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Landscapes/Cityscapes Situational Identity in British Literature and Visual Arts (20th-21st Centuries)
Landscapes of the common

Nature Writing and Publishing: The Ethics of a Cultural Mapping

Édition et écriture de la nature : éthique d’une cartographie culturelle
Cécile Beaufils


Cet article propose d’explorer la récente popularité que connaît actuellement l’écriture de la nature au Royaume-Uni, en tant que le genre met en avant l’existence d’un écosystème fondé sur une éthique de l’écriture, de l’exploration, et de l’édition, tout à fait particulière, tout cela par le biais de textes et phénomènes éditoriaux récents. Partant d’une observation initiale, la popularité de ce genre au Royaume-Uni, dans un contexte éditorial pourtant morose, nous posons que cet essor est lié à la mise en relation particulière qui s’opère entre la terre, la langue et une éthique pratique dans ces textes et dans des pratiques éditoriales spécifiques. Dans ce contexte, les actes de capture linguistique mettent en avant la façon dont une génération d’auteurs, et Robert Macfarlane en particulier, opèrent ce lien. Chez ce dernier en particulier, nous étudierons comment sa tentative de se saisir d’un lexique de la nature varié est lié à une éthique pratique fondamentale à l’écriture de la nature.

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1In The Country and The City (1973), a seminal study of how the country and the city have been represented in British thought through the ages, Raymond Williams waxes lyrical in his description of the countryside surrounding the city of Cambridge; he describes the effect of seasonal changes, provides botanical details as as more subjective appreciations of colours and their interpretations.

In the east now, at nights, over the field with the elms and the white horse, I watch the glow of Cambridge: a white tinged with orange; and in the autumn, here, the stubble fields are burned, sometimes catching the thorn hedges, and when I saw this first at night I took it as strange accidental fire. (Williams 5)

2The sentence reads like contemporary nature writing in its attention to detail as well as in its observation of nature interacting with the man-made world, and this closeness reveals a filiation. Raymond Williams tries to seize what he calls the ‘green language’ of Britain (Williams 127), to him an essential part of the country’s identity. True to his research ethos, he seems to mostly focus on the labouring country, but occasionally dwells on wild places as being central to the national psyche.

  • 1 See for instance the increasing popularity of academic associations like the Association for the St (...)
  • 2 On the topic, see Clark’s study of the Anthropocene as a concept central to the study of contempora (...)

3The second source for what I propose to examine is the current popularity of nature writing in Great-Britain, which can be observed both in terms of sales, but also in bookshops across the country, from independent bookshops in the Scottish Highlands to larger bookshops like Daunt in London, or widespread chains like Waterstones. Underlining the importance of nature writing in Britain is practically a tautology—from the Romantics, the so-called labourer poets (such as Stephen Duck, James Woodhouse, or Robert Dodsley), to the current wave of new nature writing sweeping over British bookshops, and represented by authors like Helen MacDonald or Robert Macfarlane. This recent return of nature writing in Britain should be connected to the popularity of ecocriticism1 in the academic world. According to the author of the Cambridge Companion to Literature and the Environment, Timothy Clarke, there is an ethical component inherent to the representation of nature and anthropocentrism: ‘even an aesthetics of landscape appreciation can be anthropocentric. Anthropocentrism is often contrasted with a possible biocentric stance, one attempting to identify with all life or a whole ecosystem, without giving such privilege to just one species’ (Clarke 3). This remark foregrounds yet another connection, to the concept of the Anthropocene—a way of referring to the contemporary period from the Industrial Revolution as an age when there is no place on Earth without traces of man’s presence anymore, and the acceleration of technology has brought about adverse consequences for the planet.2

4A common denominator of recent nature writing is therefore its attention to ethics: the observation of nature appears to be the source of numerous ethical reflections, with a thought process seemingly close to phenomenology. Examples of the logical connections at work in this connection of the physical experience of the world, writing and ethics can be found in a variety of texts, either in the field of fiction or of non-fiction, as in this preface to The Snow Geese, by William Fiennes (2002), written by Robert Macfarlane:

The Snow Geese is above all a book about learning to see, and it is a book that changes the vision of its readers. We end it more attentive, not only in that the natural world is left freshly scintillated for us, but also because our ethical sense is subtly shifted. Pure description is a relatively simple trick for a writer: you scribble details down in the Moleskin, then line them all up on the page afterwards. Far more difficult is fusing these details with radiance and ethos (Macfarlane 2002, viii-ix).

