‘Nobody wants to be called a nature writer’ : a response by Rich Chiappone

I have never blogged before, so forgive me if I’m not good at this. (I sound like an innocent farm boy on his first trip to the brothel. Promise not to laugh at me, please!) Bill Sherwonit’s recent post discussed what seems obvious to everyone around him: the fact that nobody wants to be called a nature writer. I am careless where other people’s feelings are concerned, and I truly had no idea that an academic discussion of literary strategies (the pitfalls of tendentiousness, in this case) conducted among putative coequals at the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference could possibly be taken so personally. I genuinely like Bill very much: he is a kind and decent guy. And I admire his work ethic: he is one of the hardest working writers in Alaska—and that is saying a lot. Yet, injure him I did, apparently. Given that I can’t take back anything I said, I am flattered to find myself included among such estimable fellow miscreants as Gary Holthaus, and my friend and employer at the university, Dr. David Stevenson –both of whom also pierced Bill’s heart with their comments recently. It seems that just about everyone these days is questioning the efficacy of nature writing as a means to save the world, or even keep it on what shaky legs it has remaining.

For readers less sensitive on the subject I would suggest David Gessner’s fabulous essay “Sick of Nature,” an examination of the usefulness of nature writing by one of its finest practitioners, not just some wise guy from Anchor Point. Unlike me, Gessner (editor of Ecotone magazine) is an Ivy League educated man of letters of the highest order, and his cogency is beyond refute. He opens by complaining about “being constrained by the gentle straitjacket of the genre.” And then touches on the very question raised that fateful morning at the Kachemak Bay conference: “And not only do I preach from my pulpit, I preach to the converted. After all, who reads nature books? Fellow nature lovers who already believe that the land shouldn’t be destroyed.” Gessner goes on to say, “I have to admit that an essay is a much less effective way of protecting the land than a cudgel. In other words, I have to admit to impotence.” Amen.

What I said at Kachemak Bay and elsewhere and what I’ll stand by is this: If you want to write something to save the natural world, write a check to the Sierra Club, or the Nature Conservancy or Friends of Wildlife or Trout unlimited or any one of the other similar hard working organizations who know how to use the cudgel of professional lobbying. That is how you write to save the planet. Not by telling us, yet again, how swell nature is.

But my real concern is not about whether writing to promote some political idea is useful or effective. My complaint is that it leads to lousy writing. I believe that intentionally setting out to make a political statement in one’s writing is a big mistake, ESPECIALLY FOR BEGINNERS.

The reason is this: A new writer focusing on winning an argument (persuasion) will not be paying enough attention to the language itself (that is also why this letter will not be “literary”: I don’t care how it looks, only what it says). There are some very, very accomplished writers who can make a point and produce fine work too. My dear friend Nancy Lordcomes to mind (she forwarded me Bill’s post, which I appreciate because, among my many shortcomings, I suffer a near total obliviousness to what is being said in cyberspace, so I missed it on the Anchorage Daily News blog site and also here at 49Writers). Nancy, I might add, in all the years I’ve known her, has never referred to herself as a nature writer. As a side note, even Bill, when called upon to speak from the audience during the plenary panel discussion on the opening morning of the conference, rather hesitantly introduced himself with something of an apologetic, “I guess I’m what you call a nature writer.” Again, I ask this question: Why does hardly anyone want to be labeled thusly? Not even Bill Sherwonit, a national award winning nature writer, seems comfortable with that sobriquet.

Let me say now, that I just got back from a hike to the Anchor River behind my house, where I saw a lovely snipe at close range, and watched two adult eagles perched in a cottonwood side by side like the stern parents they are berating their adolescent youngster in that shrill eagle-speak they use for that purpose; I enjoyed examining the tracks of a brown bear, an otter, a coyote and several beavers; I thrashed my way through dense thickets of pushki and fireweed and felt like a kid again, playing along a river as I did most summer days of my youth. Two days ago I was in Mendocino county, California, hiking among the giant redwoods (the oldest living organisms on earth, and possibly the tallest too). There I spent some time on my hands and knees, turning over rocks in a nearly dry streambed looking for newts –amphibians also being a big part of my youth and in short supply here in Alaska. I mention all this by way of asking, dear reader, are you bored yet? Because I would be if I had to read this, and that is why nobody wants to admit that he is a nature writer. Because so darned much of it is self-absorbed drivel.

