of transcripts for every one-sided conversation I had with another person.
2. BafflementMy active search for all things baffling probably started after I read Antoine Volodine’s Minor Angels, Roberto Bolaño’s Antwerp, and Marie NDiaye’s My Heart Hemmed In. I loved them all, and I spent enough time with NDiaye to be somewhat confident about what I was reading, but mostly they made me feel very inadequate, in the way that ‘intelligent’ books often do. Ahmed Bouanani’s The Hospital made me feel ill, and I’m pretty sure I skipped a doctor’s appointment because I was slightly afraid I’d land up in purgatory. Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet induced my first ever existential crisis (or, at least, what I think was an existential crisis), and then Clarice Lispector’s The Chandelier made it worse. Ali Smith’s Autumn and Winter didn’t really help me be less baffled—though inhabiting their fractured, Brexit-era semi-narratives certainly helped to distract me.
Notably, as reprieve from all this, I read Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind, and then sat and thought for a while; soon, I had finished Feel Free as well and was caught between the twin sentiments of annoyance at her seemingly-tepid politics and awe at her ability to make me doubt everything nonetheless. In other words—a reprieve it was not. Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel swooped in a bit dramatically; inasmuch as it helped me feel my ambivalence wasn’t necessarily a problem. Also, it made me feel warm and fuzzy by helping with a bit with my imposter syndrome.
All this coincided with the fact that my patience, as with many others nowadays, was at an all-time low this year. I’ve been tired of liberal narratives for quite some time, and narratives set at maximum moral outrage that insist that this age of Trump is, for the first time in human history apparently, some unique assault on truth. So imagine my surprise when—having rolled my eyes through the first story—I found myself admiring the high-wire circus tricks on display in Curtis Sittenfeld’s You Think It, I’ll Say It, and simultaneously irritated with the far more radical and experimental My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. The stories in Charles Johnson’s Night Hawks felt taut and sparse like Sittenfeld’s, but with fewer surprises, a lot more Buddhism than I could fathom, and fewer bourgeois settings. I liked them. The prose in Christine Schutt’s Pure Hollywood stories was lyrical and very bourgeois, but less searching than it seemed to think it was. Anyway, my collision course with all things bizarre all came crashing down when I read César Aira’s The Literary Conference. It was more ludicrous than anything I had ever read. So naturally, I bought all the translated books by Aira, apparently one of the most baffling of all living writers. By about book 8, I began to understand his ways, and felt grateful for his unapologetically-leftist bent. Then, for every subsequent book, I started to take notes on details that I found baffling, to see if the writer ever returned to them. I avoided Karl Ove Knausgaard all year, on purpose. The day before I wrote this, I devoured Amparo Dávila’s collection The Houseguest in one sitting. Once, my flat-mate knocked on my door, and what he probably saw was me: bug-eyed, and furiously turning pages which screamed sometimes like newborn children, crushed mice, like bats, like strangled cats.
3. TraditionOne of the other things I did most this year was think about what kind of writer I wanted to be. Having read some avant-garde horror novels (above), I read a little Gothic literature. I re-read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and finding in it new things to love, turned to Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. The latter weaseled its way into a story I wrote which almost scared me to death—and then made me wonder how awful I must be to have written something like that. Still, by the time I had to read Mohammad Hanif’s Red Birds for review, I had read enough stuff to wonder why in the world South Asian writers kept writing such hackneyed stories when so many other possibilities existed, and unleashed a bit of a tirade on some very famous South Asian writers for the Chicago Review. I went back to Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, which I hadn’t liked at all the first time, and forced myself to pick out some things I did like. Somewhere in the middle, I read Fatima Farheen Mirza’s A Place for Us with some amount of glee, because it felt nothing like the reflexively Orientalist prose I’d gone off about. That made me very happy.
4. HistoryIt doesn’t feel right at all to talk about the books that had a major impact on my year without mentioning some of the amazing nonfiction, most of which satisfied historical curiosities whether they were meant to be historical or not. Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland and Meghan O’Gieblyn’s Interior States were expert antidotes for my irritation with tired Trump-era (ugh, even that term) tropes, and expanded my understanding of this very strange country in all sorts of empathic ways (and with O’Gieblyn, some unsettling ways, too). Alice Munro’s The View from Castle Rock was fascinating—though I knew in her case she had a small, not-insignificant luxury. After all, how far back one can construct one’s own family tree seems to be at least one measure of freedom. I read one very expansive history of the U.S. in Jill Lepore’s These Truths, and one over a far shorter period of time in Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies. One is enormous, the other skinny—but both are a little unsatisfying. I suppose These Truths should have satisfied my itch for epistemology too; but as it turns out that—for this American history dilettante—meeting the standards of one Howard Zinn is nigh-impossible.