5Macfarlane, as a Cambridge academic specializing in contemporary literature, pays close attention to the reading process, and his foregrounding of the effect of the act of reading should be put to the fore since it seems representative of a practical ethics that can be seen as central to new nature writing. Such a dimension has given birth to several phenomena in publishing, and I thus propose to explore the recent popularity of nature writing in Britain as the confirmation of the existence of an ecosystem based on a specific ethics of writing, exploring, and publishing. This will be achieved through the observation of examples taken from recent successful works like Granta’s New Nature Writing issue (2008), Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks (2015), and The Gifts of Writing (2016).

The return of British nature writing

  • 3 The specific situation of the country should be stressed here, as the situation of nature writing d (...)
  • 4 H is for Hawk is classified as nature writing, but its belonging to the genre is problematic since (...)

6As a genre, nature writing has entered a period of relative editorial prosperity. Joe Moran explains that it is all the more surprising as one of its characteristics in the twentieth century is precisely its shifting status, from sophisticated to subject of satire; Moran quotes in particular Evelyn Waugh’s pastiches in his novel Scoop, where fictional journalist William Boot distinguishes himself with pedantic assertions like ‘Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole’ (Waugh in Moran 50). However, in recent years, a shift has occurred in the United Kingdom3 with rising sales and publicity; indeed, sales between 2013 and 2016 have grown by £4.5m, according to book sales monitor Nielsen Book (Flood). The numbers from said book sales monitor show that sales in the ‘animal and wildlife’ category have increased significantly, from 426,630 books sold in 2012, to 663,575 books sold in 2015. In a general context of markedly lower sales of literary fiction (as shown by a December 2017 report by the Arts Council England), nature writing has enjoyed renewed popularity. The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District (James Rebanks, 2015) has sold more than 160,000 copies as of 2016, while Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk4 became a bestseller, generic categories notwithstanding, with 250,000 sales in 2016. Similarly, press coverage for the genre has also grown exponentially: The Guardian has devoted since 2005 at least one long, documented article per year to the topic, and since 2015, increased to at least six or seven articles, with op-ed articles included occasionally. From being an episodic presence, nature writing has become a cultural subject sometimes included in the ‘Science and Nature’ section, and sometimes in the literary pages.

  • 5 The first issue devoted to the genre was its tenth and was published in winter 1983. It contained t (...)

7Nature writing now occupies the space left by the decline of travel writing: the death of travel writing has been a recurring topic since the 1990s, which corresponds to the start of the rejuvenation of nature writing. ‘Is Travel Writing Dead?’ became a classic question in one of the key outlets of the genre in Britain in the 1980s, the literary magazine Granta. The magazine was the main champion of the renewal of travel writing in the early 1980s,5 but started to problematise the very existence of the genre three years after its first travel writing issue, and is still asking the question. The Winter 2017 issue, ‘Journeys’ (138), devotes an entire section to the question, and has since expanded it on its website. In these pages, former Granta editor—and travel journalist himself—Ian Jack displays an almost jaded attitude when asked the question: ‘Travel writing isn’t dead. It just isn’t what it was’ (Jack 90), thereby pointing out that a genre which was characterized by its protean nature is bound to evolve and to take into account the necessary reversal of point of view and the prevalent cultural currents. In the same section, Robert Macfarlane (Granta 98-102), when asked the same question as Ian Jack, initially turns to Bruce Chatwin, but quickly reverts back to authors generally categorized as nature writers, for instance Nan Shepherd (The Living Mountain), and Patrick Leigh Fermor (A Time of Gifts). These answers f an issue which is inherent to travel writing, that of taxonomy, as well as the capillarity existing between travel and nature writing.