Bill’s post gave fine examples of the best of the genre, great writers all. But those are the exceptions to the rule. And the shelves in bookstores are stuffed with insipid imitations of those writers: thousands of hideously predictable paeans to nature’s glory. And then, if that isn’t bad enough, there is the self-righteous finger wagging, reminding us that we need to be better people. Christ, the dashboard of my pickup is bad enough:it scolds me for not buckling up or turning off my lights. Do I need to hear some proud creative writing major telling me that nature is wonderful and everything manmade is ugly and soul killing? And that too, is why nobody wants to be called a nature writer. You people did it to yourselves. As if the priggishness of that phony gasbag Thoreau wasn’t enough, we had to endure Annie Dillard’s garishly inflated prose and Edward Abbey’s smug “I’ve been there and you haven’t” superiority. And those are the BEST of the genre! What about the amateurs who want to share every little brown bird they’ve spotted? You guys have no one to blame but yourselves.

Look, nature writing may have been a literary form once, but it is fast becoming an embarrassment. Whose fault is that? If you can clearly remember my public outburst there at the Kachemak Bay conference, you will recall that I bashed science fiction in even more dismissive terms than nature writing. Oddly enough, nobody from the world of sci-fi seemed as vulnerable. What does that tell you? On the other hand, almost no one is still taking sci-fi seriously enough to teach it in a workshop at a writing conference. Maybe that’s the problem with nature writing: it hasn’t rolled over into the Graveyard of the Genres yet.

But let’s talk about my genre, so nobody’s toes get stepped on but those of my own kind. Yes, I hate to say it but, I am a genre writer too. I have published a number of stories and essays and even some poems in magazines falling under the rubric of the “hook and bullet” genre. Hunting and fishing magazines! Yech! I would admit to being a fishing and hunting writer right after I volunteer to have my lips cut off with a coping saw. The magazines I write for are, for the most part, unreadable: they are stuffed with sentimental, predictable pablum. Why? Because ALL genre writing is mostly very bad. Period.

Today I sat on a log in the sun and watched the humpies humping in the shallows of the Anchor River. At my feet caddis fly larvae, coated in bits of detritus (the way they protect themselves) crawled along the muddy bottom among the shoreline rocks. Smolts slashed at nearly invisible midges emerging from the water’s meniscus. The sunlight filtered through the cottonwood….OK! Hold everything. I know what you are thinking: “Who gives a ****? OR We’ve heard all this a thousand times.” And yet, I assure you I could go on like that for ten pages and as long as at some point I picked up my trusty fly rod and made a perfect cast and a trout rose and took that lovely little dry fly and leaped into the air like….er, like…um…like Rudolph Nureyev (or Fred Astaire or some other great dancer: M.C Hammer maybe?) that self congratulatory tripe would be snapped up by one of those magazines so fast you’d snap your neck watching it happen. And I’d probably win a fishing writing prize for it too. (Just for the record: in all the stories and essays I’ve published in those magazines no one has ever caught a game fish or shot anything at all). But, my non-traditional fishing stories (like the one with the lesbian, vegan animal rights lawyers/birdwatchers) aside, the outdoor sporting genre has —like the sci-fi genre and the western and the romance and the detective novel— become a joke too.

So, let this summer’s ignominious moments of public chagrin be a wake-up call. Unless nature writers want their writing to become a joke too, they need to look at what they’re producing. They can go one of two ways; they can eschew the literary establishment (which is pretty much what sci-fi and others have done), and say that they are a bunch of stuck-up, elitist academics (true indeed). OR they can start policing what gets published under the name of nature writing.

