Can Literature Save the Earth?

Can literature save the earth? At first glance, this seems like an absurd question, but even if the answer is a definitive “no,” it is a question worth asking. One of the absurdities is that hardly anyone reads anymore. How can literature compete with visual media, the internet, or the many forms of idle entertainment our world throws at us? Moreover, who reads serious literature anymore? And why should we expect to learn anything vital about our relationship to the land from creative writing? Wouldn’t it be better to stick to journalism, or science? And if it is change we are after, isn’t the political sphere the best and only place to carve out a new direction for civilization?

These are some of the questions discussed last night at Weller Book Works in downtown Salt Lake City. A group of authors gathered for a discussion about the role of literature in the American West and specifically about the role it might play in shaping our environmental ethos. I was asked by the founders of Torrey House Press, Mark Bailey and Kirsten Allen (you can read about their inspiring press here) to moderate the discussion with four of their authors: Steve Peck (author of the brilliant novel, The Scholar of Moab), Maximilian Werner (author of the haunting and beautiful novel, Crooked Creek), Jana Richman (author of The Ordinary Truth), and Erica Olsen (author of Recapture). I have only very recently come into possession of Jana’s and Erica’s books, so I can’t comment on them, but from the excellent insights of both authors at last night’s event, I look forward to reading them. Steve, of course, is one of my closest and dearest friends and Max and I have shared a few treasured afternoons fishing together and talking about writing, so it was a pleasure to be with them both. Mark and Kirsten also encouraged me to contribute to the discussion as an author myself.

At one point, I asked Jana Richman about how she believes her novel, which deals with a politically charged and controversial question of a proposed water pipeline in Nevada, is any more effective or valuable than direct political action. What, in short, is the use of devoting the art of literature to such questions? Her answer was inspiring. She said that while she has her own convictions about this and many other environmental matters and while political action has its role, she did not write the novel with the intention to be didactic or to preach to people what they should think about the issue. Instead, she wrote it as a method for posing certain questions, to assist her readers to think more self-reflectively and carefully about an issue that does not have easy answers. Her message seemed to be that there might even be a danger in presenting an issue in too simple a package or in making it seem as if environmental problems can be consistently solved in one particular way or according to one particular ideology. This was echoed by comments from the other writers. Max Werner, for example, noted the irony that one critic of his novel complained that it didn’t sufficiently provide a picture of a Mormon worldview when, in fact, his intention was to provide access to a way of seeing land that seeks to transcend any particular worldview. In fact, this seemed to be an ambition that all of us agreed our literature shared. It isn’t a quest without its failings, of course, but, as Max said, if we can’t learn to see our own worldviews and understand how they affect the way we see and value land, we will never learn to collaborate with others across differences of culture, religious conviction, or political ideology.

It hardly seems possible to solve any of the major environmental problems we face unless we focus on this kind of collective and cooperative ethics. One can work hard to convince others of the rightness of our way of seeing, and there certainly is a place for doing this kind of work, but as the author Amy Irvine once noted, advocacy is a precarious thing. It is precarious precisely because it can undermine its own objectives, especially when it becomes more important to us to be right than to be and do good. That isn’t to say that one should be apolitical, but one should learn sufficient capacity for self-questioning so as to recognize the times where one is simply wrong, or where other perspectives have much to teach us. I have written about this in another post as one of the reasons why, despite my continued commitment to political activism, I am often ambivalent about it as project.

So I suspect that until we learn acceptance of the reality of political, religious, and ethnic difference and the consequent plurality of a society and planet like ours, we will be forced into increasingly entrenched positions of dogmatism and intolerance. Jana Richman discussed this polarization as one of the most defining characteristics of environmental problems in the West today. One commentator from the audience afterwards described to me how, after moving to Utah from the East, she was convinced that the hardline conservatives and the hardline liberals of Utah are not so different from one another as they might think. They at least seem to share an utter impatience with and intolerance for compromise, almost as if they were sibling rivals in the same struggle for identity.

So literature’s value seems to have to do with its willingness to explore possibilities, to sustain differences without collapsing them, and to test differing worldviews by placing them in juxtaposition. This is what the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin once called the dialogic imagination of fiction. Just consider Steve Peck’s novel. You will find a dialogue of genuine and radically different voices as compelling as any you have encountered. And yet this is the product of one man’s imagination. The novel, as a whole and not in any one of its constituent parts, models the kind of mind we need. Maybe by reading fiction like that we can begin to approach the kind of thinking that can hold contradictions together in the mind and that can admit to complexity and uncertainty. I believe that this is a deeply charitable and forbearing mind, one that will be wise enough to be able to make sound judgments when confronted by difficult choices. Too much of what we hear today about politics and the environment is monologic, and it is, at its root, based in a kind of intolerance. Intolerance cannot be trusted as a method for wise judgment. We can identify this intolerance because of the ease with which advocates believe the answers can be trusted. This hurts to admit to myself because I am not known for being shy about my opinions, and I am often appalled at what I consider to be the mistakes of our society. It hurts too because time is ticking, the planet is ailing, and action is urgently needed. But it must be collective action. By definition, it has to be if it is going to be effective, and this requires political action but more importantly it requires hard cultural work to teach us all finally to see beyond our own narrow and tribal self-interest. Suffering populations across the globe and future generations are waiting for just such a change.


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