8Nature writing has also slid into the place formerly held by travel writing on the terrain of activism and of the criticism targeting it. Both the moral objections and vocabulary used in the attacks are similar, especially when the authors are accused of pandering to ‘bourgeois escapism’. Scottish writer Kathleen Jamie has for instance levelled accusations at Robert Macfarlane’s writing which are similar to earlier criticism pointing out the predominance of the male, white, colonial gaze in travel narratives, as she writes: ‘What’s that coming over the hill? A white, middle-class Englishman! A Lone Enraptured Male! From Cambridge! Here to boldly go, “discovering”, then quelling our harsh and lovely and sometimes difficult land with his civilised lyrical words’ (Jamie in Cocker). Debates sometimes reach an intensity usually found in a political context, reminding the reader of the efficacy of nature writing, whose implication in intimate and ethical concerns is a constant. A particularly violent debate took place in the pages of The Guardian in 2013 (and was pursued online), as George Monbiot’s controversial Feral was published. Writer Steven Poole started the controversy with a scathing indictment of nature writing as a post-pastoral, middle-class genre with political undertones:

So goes the green version of the English Defence League: sheep aren’t natives! They are ‘a feral invasive species’. They don’t belong here. ‘Invasive species’, Monbiot complains, ‘challenge attempts to defend a unique and distinctive fauna and flora’— just as anti-immigration demagogues claim that foreigners will destroy a unique and distinctive British culture. (Poole)

9The comments section of the Guardian article is full of heated debate, and George Monbiot wrote an answer to Steven Poole’s accusations: the conversation escalated into a full-blown controversy, whose violence is rarely seen in literary debates. Nature writing has become a fully-relevant genre, tackling ethical issues that trigger an emotional response from the readers re-investing landscape with affect, seen in a taste for hyperboles and comparisons with broader political and ethical issues.

10Nature writing, and especially ‘new nature writing’, has proved to be a dynamic genre, promoted by tastemakers and now central in the editorial landscape: Granta’s summer 2008 issue, New Nature Writing (102), evinced a new awareness of the genre, as marked by the critical popularity of the issue. Granta, as a landmark of literary taste in Britain, has repeatedly showcased nature writing: at least one issue per year is devoted to the genre, even if it is through an adjoining theme like the land, for instance with ‘No Man’s Land’ (Granta 134, Winter 2016).

11The presence of nature writing in marketing presents a conundrum in the age of global economy, as it is based on a form of localism and on the reactivation of a sense of dwelling; publishing houses emphasize the opposite of previous strategies devoted to travel writing, which focused on escapism and exoticism. Publishing strategies are then based on local experience for British writers sold in the United Kingdom. The marketing of nature writing essentially focuses on the sense of the local (thematically, visually), and also foregrounds the literary nature of the texts, reminding us that there is still an issue of cultural legitimacy at stake. For instance, national bookshop chain Waterstones makes the following claim on its website as an introduction to a selection of bestselling nature writing books: ‘British Nature Writing offers some of the best opportunities for literature, as you’ll see if you read any one of these books. They are the cream of the crop of recent nature writing, including the bookseller favourite, H is for Hawk’. Waterstones attempts to bring nature writing within the literary canon (‘opportunities for literature’) while dwelling on the realm of affect (‘bookseller favourite’): the rhetoric employed on the website resorts to the idea of literary value to justify the acceptability of reading what was considered as a sub-par genre.

12When nature books are marketed, the book tour adapts the venues to the genre, either by following the same strategy of underlining cultural legitimacy, or by focusing on the practical implication of the works in the realm of ecological concerns: for instance, Helen Macdonald’s world tour for H is for Hawk included bookshops, but also other places like nature centres, such as (for the American leg of her promotional tour) the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center, a conservation centre next to Milwaukee. Attempts at matching marketing of the book and a certain ethos is thus obvious in these strategies.

13The presentation of authors by publishing houses is part of this cohesive strategy: they often are pictured as part of nature in official photographs. Helen Macdonald is for instance usually photographed outside with a hawk on her arm, or in a forest, as a literal interpretation of her memoir’s title. Robert Macfarlane, whose texts emphasize his own discovery of nature through walking, is photographed as a hiker, in a variety of places. These photographs are used in the books, for the book release tours, and also in press coverage. Placing the authors in the wild, so to speak, allows for the creation of a storytelling connecting the writing process and the author’s sense of ethos. With such a storytelling, the authors become associated with characteristics of wholesomeness: nature writing exists as a cohesive publishing enterprise, from the representation of the author to the design of the book as object. Publishing houses committed to nature writing therefore foreground their use of recycled paper, and focus on an ‘earthy’ design aesthetics, avoiding glossy covers and favouring artisan processes. For instance, Penguin chose wood engravings to illustrate Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks, and elected to make the name of the artist, Jonathan Gibbs, apparent in the book, while the name of the cover designer, Stanley Donwood, is also clearly placed on the back cover.