So: on to kinds of history. I read Henry Gee’s Across the Bridge—about the evolution of vertebrates—and talked about it at work (my laboratory) daily. It proved infectious. Ursula Heise’s Imagining Extinction was magnificent. I didn’t want it to end. Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World was fascinating—who knew there was so much to know about the global matsutake mushroom trade!— and on a craft-level, a lesson for academics: see, you don’t have to be boring at all! Ann Blair’s Too Much to Know was utterly convincing in the way things one is already convinced about can be made even more convincing simply by becoming encyclopedic. Andreas Malm’s The Progress of This Storm and Deborah Coen’s Climate in Motion had equal and opposite effects: the first made me progressively more enraged and confused, the second made me progressively calmer and clearer. Essentially, environmental historians still haven’t quite figured out precisely how pessimistic they ought to be about climate change; but I suppose, in the Trump era, we should be happy they’re writing at all.
5. CryingI don’t prepare to cry when I read (who does?) But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the books that made me stop in my tracks and sob. Most times it had very little to do with the book and everything to do with my day or week. But sometimes it was most definitely about the book.
There is one particular moment in my editor Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State where the reader, just like the protagonist Daphne, has to process what has just occurred and cry. Anybody who has read it will probably know which moment this is (I’m not exactly being subtle), but that cry was one of the best cries I’ve ever had all year. Other similar stop-and-cry impulses happened during R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries and Porochista Khakpour’s Sick—both cries were probably more about me than the people I was reading about, but both were beautiful and cathartic and only one happened in public. Again—sometime in the middle of the year—I went to a philosopher to figure out all this crying business. The fact that I chose Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy for this task is pretty stupid when I think about it, because it didn’t make me cry at all, and I had thought it could teach me something about verisimilitude, but it did not. Anyway, that is what I did. Regardless, I read a whole lot after that to make myself cry, but nothing worked. Or at least, nothing worked as well as one particular book did; Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. I have one theory that explains why: I realized that the number of books I had read was directly proportional to how lonely I was. So take that, Barthes! Books may not resemble life, but the act of reading does.
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I launched a debut novel and bought three to five books at every store where I read on tour, so I struggle to even start to encapsulate this year in reading. And year-end lists tend to cycle around the same famous books again and again, so I’ll try not to repeat too much of what everyone else is crowing about. I read and loved many of those books but you don’t need me to tell you about them.
1. Dept. of Extreme Rereading
OK, that said, I have to shout out Alexander Chee’s essay “The Guardians,” in the collection you’ve read about literally (literally!) everywhere. I read this essay on a gray couch in a tiny house in Echo Park. As it unfurled, I felt my heart start to pound with that feeling of oh my god, this essay, this is going to be one of those, like Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter” or that part in James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son where he describes anger at the lunch counter. “The doll woke up, stretched, looked around, and believed it was me.” I read it, I reread it, I handed it to people I love with you have to read this, they handed it off to other people with the same, it transformed us all.
My other vital reread is the poem “Glitter in My Wounds” by CAConrad: “glitter on a queer is not to dazzle but to / unsettle the foundation of this murderous culture.” I read this in the November issue of Poetry, sitting at a tiny table in a big corporate bookstore while I waited for my dog to be finished at the vet across the street. I read “Glitter in My Wounds” so many times I think I’ve inadvertently committed it to heart. And it led me directly to Conrad’s collections The Book of Frank (2011) and While Standing in Line for Death (2017), half of which I accidentally read sitting on the living room floor between my dogs. I casually started reading and then couldn’t stop gorging myself on Conrad’s feral queer genius. (“You Don’t Have What It Takes to Be My Nemesis”: writer battle cry.)
