Uncategorized | September 14, 2011
Art and Activism
Recently I’ve embarked on the task of reading for my PhD comprehensive exam. One of my focuses is on contemporary environmental fiction, and while assembling a list of representative works, I found myself constantly wanting to add works of environmental creative non-fiction—works that strongly advocated for various ideas on conservation. I’ve been trying to resist this since my own emphasis is on writing and studying fiction, but have also been forced to ask myself why is it the case? Why does it seem so much more natural to look to nonfiction for activism?
Plenty of environmental or conservationist writers work in both genres. Wendell Berry, Barbara Kingsolver, Barry Lopez, Annie Dillard, and Rick Bass all come to mind. But if I wanted to examine their activism, I feel that I would turn first to their essays. This makes sense. An essay can potentially be more directly argumentative and assertive of a specific world-view, can develop pathos for an author’s explicitly stated perspective. It seems common for environmental nonfiction to present a direct and powerful argument, complaint, or advocacy. In Rick Bass’s book-length essay The Nine-Mile Wolves, for example, while Bass is interested in the narrative and artistry of a well-told story, he is always clearly moving toward a final argument for the continued re-incorporation of wolves into the American environment, as well as for a more balanced relationship between nature and humankind.
Much more difficult to call to mind are works of fiction that are as explicit in their activism. The most iconic is Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang. Though he is also greatly respected for his conservationist nonfiction, Abbey’s activism seems most remembered as tied to the environmental warfare that occurs in the The Monkey Wrench Gang, as represented by the dam-busting and eco-sabotaging characters that the reader is so clearly meant to empathize with and root for. But this novel seems the exception.
When I think of other works of environmentalist fiction, such as many of T.C. Boyle’s novels or the works of the aforementioned contemporary authors, the conservationist perspective seems much more subtle and sublimated in the narratives and characters and settings and conflicts. The activism may still be there, but it is buried beneath an emphasis on the story, versus in activist nonfiction where the story is being wielded to best assert a point of view or ongoing question held by the author. Maybe it has to do with the frequent advice young writers of fiction get to avoid writing stories with strongly stated morals, or from a fear of appearing didactic and heavy-handed—all of which seems like good advice. However, in environmentalist fiction and poetry (as well as in the best environmental creative nonfiction, now that I consider it) art is the emphasis, not activism.
It seems beneficial to have both modes of environmental advocacy. An explicitly activist essay might have much more success accomplishing or advocating for some concrete goal like the reintroduction of wolves, the dangers and need for regulation of industrial pollution (as in Rachel Carson’s now famous Silent Spring), or other such causes. And a subtly environmentalist essay, memoir, poem, story, or novel might have a unique potential to gradually alter a nation’s environmental worldview or encourage some degree of increased empathy with an issue.
I wonder what others make of the connection between art and activism, and whether the same sort of division of focuses might be going on in other sorts of activism?
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