June 30, 2015

Manning the barricades

Something odd is afoot in the loose genre referred to as 'nature writing'. Since the publication of Helen Macdonald's world-beating, genre-defying, utterly glorious H Is For Hawk it seems as though barely a week has gone by without one of its elder statesmen opining in the press about the 'new' nature writing and attempting to decide who does, and who does not, qualify. As an exercise in taxonomy it is not only pointless, unnecessary and deeply divisive, but philosophically suspect, too.

To get it out of the way first: what's my interest in this? Am I a 'new nature writer'? I have no idea. I don't claim to be a naturalist or a botanist, but I each month I write a Nature Notebook for the Times. I write novels that foreground nature and landscape (though that is not all they are about), and I am sometimes referred to as a 'nature writer' in the press and by the book trade. So to all intents and purposes I probably am one of the new breed being indicted for muddying what, the implication is, were previously pure waters.

But here's the thing. Whether it's writing or painting or pop music, genre tags are usually conferred by those with an interest either in selling or discussing the books or art or music – not by the people toiling away, doing their own thing. And part of the reason for that is how constrictive genres can become. In any creative area, change is necessary if it isn't to ossify. Change is how art of every kind lives and grows; today's literature dealing with nature, place and landscape is not going to resemble the literature produced in ten years' time. And to me, that's exciting. I could no more make a ruling about what (and how) others should write about nature in the future than I could decide what direction experimental music should take. It just isn't my place.

So – and this is important – if the 'new' nature writers don't even think of themselves as nature writers at all (let alone 'new' ones), how can they be criticised for not writing in a particular way? H Is For Hawk, Will Atkins' The Moor, Robert Macfarlane's Landmarks: these very different books are not works of natural history, conservation or environmental polemic, and moreover they do not pretend to be. Just because booksellers lump together a lot of disparate books, and critics bandy about genre tags, doesn't mean that there is a central tenet that everyone to whom the natural world is important – memoirists, travel writers, novelists, poets, historians, life writers and naturalists – must follow. Just as there are many types of readers, there is no One True Way to write.

The 'new' tag also seems to imply that there is an 'old' nature writing, something I wasn't previously aware of – though I increasingly now wonder if it is true. The authors who have taken side-swipes at what they consider to be a taken side-swipes at what they consider to be a new kind of 'nature writing' are without exception men whose books I continue to admire (and in many cases have reviewed). They ride deservedly high in the sales charts, they have considerable authority, and yet there is in these definitions and criticisms of newer writers a defensiveness. But what is being defended? Why? And from whom?

The reaction to the recent articles among the people I know has been one of bewilderment. Readers seem confused by the tone of these pieces and the ugly politics they detect lurking in an area of literature that they love. Some authors feel hurt to have been criticised, either openly or by implication, by people they considered their peers and allies. Others – staggeringly talented writers whose books are still in the pipeline – are viewing the fraught landscape into which they will emerge with a new and unearned sense of trepidation.

I don't blame them. Writing is desperately hard, and can require real sacrifice. To succeed as the 'old' nature writers have done is not only a glorious thing, but a privilege too, because by their writing they have been able to lead others into a deeper appreciation of nature. I know of people who were turned on to wildlife by the books they have read, and who now work in conservation; equally, I receive letters and emails from readers telling me that my novels have transformed their relationship with the natural world. Why you would wish to restrict, rather than enlarge and celebrate, the pool of practitioners who have the opportunity to achieve such real and good things in the world is beyond me.

At my readings and events there is a question I'm often asked, one that I've never really managed to answer. In fact, I'm not sure it's really a question. A man will put up his hand (sorry, but it's always a man) and intone something along the lines of "Ah, but of course in Britain there isn't any real wilderness left now, is there!" And then he'll sit down again, looking smug. I don't really understand what's behind this statement, or what he gains from making it. Whether certain types of land 'qualify' as proper subjects for literature isn't something that interests me imaginatively; I don't know how anyone would police the distinction, or why. The current hand-wringing about what is and isn't nature writing feels like the same thing: someone playing what they consider to be a trump card but which seems to me to be from a completely different pack – and for reasons that are totally obscure to me.

I thought long and hard about writing this piece, partly because I felt scared of attracting opprobrium, but more importantly for fear of making the nascent divide worse. I hoped to produce something that did good rather than harm; that said, Hey, aren't we all aiming at the same thing, which is to engage people with the natural world? But reading this back I see that I've failed to keep a note of anger out. Perhaps I'll let it stand, though, as witness to the hurt I've seen in numerous people I know, who suddenly find a line drawn in the sand, an old guard lining up, and are told that despite their manifest abilities to inspire readers, their efforts, for some reason, do not qualify.

Since I wrote this piece, Robert Macfarlane has responded to Mark Cocker's New Statesman piece. You can read his article here