2. Dept. of Chronology
The first book I read this year, traveling to snowy northern Minnesota, was Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks—fierce, lyrical, deeply intelligent both linguistically and emotionally, and the most honest and complicated book about reproduction I’ve ever read. The ending both wrecked me and restored me. The last book I read this year—as in I am reading it right now here in snowy northern Arizona—is The Mushroom at the End of the World by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, and it may be one of the most brain-tinglingly brilliant books I’ve ever read. Tsing takes the rare and undomesticable matsutake mushroom as an entry into the way life regenerates and reassembles in ruined spaces—it’s not just about mushrooms; it’s also about economies, scales, interspecies assemblages, human migration, and, well, as the subtitle says, “On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins.” I can feel this book reshaping my lens on the world even as I read.
3. Dept. of Collections
I read Deborah Eisenberg’s Your Duck Is My Duck in bed, sometimes way too late into the morning when I should have been up and working, and sometimes aloud at night to my companion as they fell asleep. Eisenberg is one of my all-time short-fiction heroes and Your Duck Is My Duck is, as usual, school for me. With each story, you’re just, like, submerged into a full-blown consciousness and set loose. Every time I read her I learn from her. Out of all the famous people in the world the only person I have ever felt legit starstruck by is Deborah Eisenberg. At an Iowa anniversary event, I couldn’t even bear to approach her, even while our mutual friend strolled over to chat.
I read Michelle Tea’s essay collection Against Memoir in a couple of quiet early summer afternoons on a friend’s pool house couch in Los Angeles; I was in a blue moment, and this wide-ranging collection took such good companionable care of me. Michelle writes like she talks—quick and insightful and candid, witty and vulnerable and curious and smart. (Describing her tweenaged hopeless love for Prince: “It was impossible. I didn’t cry. I just sort of exuded trapped melancholia into my environment, like a plant.”)
I read Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s debut Heads of the Colored People all over the place: in galleys in Richmond, Virginia, in hardcover on a friend’s couch in Los Feliz, on audiobook as I wound through the red rock cliffs and cacti on Arizona’s Highway 17. The title story, “Belles Lettres,” and “Fatima, the Biloquist” are so smart, emotionally rich, and necessary they’re going straight to my syllabi.
4. Dept. of Nepotism But Also 100 Percent True Fandom
The book I literally read and listened to more than any other this year, from proofs to press, is Blanket by K Thompson. Even if K were not my life companion and dog co-parent, I would be in love with this beautiful, strange, brilliant mediation on blankets, interwoven with brief glimmering shards about the death of a beloved young brother. When a passage can move you to cry as much on the tenth read as on the first, you know you’ve hit gold.
Abbey Mei Otis knocked me out with her fiction in a workshop I taught years ago at Oberlin, and this summer Small Beer Press published her first collection, Alien Virus Love Disaster. I read it at the coffee shop in the morning when I was supposed to be writing and at home as the August afternoon monsoons rolled in. Taut, freaky, unsettling speculative fiction where actual aliens, viruses, love, and disaster abound. So do great sentences. This book feels like the future. All hail the new writer generation.
5. Dept. of Actual Scandal
Like many of us who are academia-adjacent, I was completely captivated and repulsed by the Avital Ronell scandal that broke this summer: a story of queer mentorship gone terribly awry, brazen power abuse misrepresented as special “queer coding” when it simply bears all the hallmarks of an unchecked personality disorder, and an evidence chain of weird, cringe-inducing, wildly inappropriate emails. I think I read just about everything there was to read about this, and the two pieces that stuck with me most were a predictably witty, scathing article for the Chronicle of Higher Ed by Andrea Long Chu (“Academic celebrity soaks up blood like a pair of Thinx”) and an unexpectedly witty, scathing LARB post by (to my shock) old-school Marjorie Perloff (“Certainly I will make some new enemies, but that’s a chance this octogenarian is willing to take.”)
6. Dept. Of Local Treasures
This summer I moved into a ponderosa pine forest near Flagstaff, Arizona, and fell in love with the place the way you fall in love with a living thing. Flagstaff is a mountain town, a border town, the homelands of several native nations, a volcanic wonderland, a dark-sky city, and home to astonishing biological and geological diversity. Ever since, the book I have picked up more than any other this year—I read it on the couch, I read it in the car, I pull it out on the side of the hiking trail—is Geology Underfoot in Northern Arizona. This information-packed, funny, friendly book has me all hopped up on things like the difference between rhyolite and basalt, why the peaks outside my window are shaped as they are, infant volcanoes, and mining and hydrology crises. The Book of Hopi by Frank Waters and Oswald White Bear Fredericks is a gorgeous gathering of origin stories, Hopi world views, and artwork, as told by 30 Hopi elders. Sharing the Skies: Navajo Astronomy, a book I recently picked up in a bead shop in town, describes the intricate, awe-inspiring astronomy and cosmology of the Navajo; in a place so dark and clear-skied that I can actually see the Milky Way overhead, I’m starting to learn my way around the constellations, and the stories here captivate me far more than the old Greek ones. Finally, two weeks ago I picked up Sherwin Bitsui’s brand-new book Dissolve, a collection of brief, sharp, glimmering pieces that accrue into a single long poem rooted deeply in place. “This plot, now a hotel garden / its fountain gushing forth— / the slashed wrists of the Colorado.”