14British nature writing has developed into a cohesive publishing ecosystem, including specific literary prizes devoted to the genre. The most significant one is the Wainwright Golden Beer Prize, established in 2014 and named after the writer Alfred Wainwright (1907-1991), an author mostly noted for his pictorial guides. Although this prize was created relatively recently, it has quickly gained in authority—its impact can be measured by the use of a shortlist selection as a sales argument on the cover of book (it is the case for Landmarks). The 2017 edition was won by John Lewis-Stempel (who had already won the 2015 Wainwright Prize for Meadowland) for Where the Poppies Blow, a text which examines the relationship between British soldiers during World War One and nature. Publishers also explore the other pole of nature writing by considering its practical side, as the apparition of writing handbooks testifies. Sean Prentiss and Joe Wilkins’s Environmental and Nature Writing, A Writer’s Guide and Anthology, published by Bloomsbury in 2017, is for instance a handbook providing precise tips and exercise to aspiring writers, with clear-cut categories which writers might ascribe to: science and nature narrative, environmental justice narrative, climate change narrative, pastoral, agrarian, Latino, etc. Overall, Prentiss and Wilkins stress how the experience of reading changes with the locale of reading, and how the writing process is impacted in a similar manner. What these editorial phenomena show so far is the implication of nature writing in a praxis of reading and writing: the acts of writing and reading become embedded within a practical relationship which captures the overarching connection between culture and politics.

Linguistic Recapturing and Narrative Mapping as a Culturally Crucial Act

15The surge of popularity we have observed for nature writing takes place in a context of destabilization for the publishing world. After the durable presence of tropes stating the end of the novel or at the very least the end of the British novel, literary fiction is now published in an increasingly globalized context, as shown by the internationalization of the Man Booker Prize in 2014. Faced with this context, nature writing appears to focus on the extremely local, showing a change of scale—a tendency clear in the works awarded the Wainwright prize, since Where the Poppies Blow tackles a topic of global impact through the perspective of the everyday, the mundane, changing the focus from the global to the local. The localism present in the texts is not necessarily strictly British, but most of the time, we are given to read a rediscovery of the land and the language devoted to its description. Such attention to the local often coincides with larger, macroscopic ones, like specific plants and global ecological issues—this constant was already found in Steven Poole’s accusations and his hyperbolic comparisons of George Monbiot’s indictment of sheep in Britain and a nationalist rejection of immigration. The correspondence of scales echoes issues relating to the body politic of the country (issues of national cohesion that are especially sensitive as the country is faced with leaving the European Union), with the landscape as an interface, and language at its core.

16Nature writing thus puts words on landscape in an attempt to reclaim it as a diverse entity. This is the enterprise underlying Macfarlane’s essays in Landmarks: the book is composed of essays on geographical regions or on specific nature books, each essay connecting the exploration of the land and the exploration of specific texts. Each short text is followed by a thematic glossary and each word is paired with its point of origin, for instance in the ‘Underlands’ glossary (Macfarlane 2015a, 195-207), one finds a variety of regions: ‘thorough-shutts: hole burrowed by a rabbit through a hedge (Suffolk)’ (Macfarlane 2015a, 202), and ‘vuggy: of rocks: full of holes (Cornwall)’ (Macfarlane 2015a, 202). The author envisions the naming process as a way of capturing the essence of the country, what he calls a ‘Terra Britannica’ (Macfarlane 2015a, 2). Landmarks is built with an inclusive perspective as the whole of the British Isles is considered, from Cornwall to Wales to small Scottish islands like Caithness, and even Ireland (although Macfarlane specifies the region). Macfarlane warns the reader that he is not being nostalgic, as he tries to escape the pastoral mode. This reflection does not prevent him from addressing the issue of the changing vocabulary of nature, since he explains that most of the words disappearing from the dictionaries, especially children’s dictionaries, are nature words and that the new words are technological, such as : ‘for blackberry, read BlackBerry’ (Macfarlane 2015a, 3). A few words related to the urban landscape are included in the glossaries, but they are a minority and the textual and linguistic map of Britain that is constructed in Landmarks is essentially natural. Macfarlane attempts to re-activate a sense of place, and of dwelling, because he conceptualises it as a reflection on the evolution of the country, connecting again ethics and aesthetics, in a way reminiscent of the issues we observed in the reception of Monbiot’s Feral. Macfarlane is here attempting to recapture the identity of the land by naming it, in a double process: features exist because they are named, and we notice these features because the vocabulary exists. This exercise in lexicography shows a desire to include diverse words within the descriptive lexicon, to integrate variety, nuance, and also remind the readers of the evolution of the English language. Lexicography then appears as a landscape-building exercise as Macfarlane includes terms devoted to the gradual change of landscapes along with rare Gaelic terms, like ‘soft estate’, from the National Highways Agency, ‘natural habitats that have evolved along highways’, and ‘thru’-ban’, which are ‘long stones for building a dyke’ and come from Galloway (Macfarlane 2015a, 252). These lists, for the reader, come close to found poetry, with the landscape as a provider of words—an effect accentuated by the rarity of the words. For instance, a page of the ‘Flatlands’ Glossary, ‘Mists, Fogs, Shadows’ category, reads: ‘ammil’, ‘burnt-arse-fire’, ‘daal’mist’, ‘dag’, ‘grumma’, ‘haze-fire’ (Macfarlane 2015a, 40).

