You may have heard that these days there is ‘new’ and ‘old’ nature writing, a huge partisan divide exists between the practitioners and followers of the two schools and never the twain shall they reach an accord. Perhaps I exaggerate a touch. Still at least it’s good to see that there is a little discordance in the ‘genre’. Now, apparently, there is ‘new’ and ‘old’ nature writing. For new nature writing read lyrical, verbose and led by ‘personal experiences and emotions’. For ‘old’ nature writing read prosaic, studious and dry. But of course, it’s not that simple, is it?
For starters, I’m going to distance myself from the argument by claiming affiliation to neither sect. I don’t class myself as a writer. What I do here isn’t art. It’s mental diarrhoea through a keyboard. I’ve no agenda, I’ve no book to sell, I frankly couldn’t give a flying one whether you’re reading this or not (sorry), and even less whether you are enjoying it (a good job too, I hear you say). I’m frequently complaining. There’s no subtlety or finesse. I therefore exempt myself, which rather handily gives me free reign to harp on about the failing of both sides without claim of bias.
What I have done though is read. I have devoured nature writing of all kinds for as long as I can remember (although I have bizarrely avoided Macfarlane). So just like every bugger else, I’m entitled to my opinion and I reserve the right to egotistically yell it into the void of the internet through this peculiar little blog. So I think it’s time that I get one thing off my chest for you all. Here it is – hold your breath – I didn’t really like H is for Hawk.
It feels like this whole argument began with H is for Hawk. It has become a behemoth. It has devoured all in its path and woe-betide the reader who does not ‘get it’. But it’s not for me. That’s no bad thing. All sorts of books don’t speak to all sorts of readers, doesn’t make them bad books. To me, Ulysses is gibberish, Harry Potter is for children. I even know people who don’t like Catch 22 (although I reserve the right to dismiss these people as cretins). I don’t think I should be made to feel bad for not really liking H is for Hawk. By saying that I wasn’t overwhelmed by H is for Hawk, I sense it is as though the validity of my opinion itself is being questioned.
To assume that ‘Nature writing’ is a whole, cohesive concept and not amorphous and subjective is a mistake. It is different things to different people, and ultimately the audience are the judge. If people like it, they will read it. It will sell. How can you argue with the numbers? And something like H is for Hawk certainly does have numbers – and awards – on its side.
My one gripe is that much of the recent output has little point beyond the point of creating output. There is no strive to inform and educate. And you can inform and educate while employing emotive prose and descriptive language. In many ways, this is the best way to do it. Education is a lot easier when the subject is presented in an appealing manner. I want my ‘nature writers’ to do better, not just for the professional audience, but for the layman whose prime interaction with the natural world is the rural idyll-ising of Countryfile or Springwatch.
This is not to say I’ve got my feet planted firmly in the ‘old’ camp. I teeter like a bus perched precariously over an Italian precipice. There’s definitely a hint of elitism to the protestations and dismissals of H is for Hawk and its ilk
I can see why writers get defensive. Is it jealousy? Is it fear? It’s becoming an overcrowded market, particularly as the boundaries of what is and what isn’t ‘nature writing’ blurs. There’s a slightly snarky tone to this dismissal of the ‘new’, and it’s one that anyone who has ever misidentified bird song in the wrong company will know – the notion that ‘this kind of thing’ is only for a certain type of person. There can be nothing more wrong and nothing more detrimental to the cause, but it is something that both ‘sides’ – if these sides even exist – can be guilty of.
The biggest problem that this hullabaloo has created is that now when we discuss ‘nature writing’ we seem to be discussing too much of the ‘writing’ part. To me this detracts from the issues that good nature writing should raise. Be these the mind-bogglingly big issues (a la E O Wilson), or the small species-specific issues.
But hell, in his time even Thoreau was accused of sentimentalising, and if you’ve ever tried to wade through that impenetrable mire I think you would struggle to class it as anything other than very, very old nature writing.