In 2018 I’ve thought more than ever about the Colorado River. I lived half the year in Los Angeles, the heedless beneficiary of that river’s diversion, a place where people spend that water foolishly like an inheritance they never had to work for, and then I lived half the year here in northern Arizona, where the litigious control of that river has caused relentless ecological and cultural disaster for the people, animals, and plants indigenous to the place. Everything I read this year (both listed here and not) moved me, shaped me, and cracked open new understandings for me, but perhaps nothing has been more influential or important to me than reading books about the place where I now live. When the contemporary world is falling apart, it helps me to turn to geological time and to scientific and indigenous knowledge about the ground beneath my feet and the sky overhead. The more I learn, the more I love it, with awe, with desperation, and with the understanding of how my own settler presence is a threat—yet how in the ruins we can find new and remarkable growth and assemblages. If there’s one thing I’ve learned this year, it’s that the ground beneath your feet holds the stories of everything.
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For the burgeoning fields of environmental humanities, it has long since become a commonplace notion that there isn’t really any such thing as “nature” or “wilderness”: both words used to connote real places—pristine and untouched places—but with the increasing knowledge that such a state of being likely never existed, the words come up empty. There are, however, new narratives: Through a case study of the global matsutake mushroom trade, anthropologist Anna Tsing shows compellingly in The Mushroom at the End of the World that the human-disrupted landscapes we find everywhere are worthy of study.
How far do we have to look to find that in the stories we tell today? Not far at all. Lauren Groff’s collection of stories, Florida, seems to see every landscape it describes as contaminated—the wreckage of things wrought by both humans and non-humans. In “Dogs Go Wolf”—a survivalist tale of two sisters stranded on an island, abandoned and threatened by adults—more than monkeys, more than dogs, it is a menacing man from whom the sisters hide. “He moved toward the boat and kicked it once, twice, then the girls saw the rotten wood break apart, and a hundred frightened bugs ran out.”
Groff rarely allows herself the common narrative—what is termed “declensionist” in academic works, i.e., the conventional narrative trope of “human beings cause progressive degradation,” a trope that is, depending on your point of view, incorrect, selective, colonialist, racist, and/or anthropocentric. In one instance, she allows it smack-dab in “Snake Stories,” a story, arguably, about ambivalence itself:
In February, one day, I found myself sad to the bone. A man had been appointed to take care of the environment even though his only desire was to squash the environment like a cockroach. I was thinking about the world my children will inherit, the clouds of monarchs they won’t ever see, the underwater sound of the mouths of small fish chewing the living coral reefs that they will never hear.
But because this is an ambivalent story, this passage follows soon after the narrator asks her son, “Why, of all beautiful creatures on this planet of ours, do you keep writing about snakes?” He answers, “Becus I lik them and thy lik me.”
Although I myself am uncertain about the extent to which we ourselves are aware of how literature is changing with regard to nature, when you begin to see the ugliness, the ambivalence—the “contamination”—of nature in one place, you begin to see it everywhere. Carmen Maria Machado’s justly lauded collection Her Body and Other Parties, for instance, seems to me just as much a realist rebuke of the triteness of “nature” as a work of science fiction or fantasy. The tentative resident at an artist’s colony, for instance, finds the horrors of nature everywhere: She tests the railings on the deck of a cabin “to see if anything was rotting or came off in my hand like a leprous limb”; looking up in the bathtub, she finds a showerhead “dark and ringed with calcified lime, like the parasitic mouth of a lamprey”; when the discovery of a rabbit she had previously run over turns up outside her studio door, she observes that “its visible organs glistened like caramels, and it smelled like copper.” Kneeling to the rabbit’s carcass, she apologizes. “You deserve better than that,” she says.
