The CEA Forum
Winter/Spring 2006: 35.1
Writing Environments. Edited by Sidney I. Dobrin and Christopher J. Keller. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005.
by Kathryn Miles, Unity College
Like many subfields in literary studies, environmental writing depends deeply upon discourse and discursive practices for both its primary and secondary texts. The conversations between authors and readers, between teachers and students, between writers and other texts are, to a large extent, what makes so much of our discipline rich and multivalent. What distinguishes environmental writing from many other genres and literary approaches, however, is that its discourse is undeniably committed to and dependent upon the real physicality of place. Co-editors Sidney I. Dobrin and Christopher J. Keller understand this connection between nature writing and the ecologies out of which it arises. Dobrin, an associate professor at the University of Florida, co-authored the landmark studies Natural Discourse: Toward Ecocomposition and Ecocomposition: Theoretical and Pedagogical Approaches; Keller, an assistant professor at Texas Pan-American, is author of the forthcoming The Location of Composition. Both bring their expertise on discourse in nature writing and their love of the environment to their newly-released collection of interviews and essays.
As the editors explain in their introduction, the aim of their collection is deceptively simple: to investigate the relationship between text and place or, put more specifically, to investigate the ways that place and text inscribe, and ultimately produce, one another. I say deceptively simple because, as the editors themselves note, this is not new territory, nor is it a resolved issue. Indeed, much work has already been done in this arena; nonetheless, as Dobrin and Keller rightly note, their collection addresses this coupling of place and text from a new perspective and organizational approach. To this end, Writing Environments is organized both thematically and dialogically to emphasize the newness of their theoretical position. The book features interviews with ten prominent environmental writers from a variety of different fields: voices as diverse as Native American poet Simon Ortiz, feminist theorist Annette Koldony, and seminal science writer E.O. Wilson. Interviews are presented in a catechistic question/answer format to preserve the appearance of dialogue between interviewer and interviewee. Each interview is then followed by two or three essay responses from contemporary critics and scholars. Although all interviews treats certain key subjects—such as the nature, definition, and place of environmental writing within larger academic circles—the interviews also speak to the various interests and areas of expertise held by the ten writers. Interviews are divided based on themes that emerge from within, and they span such topics as the place of literary scholarship, activism, and interdisciplinarity within the classroom. Although often divergent in topic, these interviews are nevertheless united by both the interviewees' concern for the environment and their commitment to the written word.
Kudos and Concerns
Read in total, these interviews and their responses demonstrate the breadth and depth of thought regarding text and place. They also offer the reader a wonderful opportunity to learn more about the craft of writing, the inspiration of some of our most important environmental writers, and the chance to locate these authors immediately within a critical conversation. This approach shines in sections such as the one dedicated to ecologist and creative nonfiction author Janisse Ray. Ray's interview reveals her humor and passion for writing; her respondents offer both an informed commentary on Ray's oeuvre as well as an understanding of her significance within the larger field of environmental writing. Moreover, all speakers in Ray's section—the editors/interviewers, Ray herself, and finally, her two commentators (Julie Drew and Eric Otto)—demonstrate an elegant ability to maintain a conversation with the larger academic and scholarly discourse: they seamlessly move from discussing Ray's work, to other interviews included in Writing Environments, to Ray's connection with still other contemporary environmental writers not included in the collection. A similar effect is achieved in the section on Scott Russell Sanders, which reveals the ways in which Sanders's essays speak to one another and to the contemporary academic community.
Overall, however, the book as a whole suffers from the incompatibilities of its organizational system. The tone of the interviews themselves are colloquial and rather general: the result, no doubt, of the editor's commitment to conducting them verbally and without offering the interviewees the luxury of much preparation. This tone is contrasted rather discordantly with the scholarly responses that follow, most of which are written in the elevated diction of academic scholarship and include conventions such as endnotes and secondary sources. The effect of this contrast makes the collection seem fragmented and, at times, lacking in the consistency and focused approach needed to make the book adhere as a meaningful whole. At times, this makes for an appreciate-able irony: after David Quammen's interview in which he criticizes the overly-academic and unapproachable style of many critics, one of his respondents offers an often jargon-driven five-page essay complete with no fewer than 59 sources included in its works cited page. Other times, this contrast simply makes for uneven treatment of issues and a lack of connection between interview and response. The shortcomings of this approach are acknowledged by the editors at various moments in the book. In their introduction, they admit that their organizational strategy is unfair in that it asks interviewees to respond only verbally (and spontaneously), while it affords respondents the opportunity to sit with the transcribed interview for some time, to incorporate sources and, of course, to edit and revise. During his own response to one of the interviews, Dobrin expands upon this critique and asks why his approach has not been further criticized and interrogated. Given that neither he nor Keller make much effort to justify the approach and organization of their book, one wonders why they themselves chose to persist with this flawed arrangement, rather than opting for one with more cohesion and deliberation.
Despite—or perhaps in some cases because of these organizational shortcomings—Writing Environments succeeds in offering readers a new forum for the discourse of environmental writing. It celebrates the multitude of voices in the genre as well as the divergent approaches, themes, and aims of contemporary nature writing. That it does so without the consistency one might desire in such a work, leaves the reader wondering if, perhaps, we might be well served in recalling Ralph Waldo Emerson's dictum on consistency when advocating for the desirability of such expectations.
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