Students of literature know all about the different schools of criticism. However, most people outside the field hear “literary criticism” and they think that this is the act of picking apart literature to say that it is bad or the writer unskilled. Not the case. In brief, literary criticism is simply the analysis of literature, basically in pursuit of meaning. The different schools (or methods, if you will) of literary criticism offer different approaches or perspectives in order to do this.
For instance, most would understand feminist criticism. For many and many years, the canon included male writers, criticism was performed by male critics- you get the picture. In about the 1970s feminist criticism became prevalent and those critics have since been scouring centuries of literature and reading it through a feminist lens.
Now, in the last couple of decades, anyway, a new school of literary criticism has been on the rise – eco-criticism – and it serves the purpose of analyzing the role that the environment has taken in the creation of literature, and the perspective with which we read it.
The Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment boasts a great number of articles which deals with explaining how this style of criticism works and how it is growing. In an article published on the ASLE website, “Wild Things: Forget deconstruction–today’s hippest literary critics have gone green,” author Gregory McNamee writes that the project most prevalent in this realm now is the construction of a canon of literature in which ecocritics are compiling the most important works of literature relative to the environment. Some included are Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, Mary Austin’s Land of Little Rain, Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge, and further down the list are other expected works by authors such asThoreau, and of course Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.
Other ecocritics are actually tackling the work to examine the role that the environment plays in previously renowned pieces of literature. Quite often, an ecocritic will treat the environment as a character in a text. Or more so, as explained by an article published by John Hopkins:
“Interaction with nature is imperative, for the ecocritics are not invoking the unblemished blue skies of the pastoral or sublime, at least not in terms of a transcendental escapism. Instead, like Clarke, they argue for the inter-relatedness of all factors within the ecosystem, from the social and the political to the phenomena of the natural world.”
Like other schools of literary criticism which consider the “Other,” such as feminism, gender-studies, Marxism, ecocriticism is a call for action. In the aforementioned John Hopkin’s piece, a book by Jonathan Bate, The Song of the Earth. In it Bate writes of ecology and the “language about our earthly dwelling place”(an idea he has taken from Heidegger), a place from which we have become divorced, then literature can return us to it. “There is a need to recover a more visceral response to what literature can do.”
Even those who are not experts then, in literature or the study of it can become ecocritics on another level. The next time you read a novel or poem, examine whether the environment makes an appearance, and what it has to say.
John Hopkins Guardian. “In the Green Team: James Hopkin looks at how eco-critics are sending ripples through literature.” 2001, 12 May. 2008, 17 May. http://www.guardian.co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,4185023,00.html
McNamee, Gregory. “Wild Things: Forget deconstruction – today’s hippest literary critics have gone green.” Utne Reader. Nov.-Dec 1997: 14-15 http://www.asle.umn.edu/archive/intro/utne.html
ASLE online: The Association for the Study of Literature and Environment