  • 6 On the topic, see David Abram’s use of Merleau-Ponty’s focus on bodily experience and the existence (...)

17Such a way of thinking about the country bears the mark of phenomenological thought: by combining first-hand experience and name-creation (emphasizing the iconicity of words and onomastics), the reader is shown that the experience of the world is based on bodily perceptions. Seeing the acquisition of knowledge through experience as compatible with the age of print is distinct from an enduring division between a culture of orality coinciding with an idealized oneness with the world, and the loss of this unity with the arrival of print.6 New nature writers rather focus on the field of experience and the recapturing of a specified vocabulary which makes us see: the opposite process exists, positing an efficacy in language which would guide our sensory perceptions (corresponding to Macfarlane’s enterprise). There appears to be a double movement between perceiving and naming: names come as a perceptive filter. Here, the ethos of nature writing lies in the noticing, the seeing, the paying attention to things. Macfarlane’s lists and essays then seem to be an exercise in thhe effective mapping of the country, and show as much a delight in naming the most minute events and characteristics of the landscape (man-made or not) as it does a political (or at least pragmatic) empathy.

‘Things sold still have a soul’ (Mauss 84): Books, Walking, and Gifts

18In a 2015 article defending nature writing, Macfarlane describes the genre as ‘literature that explores relations between selfhood, landscape and ethics’ (Macfarlane 2015b), and calls for an ‘ecological aesthetics’ (Macfarlane 2015b) with a palpable impact, without being bluntly political. He asserts a clear connection between nature writing and efficacy as well as ethics, thus confirming the tendency we have observed previously. Such a vision of nature writing is far from being isolated and is for instance confirmed by the editor-in-chief of Granta Jason Cowley, who writes in the editorial of the landmark ‘New Nature Writing’ issue (Granta 102) that British nature writers:

share a sense that [they] are devouring our world, that there is simply no longer any natural landscape or ecosystem that is unchanged by humans. But they don’t simply want to walk into the wild, to rhapsodize and commune: they aspire to see with a scientific eye and write with literary effect. (Cowley 9)

19Cowley’s defence of the genre is that it is writing which is not disconnected from the world but rather entangled with it: in an argumentation that contrasts with the exhaustion of travel writing, he calls nature writing ‘urgent, vital and alert’ (Cowley 11), as well as a ‘journey of reconnection’ with nature (Cowley 12). He foregrounds empathy, and re-activates the ethical component of non-fiction in a text that remains central to the renewal of the genre.

  • 7 In Given Time, Derrida suggests that the notion of the gift contains an implicit demand that the ge (...)