Here it is again in a slightly different way: the reason nobody wants to be called a nature writer is because nature writing it has become a genre. Once more, for the people in the back who aren’t sure I actually said that: All genre writing is mostly bad. All genres. All of them.

Here’s why.

First of all: sloppiness. What I said to the sci-fi writer in the crowd (when I wasn’t insulting nature writers) the morning of that panel at the conference was this: “When you write to deliver a message to an audience you know is already in agreement with your message, there is almost no need to be careful with the writing, and as a result, it is easy to get sloppy.” That is my point, entirely. Genre writers are careless with the language; that is the only mortal sin I believe in anymore. And when a writer has an unassailable position to start with, the probability of sloppy writing is so great it is almost assured in all but the most advanced authors Nature is good. Even I believe that. I swear, I spent days in the California redwoods and did not cut down a single tree. Honest. Anyone who has been to my house knows how many trees I have there. Me: Treehugger. I love ‘em. Really. Nature good!

Secondly: predictability. Genre writing does not encourage surprises. The editor of the very best hook and bullet magazine publishing today told me (in response to my complaint that the magazine in which I appear regularly was mostly awful) “Ninety-nine percent of the poems we get can be summed up in three words: Trout are keen!” Literary writing (writing about the human condition) is unpredictable. The human condition is unpredictable. You marry the woman you love and it turns into a nightmare. Who knew? The outcome of literary stories cannot be predicted. But genre writing (at its worst) can be predicted –too easily. The intrepid fly fisherman always catches the huge trout. The detective gets his man. The alien slime monster is blasted into a black hole by the brave interstellar cadet. The natural world is always better than the man made: Grow your own beans and drink spring water! This is why no one wants to be called a fishing writer or a nature writer. Period.(The science fiction writers don’t seem to notice the derision, god love ‘em.)

Bill’s post mentioned Sherry Simpson’s reading at UAA a couple weeks ago. She read an astounding essay about a kayak trip that was really about her love life and her relationship with her husband, and their deeply routed companionship and nearly lifelong devotion to each other. I have notified Sherry that she has been awarded the coveted Brass Cojones Prize for standing up there and reading something that personal and true. Amazing, wasn’t it? I think it was the most personal, revealing and moving essay I’ve ever heard read in public. Her husband, Scott, was sitting in front of me and he looked like he was going to burst out of his seat with pride, and with the kind of nearly palpable affection that most couples can only wish that decades of marriage had produced.

I‘ll take back every mean thing I’ve ever said about genres if more nature writers shake off the shackles of predictability (the gentle straitjacket, as Gessner put it) and do what Sherry Simpson did; write something about nature that takes us into territory we have never been to before: the deep dark interior of the writer’s heart . Then all of you can hold your heads up high and say it loud: “I’m a nature writer and I’m proud!”

We’ll even call you “literary” if you want.

Rich Chiappone teaches creative writing at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and is the author of a short story collection, Water of an Undetermined Depth.

9 thoughts on “‘Nobody wants to be called a nature writer’ : a response by Rich Chiappone”

  1. Wow. That's a lot of words. Maybe you guys should just rastle 'r sumthin'

    On a literary note, I write fiction about bad guys trying to kill people, and good guys trying to kill bad guys. I then perform as an audio podcast and let folks hear it on line. Lots of people like it. They are the kind that won't typically like the kind of literature that those who don't like mine would like. Therefore I cater to the audience that will most likely listen to what I have to say.

    If each author of each genre (even those who claim no genre, they being the in the genreless genre) kept in mind that no form is above or below any other form except in the eye of the beholder, that being the intentional reader, then arguments about who offended who and who's got the bigger anatomical feature will be rendered moot and we will have peace and harmony and a pint of Guinness for everyone in the world.

    uh….dang….guess this means I gotta rastle ya'll too…I used to could bench 420…so I'll take botha' yuns on

  2. If we're gonna weigh in like that, I'm pretty sure to come out at the bottom of the rastlin' heap, but I agree about the importance of audience. Bill's post and Rich's response has me thinking about what makes the cut as "literature" and why, and why (or whether) it matters. Might do my own post on that one of these days…

  3. If Michael Chabon can get away with "literary" genre writing, (avoiding sloppiness), as evidenced in The Yiddish Policemen's Union and Gentlemen of the Road, then I don't see why other writers can't also.