What does it deserve? Where did this vein of what I can best call un-nature writing begin? When did the environmental historians and anthropologists begin to convene with novelists and storytellers to arrange this complicated vocabulary? More precisely—when did we begin to recognize the banality of “nature writing,” a legacy largely assumed, correctly to some degree, as that of the Romantics?
The answer, in short, is: We didn’t. The legacy of long, meandering, anthropocentric meditations on nature—be they through Wordsworth’s “tranquil restoration” by nature through springs, sycamores and sober pleasures in “Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798,” or Coleridge’s hymn to “green vales and icy cliffs” in “Hymn before Sun-Rise, in the Vale of Chamouni”—may actually be very much with us.
When we think of “nature writing,” a common Romantic phrase that comes to mind is “sublime.” Sublime, too, is an unstable word. But unlike “wilderness,” which has switched from negative to positive connotations, the sublime is more capacious. When Edmund Burke wrote about the sublime, it was to refer to “the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” One assumes that could apply equally to the experience of death as it would be to experiencing vertigo while bungee jumping in the redwood forests of Humboldt County, California.
Paradoxically, it is both a banality and a point of actual contestation to confront Romantic literature as the era of simply “nature writing.” The literary scholar Alan Bewell, who focuses particularly on British Romanticism, admits that one of the biggest problems he faces “in writing about or teaching British Romantic poetry to a mainly urban audience is to explain why most of these poets … spent so much time talking about landscapes and rural scenery, describing the seasons and the weather, and meditating on birds, flowers, mountains, rocks, and trees.”
Bewell would do better to start off with why the works of Romantics are so heavily contested in literary studies. Bewell himself represents a school that calls itself various names—as, frustratingly, many academic schools do—but ecocriticism should suffice. Broadly, the ecocritics argue that what the Romantics’ preoccupation with nature represented was a response to modernity, one that foreshadowed the biological, materialist understanding of “nature” that formed the basis of modern environmentalism. The Romantics in other words, were “proto-ecologists.”
Collapsing a whole academic school of thought is an act of heresy, so allow me to pause and insist that the ecocritics are obviously not a monolith, nor do they agree entirely on particular works. Still, writ large, ecocritics argue for some degree of coherence in the Romantic tradition. This is, in and of itself, controversial. The British literary critic Marilyn Butler, for instance, who lived long enough to see the beginnings of these tensions in the meeting of environmental and literary studies, was scathing on the attempts to slot things in neatly. Butler argued that the contemporary intellectual tradition saw “aesthetic discussions often [resting] upon the belief, also ultimately historical, that there is a single coherent Romantic movement. This belief is reflected in, say, the unquestioned coupling in a book or article of Coleridge and Shelley, or in the widely found inference that a work with Romantic traits has found something it ought to have found, that it is profounder and better than work characteristic of an earlier date.”
Ecocriticism developed as a counterpoint to “new historicism,” the literary theory that emerged in the mid-20th century and argued for examination of the cultural contexts of literature as a way to chart intellectual history. New historicism ascended along with postmodernism; the two are historically connected. The ecocritics are a response to these new historicists, academics for whom the ecocritics charge “nature” was merely a smokescreen behind which ideology, history and politics hid. According to Bewell’s characterization, the new historicists saw “nature” “as an obstacle to both the history that human beings make and the histories that they write, and since it places limits on human freedom, the task of most historicist criticism of Romantic literature has been to penetrate or dissolve nature so that the human agency that stands behind it can be recognized.”
It boggles the mind a bit that these two forms of literary theory do not find a common middle, but most often they haven’t. More than once, a new historicist has argued that there is no such thing as nature; in turn, ecocritics have objected strongly that that is a rebuke to materiality itself. But contemporary literature has certainly found a middle. In an essay entitled ”Not Your Grandfather’s Nature Writing” in the Fiction Writers Review, Andrea Nolan points to a spate of literary journals like Flyway, Ecotone, and Orion, which focus on the environment and distance themselves from “nature writing.” Indeed, she quotes the mission of Ecotone as being distinguished from “the hushed tones and clichés of much of so-called nature writing.” As far as I can discern, however, the most radical change in register for un-nature writing lies in complicated human/nonhuman juxtapositions. In Lauren Groff’s most recent story for The New Yorker, “Under the Wave,” an arresting little passage appears mid-story in what reads as a wild nightmare with a fluid sense of time:
Images accumulated. A woman in filthy panties limping down a road with a bone knuckling out of her arm. A mass of faceless people huddled around a fire. The gray vinyl of a bus seat, scored like aged skin, and the strange flat brown landscape passing dreamily by the window.