20One symptom of practical ethics characterizing this new nature writing is Macfarlane’s recurring image of gift-giving (gifts of books, gifts of words). With this idea, he attempts to go against the grain of utilitarianism, and displays a way of seeing literature as parallel with nature. He envisions gift-giving and receiving in the way Marcel Mauss sees it, that is to say as economic phenomena that are not to be separated from other aspects of life, and cannot be reduced to purely mercantile calculations: ‘The themes of the gift, of the freedom and the obligation inherent in the gift, of generosity and self-interest that are linked in giving, are reappearing in French society, as a dominant motif too long forgotten’ (Mauss 87). Macfarlane, with this recurring trope, echoes both Mauss’ and Derrida’s ‘impossible’ gift (in Given Time), genuine only if it exists outside of the requirements of the dynamics of giving and taking, beyond calculation.7

21This connection of nature writing and gift-giving is particularly striking in Macfarlane’s ethical decision behind the writing of his 5,000 words essay The Gifts of Reading, and its publication process. The first edition was published by Penguin to support independent bookshops, and was as such commissioned by the Booksellers Association in 2016, and was therefore only available as a limited release book in independent bookshops in the country. The second edition of The Gifts of Reading (published a year later) supported a fund to help migrants, Migrant Offshore Aid Station. The text itself is an autobiographical essay, in which the author writes of his connection to Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts. Macfarlane observes his own habits and the fundamental absence of separation he sees between walking, observing landscapes, reading, and gifting—his own practice is based on exchange, in a way that is close to the way Mauss conceptualized gifting as a complex act. While he admits that not every gift of a book is a life-altering experience (‘Sometimes the only thing a book gives its reader is a paper cut’, he writes ’Macfarlane 2016, 22]), he still devotes his essay to the very real impact of book-giving. Writing and reading are presented as a praxis, and one which is always connected to ethics—hence the decision to donate the proceeds of the sales of The Gifts of Reading to a non-profit organization.

22In Landmarks, Macfarlane makes this preoccupation clear, as he wrote in the last section of the text that ‘Gift—the nature of gifts, and the gifts of nature—was one of the theoretical preoccupations of Landmarks’ (Macfarlane 2015a, 343-344). He included a ‘Gift Words’ section in the 2016 edition, in which he added a short essay and a new glossary composed of a selection of words sent by readers either by mail or by electronic means (emails, Twitter messages), so that he could return the gifts sent to him. Macfarlane insists on the diversity of origins of those he calls the ‘gifters’, enumerating some of them as a list reinforcing the act as a community-building one: ‘a man whose family had farmed the same land on the Isle of Wight “for more than 600 years”’ (Macfarlane 2015a, 340), ‘A nurse working with long-term ICU patients’ (Macfarlane 2015a, 340). He also adds context for some of the words, providing the reader with a background for the exchange of words; for instance, one reader sent her invented ‘lighty-dark’ (Macfarlane 2015a, 339), and in return he sent her ‘petrichor’, a word he had been sent by a correspondent (Macfarlane 2015a, 348). Including the reader in the naming process of nature leads to a renewed sense of community, and reactivates the author’s arguments about the link between nature, reading, writing, and ethics. As he explains in his 2015 defence of nature writing, ‘Literature has the ability to change us for good, in both senses of the phrase. Powerful writing can revise our ethical relations with the natural world, shaping our place consciousness and our place conscience’ (Macfarlane 2015b). This practical ethos is confirmed by the very structure of his works, like Landmarks: the book’s structure includes a penultimate blank glossary for the reader, thus inviting participation.

23Nature writing has emerged as part of a general interest in the national landscape, in what is local, grounded; it is connected to an anti-anthropomorphism movement and comes, for Britain, from an ethical concern which is also close to questions of national identity. It is not necessarily only the country as place that is laboured, but also the wild, included in the country as a whole: nature writing is then considered as a more general exercise in political community-building. The interest of the publishing industry for the genre is connected to these ethical concerns, and even large publishing houses agree to adhere to this reflexive process and to consider nature writing as an essentially ethical genre, even in its marketing.

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Abram, David, The Spell of the Sensuous. Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World, London: Vintage, 1997.

Campbell, Lisa, ‘Literary fiction under threat, ACE report concludes’, The Bookseller 15 December 2017, last accessed at on April 4, 2018.

Clark, Timothy, The Cambridge Introduction to Literature and the Environment, Cambridge: CUP, 2011.

Clark, Timothy, Ecocriticism on the Edge: The Anthropocene as a Threshold Concept, London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.