  4. I read a story by a nature writer and I’m going to use a piece of it as an illustration.
    In the newspaper story titled Port Woronzof, the nature writer notes that two old men on the trail are watching the birds as he is and he gets happy about that and greets them warmly on the trail. But then he turns around after a few paces and sees that the old men are watching airplanes – NOT the birds. The nature writer is “perturbed at this worship of technology.” He turns in disgust and dejectedly walks down the trail.
    I was left feeling perturbed by the writer after that. There was more of that attitude and I grew weary of the posture.
    Those old men he was “perturbed by” had their own story but the writer had written them off. I decided to give the old men their own story because it bothered me how the nature writer had dissed them on the trail. In the interests of full disclosure, my dad is a white haired old man on the trail and we’ve watched many planes together. He taught me to fly (kind of like those sparrow parents who are much more endearing to the nature writer). I wrote an alternate ending to the story for my own amusement. Here it is, flawed and corny, and just for hell of it:

    The old men watched the bird-watcher walk down the trail and one said to the other, “Hey buddy, remember when we used to watch how the birds come in for a landing when we were just learning how to fly?”
    The other old man laughed. “Those were the sunny slopes of long ago pardner.” He took out a flask and passed it to his buddy and they wet their whistles. “Maybe that youngun wants to be a fighter pilot too. Maybe he’s studying aerodynamics.”
    “Kids don’t think that way anymore. They think planes and birds have got nothing in common – go figure that one. Maybe he’s a scientist or one of those naturalists like Audubon.”
    “Yeah – maybe he’ll draw some fine pictures one day – looked like a smart kid – got his whole life ahead of him.”
    One old man picked up the box at his feet. “Let’s do this bud. Sun is just about right and the wind is fine.”
    “Gimme a slug of that whiskey will you?’
    They both took a swig and spilled some on the ground for their friend.
    “To the sunny slopes of long ago,” they said in unison. And they opened the container into the wind so that the ashes of their wing man would fly and scatter over the valley where they’d gotten their first wings, where they’d been young and strong and free and wild, where they’d watched the birds fly so they’d know how to fly their magnificent bits of winged technology, way back in the old days.

    But the wind wasn’t strong enough and ashes don’t really scatter like you think they will. They’re more like gravel and they were falling on the ground, not flying through the air.
    “More throttle,” they yelled together, and they took off running to give their buddy the lift he needed and then he flew -by god he flew- and his ashes were off on the wind now flying through the sun scattering light and shadow and the old men were running faster now, tears streaming down their laughing faces as they sent their good buddy off from the sunny slopes of long ago to his new patch of sky where they’d no doubt join him soon and by god they’d have a hell of a party then. They would, by god, they would.

  5. Some seem to be labeling the exchange here a "literary feud" or personal argument. I find it a provocative (in the good sense) dialogue, and it's certainly making me rethink this whole idea of genres. I thank Rich for reminding us of the Gessner essay, one of my favorites. My (re)reading of it is a little different than Rich's. Gessner's lament has to do with being boxed in as a "nature writer" by those who limit what they mean by that term, and he argues for expanding the territory, away from genre labels and into everything we call literature. We all get to identify ourselves however we want as writers–and I tend to shy away from the term "nature writer" for the same reason Gessner does, because people equate it with only earnestness and only birds and flowers. I admire Bill Sherwonit for taking ownership of the label and fighting for its rightful recognition–not within the "straitjacket" but in the most expansive way. To quote again Gessner: "To write about humans is naturally to write about the things that matter in their world: weather, wind, plants, trees, animals, and water." And, me paraphrasing Gessner paraphasing Stegner: It doesn't matter what you call it. It matters if it's art.