Filthy panties. Bone. People. Fire. Gray vinyl. Aged Skin. Flat brown landscape. These juxtapositions of the excruciatingly human with classically-descriptive words for nature that seem so new are made possible in a literary landscape that is realizing how incontestable it is that nature is inseparable from the human and the cultural. Thus far, literary theory has found this difficult to attain, especially for the work of the original “nature writers.” As postmodernists tend to dismiss materiality entirely, the ecocritics bristle from dismissing it even the slightest: Ceding any ground at all would be to dismiss the aesthetic and, crucially, ecological worth of the Romantics’ work.
Take, for instance, Coleridge in “France: An Ode”:
O ye loud Waves! And o ye Forests high!
And O ye clouds that far above me soared!
Thou rising sun! thou blue rejoicing Sky!
Yea, everything that is and will be free!
The ecocritic Karl Kroeber notes that “Coleridge can imagine the sky as joyous because he feels that freedom of individual being is to participate fulfilling in a dynamic unity of forces greater than himself but to which he can satisfyingly belong.” Granted, Coleridge’s invocation of forms of unity emphasize an interconnectedness with nature that can be termed “proto-ecological” because they emphasize both the aesthetic power and beauty of nature as well as the practical and social duties of man to the natural world. Further, it would be hard to argue that this view of nature does not represent some actual thing—the sky is, basically, blue; the forests, often, very high.
But simultaneously, the ecocritics decry the commercialization of ”nature” based on the idea that human beings only leave alone those natures that they do not value. Could it not be, then, that the Romantics’ views led us here directly by romanticizing the pastoral and pristine and wild—by representing the nature that deserved to be valued? After all, for every complex representation of the environment through writers like Groff, Machado, and those who grace the pages of Flyway, Ecotone, and Orion, there are non-literary works that play right into the hands of problematic assumptions of nature. The Pulitzer Prize-winning work of science journalism The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, for instance, has been heralded as a major work charting the loss of species. At the same time, however, it has been criticized by environmental scholars for its focus on some species and not others, for its unquestioning assumption of “species” as the unit of analysis, and for assuming that some Platonic form of “nature” existed before industrial humans began destroying it.
And so even as the postmodernists have lost ground, problems remain. While ecocritics take their cue from environmental scholars about the need to examine environmental and natural themes in their work, the idea that “nature” itself might be a construct—many, many different constructs, in fact—remains largely unquestioned. It’s a reactionary impulse. As literary critic Dana Phillips has argued, even as the ecocritics bring back the idea that there is something material, biological, and empirical about the world (i.e., “nature” is not entirely a cultural construct), what that “something” is remains to be settled—not in ecology or humanistic inquiry, and definitely not in Romantic literature. For compare Coleridge to the Percy Bysshe Shelley in the third stanza of “Mont Blanc” personifying the mountain itself: ugliness (“rude, bare, and high”) and bleak destruction (“Ghastly, and scarr’d, and riven”):
Far, far above, piercing the infinite sky,
Mont Blanc appears – still, snowy, and serene;
Its subject mountains their unearthly forms
Pile around it, ice and rock; broad vales between
Of frozen floods, unfathomable deeps,
Blue as the overhanging heaven, that spread
And wind among the accumulated steeps;
A desert peopled by the storms alone,
Save when the eagle brings some hunter’s bone,
And the wolf tracks her there – how hideously
Its shapes are heap’d around! rude, bare, and high,
Ghastly, and scarr’d, and riven. Is this the scene
Where the old Earthquake-daemon taught her young
Ruin? Were these their toys? or did a sea
Of fire envelop once this silent snow?
None can reply – all seems eternal now.
What Shelley did was strip away some of the sentimentality of nature writing. “Mont Blanc” is, after all, an expression of Shelley’s atheistic beliefs and his political reformist idea that without human imagination, all those silences would be vacuous (“Mont Blanc” is famously considered a rebuke to Wordsworth and Coleridge).
Whatever “Mont Blanc” is for the Romantics, it’s clearly not just a well-described mountain.
