Tone, Technology, and the Writer’s Dilemma

While some muse about whether nature writing is still relevant, others gather to rally action for a planet in peril. In the meantime, apparently, none of this makes any difference to the Earth. These recent headlines they illustrate the dilemma that faces those who write about landscape and environment; namely, how to strike a chord with a wide audience?

For if we are writing about the sacredness of a place, then we are motivated by the desire for other people to see the place in that way. And if we are writing about a threat to that place, then we want people to understand the threat–and to do something about it.

But what if we face a public that has become generally non-responsive to sacredness and threats? Or is too busy and distracted to spend time on either topic? Or doesn’t believe there’s really anything to write about in the first place?

Ultimately, writers need a reading public, and to that end are sensitive to shifts in public taste. In particular, writers who advocate change must be aware of messages that resonate and make adjustments to messages that do not. Although I’ve heard and read it since, I still feel the influence of the on-site consensus that coalesced at ASLE 2009—that people are generally not responding well to doom and gloom.

For those of us laboring away on a manuscript–especially if it’s a first manuscript–we know that we must make a compelling case to a prospective publisher that people will want to read what we have written. The inevitable questions arise: Do we make changes to tone so it will sell? How willing are we to adapt? Should we be?

Where I work, we’ve definitely shifted the message of our engineering college, moving away from impending dire consequences (with “impending” being the long term—20, 30, 40 years from now) and toward the idea that we can and should equip people to go out and make a difference in the world. This shift did not come from message testing or as the result of a scientific marketing study. It was just a feeling that immediacy in a positive light would be more effective than gloom stretched out over decades.

But that’s branding, not literature. The contemporary insistence on stark choices at either end of a vast field of fatalism (or disaffection) may reflect our growing political and cultural polarization, but writers must remember that an interest in stories and personal experience is a literary constant. A story of adaptation is especially compelling—we like characters who face challenges and then live up to them by evolving and overcoming.

So what is a writer to do? Remember that the world is rich with good stories to be told. Don’t stop writing them in the way that is most true to you. And if you need to blog and tweet and write on walls to get attention, then do it. Adaptation isn’t just for protagonists.

About Eric Dieterle

A writer of environmental literature and a public affairs coordinator at Northern Arizona University.
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