  6. I was in the audience at the panel discussion in question, and what I found most perplexing was how quickly the audience made the leap from writing to politics and activism, with a few genre-specific comments sprinkled in. I was there to improve my craft, not discuss how to change the world with it or to decide on what shelf in the bookstore it might belong.

    In fact, my "jobby job" by day is in the nonprofit sector. I hear about how to change the world all week long. All I want, when hanging out with other writers, is to have the chance to talk about writing, and how to get it closer to lasting art.

    To repeat what others have said (and much better), set out first to create a good piece of writing. Then your "message," if you have one, is more likely to get through. If it happens to fall into a particular genre, so be it. But good writing – that should always come first.

    By the way, for those determined to make real, lasting change in the world, I could give you a long, long list of organizations looking for funding – and volunteers.

  7. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Having enjoyed Rich's post for its spirited voice, I still feel the need to point out — isn't the genre argument, entertaining as it is, actually spurious? Aside from the decision of where to put books in the bookstore (pure marketing, an important but separate issue) isn't most quality writing post-genre these days? (Compare to America's current effort to become 'post-racial.' It doesn't mean we that we are beyond racial incidents, not at all, but it's all become much more complex and 'white' and 'black' never conveyed racial diversity adequately, anyway.)

    I'm thinking of some of my favorite no-doubt-about-it literary writers, all of them regular Booker or Pulitzer nominees/winners. Margaret Atwood's books include elements of sci-fi & fantasy (lots of politics, too). Kazuo Ishiguro, who wrote "Remains of the Day," also wrote the strange but compelling "Never Let Me Go," which could be categorized as sci-fi except that it's not — it's simply literature with a "what-if" speculative future bent involving organ donation.

    Michael the commenter already mentioned Michael Chabon, who won the Pulitzer with a book about comic artists that was itself inspired by Chabon's love for 1950s style comics and genre writing. Ian McEwan alternates between historically set books (like "Atonement" and "On Chesil Beach") and contemporary books like "Saturday." His early books were macabre and there are elements of the thriller and horror in some of his literary novels. Why bother labeling him? What's the point?

    So you can see, I'm puzzled. Nearly everything I read is a literary hybrid. Even the classics I read are hybrids.

    As for the authors who embrace their "genre" status and stay comfortably on their side of the bookstore (I'm thinking more pure sci-fi), plenty of those books are written with great attention to craft, they get incredible reviews and considerable respect.

    Which then leaves us only with the argument about writing well, period. Well, who would disagree with that?

    Rich pointed out his advice is aimed especially AT BEGINNERS. I respectfully disagree here, as well. I don't think we learn to write by adhering to some template and avoiding certain modes of writing. I think we learn by following our passions and our curiosities and experimenting with many ways to tell a story. Most beginner efforts will fail, but — surprise — nearly all efforts fail in some way. Wasn't it Beckett who said, "Fail. Fail again. Fail better."? That's my motto and my consolation.

    I can understand why a writer would avoid labeling himself, so as to avoid getting boxed into a corner. I can also understand why someone would reappropriate a label — whether "nature writer" or "sci-fi writer," with pride in all the great books that preceded their own.

  8. Just stumbled on this thoughtful, thought-provoking post while googling "nature writers california"…. I'm a nature writer and nature photographer — two dead birds under the same stone. I work for an environmental organization, but I try to steer clear of preaching in my writing.

    I actually thought the descriptions of your experiences in nature were absorbing and fun. I'm sure having one's writing described as "fun" is loathesome in serious artist circles, so I apologize.

    Every now and then I think about putting together a canon of nature writing, and then reading it all. I never get around to it, though, and your post probably tells why. I already genre myself into oblivion with mystery novels, and there's only so much a guy can stand.

  9. "Nature is wonderful and everything manmade is ugly and soul killing"–this sentence makes me think Rich is not reading very good nature writers, and that's his main problem. Although I guess if he has absolutely nothing to learn from Thoreau, Dillard or Abbey, perhaps he just wants to remain a "real outsider." Even his self-criticisms sound self-congratulatory. Curmudgeonly is much easier than humbly and critically engaged.

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