In the Romantic works I’ve encountered, none poses as direct a challenge to the generalizability of the Romantic view on nature than Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The fable has been seen, variously, as anti-modern, a cautionary tale about science and technology that echoes contemporary fears, as a nightmare about “nature” gone wild, and a plea for stewardship: that humans must care about nature so it does not go awry.
To see how different Mary Shelley was from her contemporaries, consider Wordsworth’s “Lines Written in Early Spring,” which begins with Wordsworth glorifying Nature and decrying the state of Man:
To her fair works did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran;
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.
Despite Wordsworth’s “faith that ever flower / Enjoys the air it breathes,” there is also doubt:
The birds around me hopped and played,
Their thoughts I cannot measure:—
But the least motion which they made
It seemed a thrill of pleasure.
The doubt, of course, is less of a service to the representation of nature (“If such be Nature’s holy plan”) than to Wordsworth’s lament of “What man has made of man.” Even as Wordsworth trucks in pleasure and invokes doubt and uncertainty, his representation of nature is relatively benign. Autonomy is granted to “nature,” but it is a gentle and soothing sort of autonomy. It stands in contrast to Wordsworth’s helplessness about the state of man.
Needless to say, this is fundamentally different to the autonomy of nature that is presented in Frankenstein. The famous passage where Victor beholds his making:
For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.
This grants Victor a terrifying hyper-autonomy. Where Shelley’s Frankenstein departs from Wordsworth is in the hyper-autonomy both of man and of nature when man is hubristic enough to wish to dominate it, which is why Frankenstein is thought so often as the anxious industrial precursor to living in the age of anthropogenic climate change. Indeed, more than one literary critic has seen the current geological epoch of the Anthropocene as the modern-day Monster from Frankenstein.
There are problems with reading even Frankenstein as the “proto-ecological consciousness” of a Romantic writer. The most major is that it collapses “nature,” “science,” and “technology” as if they were all part of the same whole. There is considerable ambivalence in Frankenstein about this. It is, after all, the Monster who regards “nature” in a similar fashion to many of the Romantics:
Autumn passed thus. I saw, with surprise and grief, the leaves decay and fall, and nature again assuming the barren and bleak appearance it had worn when I first beheld the woods and the lovely moon. Yet I did not heed the bleakness of the weather; I was better fitted by my conformation for the endurance of cold than heat. But my chief delights were the sight of the flowers, the birds, and all the gay apparel of summer.
The obvious other problem with the “proto-ecological” Frankenstein is that it blurs too many lines. Not only does it transpose an eloquent man-beast who resents his birth, his maker, his countenance, and society—all qualities and emotions that many humans express and are known to have—onto the “nature” that faces us in the Anthropocene; it also casts Mary Shelley as the prescient seer of the Romantic movement, undercutting the prescience of other skeptics with less forceful work.
If Mary Shelley is the Romantic double of Lauren Groff and Carmen Maria Machado, it goes without saying that William Wordsworth has his, too. In an essay in n+1, “Thinking Like a Mountain,” environmental historian Jedediah Purdy skewers the anthropocentric conceits of contemporary works of nature-writing, works that bear an uncomfortable similarity to “Mont Blanc”:
For writers, this strange world — tamed to death, feral as a wild hog — has inspired a fascination with nonhuman action, agency, and consciousness. This is true in high academic culture, where literary scholars wax lyrical on the agency of storms and trees, political economists propose that capitalism be seen as both an ecological and a social form, and social theorists outline ethnographies and alliances across species. But as usual the academic trends are just the owl pellets of Minerva. Stronger evidence of a mood is the ambitious, often excellent, sometimes ridiculous writing, from essays and memoirs to popular science, that asks obsessively: What is looking back at us through other species’ eyes? Could we ever escape our own heads and know the viewpoint of a hawk? Is there such a thing as thinking like a mountain?
Like me, Purdy also finds ridiculous that this is all still called “nature writing” in an age where no one knows what “nature” is. But his broader point is key: Whatever this genre, it has made a comeback, just as more complicated works of un-nature sit beside them on shelves.
Tsing’s work has its doubles, and so does the ecocritic’s. It’s like the ecocritic sitting next to the new historicist: The battle lines are real but also bewildering. They probably tell us more about ourselves than about “nature,” but they may also be very captivating. Or if you prefer: distracting.
After all, as Purdy points out, it remains both “baffling and beautiful” that Thoreau once asked of his pond: “Walden, is it you?”