The Emergence of Eco-Fiction

The eco-literature (eco-lit) label has been largely associated with nonfiction environmental works, such as Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez or Silent Spring by Rachel Carlson.

But what about fiction that addresses environmental and animal rights themes?

We began using the eco-fiction label a year ago. And we’ve collected our relevant titles here.

(Amazon does not yet offer an eco-fiction category for books. Not yet.)

Label or not, category or not, eco-fiction has been around for many years.

I count Moby-Dick as one of the great works of ec0-fiction. Though some say the novel glorifies whaling, I feel it did just the opposite. The whales were disappearing and, one in particular, was fighting back.

And The Jungle did more to link human rights to animal rights than any book written since.

So while eco-fiction itself isn’t new, I do see signs of more authors writing books that fall under this umbrella. And, just as important, I see more and more readers seeking out these types of books — whether it’s for animal rights issues, global warming, or the battle to save endangered species.

People are curious.

People are concerned.

People want to connect with others who share their concerns.

And people want to be inspired by those who have devoted their lives to all these sometimes futile causes.

Here are a few works centered around animal rights that have inspired me over the years.

Let’s start with children’s books. For children, there is a lot of literature out there, from Black Beauty to Mrs. Frisby and The Nats of NIMH. I remember as a child being struck by the violence that animals often endured (or were forced to escape from) in these books. Looking back, I wonder how I was able to reconcile reading books that took the points of view of animals with the fact that I was also eating animals. But I quickly learned, as did others, to reserve empathy for those animals we consider pets.

A Report to An Academy
Franz Kafka
Though this story is only a few thousand words long, it left a mark on me. It is a speech given by an ape that was once wild but is now “civilized.”

Here is an excerpt:

I could never have achieved what I have done had I been stubbornly set on clinging to my origins, to the remembrances of my youth. In fact, to give up being stubborn was the supreme commandment I laid upon myself; free ape as I was, I submitted myself to that yoke. In revenge, however, my memory of the past has closed the door against me more and more. I could have returned at first, had human beings allowed it, through an archway as wide as the span of heaven over the earth, but as I spurred myself on in my forced career, the opening narrowed and shrank behind me; I felt more comfortable in the world of men and fitted it better; the strong wind that blew after me out of my past began to slacken; today it is only a gentle puff of air that plays around my heels; and the opening in the distance, through which it comes and through which I once came myself, has grown so small that, even if my strength and my willpower sufficed to get me back to it, I should have to scrape the very skin from my body to crawl through.

A Mother’s Tale
James Agee

A Mother’s Tale is a short story that deals head-on with animal slaughter. The story can be read in many ways; it is surely as much about humans as it is about animals.

Elizabeth Costello
J.M. Coetzee

I could have just as easily highlighted two other novels by Coetzee: Disgrace and Diary of a Bad Year. Animal rights is a recurring theme in Coetzee’s work and several of his protagonists are vegetarians. Elizabeth Costello is a vegetarian (or vegan) and her speech in a chapter of the book called The Lives of Animals has become a popular work on its own. What’s I most like about this book is the dynamic between Elizabeth and her son’s family (who are not vegetarians). It’s a tense relationship to be sure and one I think many vegetarians can relate to.

As Coetzee writes in FoeWe must cultivate, all of us, a certain ignorance, a certain blindness, or society will not be tolerable.

It is clear to me that we as a society are just beginning to remove the blinders regarding the environment and the animals we share it with.

And while this post is focused on animal rights, there are so many other works out there about the oceans, the air, and the land. If you’ve written something along these lines, we are accepting submissions.

If you have any books to recommend, add them to the “best eco-fiction” list on GoodReads or contact me.

5 thoughts on “The Emergence of Eco-Fiction”

  1. Enjoyable article and interesting comparisons. I’d have to add Beatrice Potter’s books, not only because of the natural setting, but also because of her significant conservation contributions. Of course, there’s Dr. Suess in ‘Who Will Speak for the Trees?’ too!

    It’s great to open the eco-literature door to many genres, and reconsider the themes in the light of conservation efforts. If, after reading a book, readers think about important issues such as climate change, wildlife protection, and forest/water conservation, then the book is eco-literature.

    Thanks for your thoughtful insights.

    Jo Marshall
    Twig Stories

  2. Hi Jo — Yes, I must include Dr. Suess in our list! In fact, I’m thinking we need to entire children’s section, which is something I’m slowing working on putting together. I’ll keep you posted — and thanks for the comment…

  3. This is a subject dear to my heart. I think the genre is actually very broad and a lot of post-apocalyptic/dystopian novels could also fall into this category. Many of them are set in a future version of earth that is a projection of current trends, from climate change to ecosystem collapse. ‘The year of the flood’ pops into mind as an example.
    I would love to see eco-fiction as an Amazon category and as a more widely known one in general. But something tells me it will happen. It’s kind of inevitable given what is happening to our world.

  4. We’d love to see “eco-fiction” as a category on Amazon, too, as well as other retailers, including bookstore shelves! I think reading about the issues through good stories helps with the eco-anxiety people seem to be feeling more and more — literature has such potential for positive change. Thanks for visiting and for your comments!

  5. Thank you for the thoughtful post on eco lit. I wholeheartedly agree that Amazon and other book sellers should include eco-fiction/eco literature as a category. I write an eco mystery series for middle grades that focuses on teens solving eco mysteries in order to save endangered species.

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