Environmental Fiction and Criticism


J. Henry Fair, Bleach, Charleston, TN (2010), Aerial photograph of waste run-off at chemical plant

“Environmental Fiction and Criticism” is an upper-division research seminar in which students explore how literary and cinematic narratives shape environmental consciousness in the late 20th and 21st centuries. On the first day, the students examine two images, one by J. Henry Fair and the other by Yann Arthus-Bertrand.

Heather withholds all identifying information from the Fair photograph and asks her students to discuss the elements that immediately struck them, to imagine a title for the piece, and then to justify their choice. After she reveals the true subject—run-off from a chemical plant in Tennessee—and shares the artist’s statement, the students discuss how Fair adapts conventions of nature photography in the Arthus-Bertrand image.

This exercise is designed to bring to mind the concerns of the course: definitions of “nature,” the porosity of the nature-culture boundary, toxic landscapes, and environmental tropes and representational strategies. As the course unfolds, students learn that fully understanding emerging environmental issues requires looking beyond facts and data to stories and images, and that fully understanding contemporary cultural production requires analyzing texts’ environmental imagination. As they study works from the past forty years in their many contexts, Heather helps them to define ecocriticism, and the students produce their own ecocritical analyses in formal (short analyses of a novel or film and of a work of criticism, a research-based essay) and informal (blog posts, focused freewriting) assignments.

After day one, the class turns to scholars’ efforts to define “nature” and trace how authors alter its meanings. What formal problems does representing the environment and environmental dilemmas create? Are there more or less successful genres and narrative strategies? How do we define “success”? What stance do contemporary authors take toward scientific developments? Toward activism? How do environmental thinkers balance the demands for human justice and the welfare of ecosystems and communities?


Yann Arthus-Bertrand, Amazon River, Brazil, from Earth from Above

In asking these questions,Heather hopes that, by the end of the semester, students will engage literary works as forms of environmental inquiry, using major concepts and formal categories such as pastoral, wilderness, magical realism, science fiction, and documentary. They can assess and debate an author’s positions on environmental issues such as risk, sustainability, justice, and the human/nonhuman boundary. As they read fiction and criticism analytically, they also learn to craft probing questions about them, conduct research, integrate textual evidence, and position their ideas in scholarly debates.

The blog for Environmental Fiction and Criticism includes the full syllabus with required readings and films.

Heather Houser is an assistant professor of English at The University of Texas at Austin. Her research areas include the contemporary novel, environmental media and criticism, affect studies, and science and technology studies. She is the author of Ecosickness in Contemporary U.S. Fiction: Environment and Affect (Columbia UP, 2014) and of essays appearing in American Literary History, Public Culture, American Literature, and Contemporary Literature, among other venues. Her current project, “Environmental Art and the Infowhelm,” examines the aesthetics of information management in recent environmental literature and new media.