Jos Smith answered some questions for us about The New Nature Writing: Rethinking the Literature of Place, the latest volume in the Environmental Cultures series.
How would you describe your book in one sentence?
An appraisal of shifting cultural attitudes to nature and place in the UK over the last forty years through a detailed study of contemporary British and Irish nature writing.
What drew to you writing about this subject?
I was researching the relationship between contemporary poetry, ecocriticism and cultural geography when the ‘New Nature Writing’ rose to popularity in the literary presses (from around 2006 onwards). I began to feel that there needed to be some research undertaken that could explain where this phenomenon had come from, what about it was catching public attention in such an animated way, and why it was provoking such controversy and debate. I was struck by the fact that dismissals of nature writing by ecocritics in the US seemed to be working under a misapprehension about place and its various contemporary meanings. I felt that in contemporary nature writing in the UK there was an emphasis on place as a site of tension, ambiguity, creativity and openness (all ways of thinking about place that would come naturally to a cultural geographer) which complicated this rejection of place as conservative, bounded and insular. This animation of place culture seemed to be something that had arisen quite forcefully in the UK on the back of the environmental movement in the 1970s and so I set out to explore the relationship between the New Nature Writing and this earlier social and cultural movement as a way of explaining the vibrancy of contemporary place culture.
How long have you been researching it? How did you come to study it?
My interest was piqued in the subject in around 2008 and I received funding from the AHRC to undertake research more formally in 2009. It wasn’t until 2012 that I began putting the present book together though, using the research I’d undertaken previously.
What does your book focus on that hasn’t been explored elsewhere?
Although the New Nature Writing has been featured a great deal in newspapers, online, on radio and even on television, over the last ten years, it has received little critical and academic attention. This has begun to change in the last two or three years but this is the first book-length study to take the phenomenon as its primary focus. The book also promises a variety of different critical frameworks for thinking about distinctive ‘styles’ of place such as: The Local, The Wild, Edgelands, Islands, Archipelagos and Geology.
What initially drew you to Literary Studies?
I was writing literature myself – poetry and essays – and so was reading very broadly. I’ve always seen writing and reading as bound up in mutually beneficial ways and some of the most exciting work I was reading blurred the distinction between what are generally talked about separately as creative and critical writing. A career in literary studies represented a means of honing my reading skills in a disciplined way. Perhaps underpinning this, I have also long felt that contemporary literature offers us a vivid way of understanding our contemporary world in ways that open up questions and debate and in ways that foster public engagement and participation.
Which Bloomsbury Lit Studies books have you read? Which are your favorites, and why?
I would draw attention to Timothy Clark’s Ecocriticism on the Edge: the Anthropocene as a Threshold Concept. It articulates an idea that he refers to as ‘anthropocene disorder’ in which human beings, in the face of urgent apocalyptic warnings and the pressing need for change, retreat inwards and suffer from a kind of helplessness and depression. So much thinking about climate change is focused on scientifically calculated solutions when it may be the case that we have overlooked significant aspects of the problem itself and the questions it provokes for us culturally. Like an addict who understands quite rationally what he or she must do to give up the fatal behavior, who knows what the solution is, there is more important work that needs to be done psychologically and culturally before that solution can be embraced in a meaningful, holistic and sustainable way. I feel that Clark’s book draws attention to this important question.
Jos Smith is a lecturer in contemporary literature at the University of East Anglia. He has published on contemporary poetry and the New Nature Writing. He is a member of the advisory board of the Atlantic Archipelagos Research Consortium and of Common Ground itself. He is also the author of a first collection of poems Subterranea. His latest book, The New Nature Writing: Rethinking the Literature of Place, is now available from Bloomsbury.