Today’s nature writers have a serious decision to make. If we still want to be thought of as anything other than incestuous literary outcasts who are the only audience for our own writing, then we better think hard about what it means that America’s premier novelist is a birder writing about overpopulation and land conservation. If we hope to end up something other than jaded academics that make a living teaching expensive nature writing classes that students love but aren’t professionally going to benefit from at all, then I say we get Franzen’s back.
Here’s why: Franzen has brought environmental issues into the limelight, and not just in the literary sense. He’s a household name. For someone writing about environmental problems, that’s an accomplishment that can’t be understated. Who else besides Al Gore can claim such name recognition? These days, not only has writing about environmental issues become marginalized and out of vogue, heck, being ecologically literate isn’t even important.
In a fantastic article published in the journal Places, Adelheid Fischer discusses the phenomenon she rightly labels “eco-confabulations” running rampant in contemporary American literature. The principle offender she cites, which happens to be another of America’s biggest novelists, is Michael Cunningham and his A Home at the End of the World. Hawks fly at night, to name one ecological gaffe, and the book also features dead armadillos and Joshua trees in the Sonoran desert. I’ve never been to and don’t know much about the Sonoran desert, but apparently those two species have nothing to do with it.
Let me mention another offense by a bestselling work of nonfiction. After I finished reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, a necessary chore for any writer who wants to know what’s actually selling, I talked to other writers about the book. The criticisms rained down like trash from an erupting landfill. Her navel-gazing. Her absurd privilege. Her numbing prose. Her anti-feminism. All things I passionately agree with, but you know what literally made me pound my fist on the table as soon as I read it? The moment when Gilbert graciously dedicates a few sentences to describing the Bali landscape. She mentions hummingbirds feeding at the flowers in her garden.
That’s the sort of ignorant garbage that makes me seriously hate the New York literary establishment. Takes about five seconds to look at any ornithological textbook and see that hummingbirds are a strictly New World family. That would never happen with a reference to a piece of artwork or historical event. Editors check for that. Gilbert’s embarrassing ecological illiteracy could have been avoided, first, if any one of her editors had known this basic fact about hummingbirds, which are far and away not the most obscure bird family, or, second, if any of them had not been so pathetically lazy and checked.
Now compare to Franzen. One of Freedom‘s principle characters is an unapologetic birder who not only suffers social exclusion because of it, but invests all his professional energies in trying to preserve one endangered species, the cerulean warbler, that’s handsomely featured on the cover of the book. His passion for conservation is what drives him. In a Kenyon College commencement speech, Franzen flame-throwered our culture’s cowardly infatuation with “liking” things and instead advocated that we go for what counts: love. Sounds a lot to me like the timeless environmental imperative, so often espoused by its accompanying literature, to love the land and care for it. A righteous agent has infiltrated the literary world and mainstream American culture.
As an aspiring writer interested in not being an ecological dumb-dumb, Franzen is about the only current practitioner that gives me any hope. He gives me the hope that I might, just might, not have to take refuge in academia and charge debt-laden students exorbitant fees so I can teach dubiously useful craft techniques, and then contradict myself by attaching the caveat that there are no rules for good writing that can’t be broken. Maybe I can one day actually sell my work to readers instead of merely citing a handful of publications as justification for a teaching position. Maybe I can make a living as a writer. That’s the hope he gives me.
But only part of it. Consider this: When was the last time an American author like Franzen managed to get so many readers thinking about environmental issues? Probably Rachel Carson. And before that? Thoreau? It’s been a long time since Thoreau.
Should we speak of Jonathan Franzen in the same breath as these giants of American nature writing? Is he even a nature writer? For starters, has he published in Terrain? I don’t think so. What about Orion, Ecotone, Hawk & Handsaw, Isotope, Precipitate? These are the homes of nature writers, so it seems he hasn’t run the necessary gauntlet. But it doesn’t matter, because who among us can get an essay about birding into The New Yorker, where literally a million people might read it? He has three that I’m aware of.
And in a way, shouldn’t writers who care about the natural world be striving to get published anywhere besides nature journals? Doesn’t that just reinforce the trend of our growing ostracization, irrelevance even?
Even among nature writers and other friends of the natural world, birders get shoved under the bus. David Gessner, a birder and author, does exactly that in Sick of Nature. One of his cute little zingers is that he’s sick of “contemplating the migratory patterns of the semipalmated plover.” He goes on to roast just about every big name nature writer except Edward Abbey, who he seems to have a big crush on. Nature writing has been reduced to infighting, and by the mere act of penning such an accusation, I’ve become yet another combatant. Even Franzen goes along with it a little. In the Kenyon College speech, he said, “it’s very uncool to be a birdwatcher.”
At least with his latest novel we’re making progress instead of regressing, which is what the societal stature of both literature and the environmental movement have been doing for awhile. That’s why I love Freedom. It makes me feel like we’re back on the ascent. It doesn’t really matter if all the novel’s technical aspects are perfect. Frankly, I was disappointed that he killed off one character—who wasn’t much more than a combination sex object and showcased philosophy—in order that two other characters could eventually get back together. That could have been improved, but I don’t care. It’s just not that important in light of what he’s accomplishing.
What do I mean when I say we get Franzen’s back? For starters, how about a book review in any of the major journals? How about some critical theory? How about some discussion? The silence on behalf of the nature writing world says to me that if you’re a popular author, you’re not in the club. I pray it isn’t true, but how else can we explain that while the book is making waves in the rest of the literary world, we’re twiddling our thumbs, as if we don’t even know who he is.
I’m not saying nature writers should try and claim Franzen the way politicians tried to claim and benefit from recent protest movements like the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. I’m just saying this could be a landmark moment for nature writing, the moment when it stops being nature writing and becomes just writing, not a quarantined special interest sub-genre. In the literary world, this could be a game-changer. And if any of us still truly believes that literature can change the world à la Silent Spring, we had better get psyched.
Franzen is at the top right now, which means critics are going to relentlessly keep trying to take him down. He’s the most vulnerable, because he’s perched atop the greatest height. He has the farthest to fall.
I, for one, got his back.
Frank Izaguirre is a writer, ecocritic, and birder. He’s been published in Flashquake, Precipitate, and has something forthcoming in ISLE. Follow him on Twitter @FrankMIzaguirre.