Cocker, Mark, ‘Death of the Naturalist: Why is The “New Nature Writing” so tame?’, The New Statesman 17 June 2015, last accessed at on October 08, 2017.

Cowley, Jason, ed., Granta 102, New Nature Writing (Summer 2008), last accessed at on January 4, 2018.

Derrida, Jacques, Given Time. I. Counterfeit Money (1991), transl. P. Kamuf, Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992.

Flood, Alison, ‘“In Stressed Times, We Can Take Comfort In Wildlife”: Why Nature-Writing Is “Exploding”’, The Guardian 30 June 2016, last accessed at on January 4, 2018.

Garrard, Greg, Ecocriticism, London: Routledge, 204.

Garrard, Greg, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Ecocriticism, Oxford: OUP, 2014.

Lilley, Deborah, “New British Nature Writing”, Oxford Handbooks Online (April 2017) last accessed at on June 1st, 2017.

Macfarlane, Robert, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, London: Penguin, 2013.

Macfarlane, Robert, Landmarks, London: Penguin, 2015a.

Macfarlane, Robert, ‘Why We Need Nature Writing’, The New Statesman 2 September 2015b, last accessed at on January 4, 2018.

Macfarlane, Robert, The Gifts of Reading, London: Penguin, 2016.

Mauss, Marcel, The Gift (1950), London: Routledge, 2002.

Moran, Joe, ‘A Cultural History of the New Nature Writing’, Literature and History 23.1 (Spring 2014): 49-63.

Poole, Steven, ‘Is Our Love Of Nature Writing Bourgeois Escapism?’, The Guardian 6 June 2013, last accessed at on January 4, 2018.

Trexler, Adam, Anthropocene Fictions: The Novel in a Time of Climate Change, Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2015.

Williams, Raymond, The Country and the City, London: Chatto and Windus, 1973.

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1 See for instance the increasing popularity of academic associations like the Association for the Study of Nature and Environment and their journal, Green Letters: Studies in Ecocriticism. See also the multiplication of dedicated handbooks aimed at academics, students, and the general public, like Greg Garrard’s Ecocriticism, in which the author confronts the place of the field within academia: ‘The wilderness question is also central to ecocriticism’s challenge to the status quo of literary and cultural studies, in that it does not share the predominantly social concerns of the traditional humanities’ (Garrard 2004, 59).

2 On the topic, see Clark’s study of the Anthropocene as a concept central to the study of contemporary literature and culture and Trexler’s works on the study of the impact of climate change on the novel. Both researchers propose to re-evaluate literary and cultural forms with a research methodology expanding on cultural studies.

3 The specific situation of the country should be stressed here, as the situation of nature writing differs greatly even in the English-speaking world—for instance, nature writing comes from a distinct tradition in the United States, and the status of the genre has been more stable.

4 H is for Hawk is classified as nature writing, but its belonging to the genre is problematic since the focus of the memoir is the mourning process of the author (who trained a goshawk as part of her grieving process) rather than nature—the hawk and nature in general, although omnipresent, are tame, and used to offset the author’s work of mourning.

5 The first issue devoted to the genre was its tenth and was published in winter 1983. It contained texts by Bruce Chatwin, Saul Bellow, Paul Theroux, and Russell Hoban, among others.

6 On the topic, see David Abram’s use of Merleau-Ponty’s focus on bodily experience and the existence of a perceptual proto-language in The Spell of the Sensuous (1996), and his use of Walter J. Ong’s work on orality and literacy.

7 In Given Time, Derrida suggests that the notion of the gift contains an implicit demand that the genuine gift must reside outside of the oppositional demands of giving and taking, and beyond any mere self-interest or calculative reasoning (Derrida 30). The gift requires a separation of the self and the other, and an absolute separation of any notion of obligation or claim.

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Cécile Beaufils, « Nature Writing and Publishing: The Ethics of a Cultural Mapping »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 55 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2018, consulté le 23 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Cécile Beaufils

Cécile Beaufils is Associate Professor (Maître de Conférences) in Contemporary British Literature at Sorbonne Université. Her research focuses on contemporary literature seen through the lens of book studies and cultural studies. She has published peer-reviewed papers on the literary magazine Granta as a cultural phenomenon, and on the recent evolution of publishing in Britain. Her current projects involve nature writing as a publishing phenomenon, as well as the construction of new modes of reading.

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