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Local Food and Fiction
January 9, 2009 - 11:29am

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The indomitable Professor Cohen writes in response to my most recent post about creative nonfiction and food:

Okay, so I'm teaching a course this spring called “Science, Technology, and Sustainable Agriculture.” It's a modification of a class I've done before—in the other class the focus was sustainable building design. In this one it’s design of sustainable ag systems. You know, local food….

As you know…I try to bring in fiction, short stories and whatnot, to classes that don't typically demand it.

[W]e'll read and talk about the history of industrial agriculture, philosophies of technology and nature, and current examples of non-industrial food systems…. I wonder what fiction I could have them read (without resorting to East of Eden ) that would touch on any of those issues. Isn't there a scene in Madame Bovary about the agricultural fair or something? A big showdown?

Also, Happy New Year.

***

Happy New Year to you too, my friend. An interesting problem you pose, and I think we’d best get IHE readers involved. What you’re after seems to me so necessary, so worthwhile, so inevitable—yet virtually nonexistent in the rarefied elevations of literature—that somebody needs to start speaking into their voice-recognition hardware to write a novel about some “Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic farmer” up against the feed-lot beef cartel.

First, I take it you’re not after fiction that merely has people enjoying their food:

Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods' roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.

Nor are you after fiction merely angry at man’s abuse of the environment, such as Ed Abbey's Monkey Wrench Gang. Similarly, I don’t think Wallace Stegner or Peter Matthiessen fit the bill; they write about expanding frontiers and disappearing wilderness more than sustainable communities. I’m ashamed to say I haven’t read the fiction of Wendell Berry, whose essays are favorites of us both and the acknowledged standard, but maybe his would serve. Sarah Orne Jewett's "The White Heron" and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland are both utopias under siege by men who want to ramp up production, so to speak, but aren't about food.

The ag fair in Bovary is, if I remember correctly, merely a backdrop for Emma's latest lover to pitch woo. And Flaubert, with his hatred of and fascination for the provinces, makes the fair ridiculous in its pretensions, and the lovers even worse. South Florida environmental satires, in which everybody is complicit, a fool, or a victim, are descendants of this tendency.

Bob Shacochis's lush novel Swimming in the Volcano, shortlisted for the National Book Award, is about an American ag expert on a Caribbean island, and the story is very aware of sustainable ag and local community versus globalization and commodities. There’s also Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible, with its crazy, proselytizing American who wants to change how African villagers have farmed for millennia. But local food in them, while politicized, is subordinated to showing us people and how they think and suffer.

Despite Abbey (I think) saying that the next Moby Dick was waiting to be written on the theme of the destruction of our environment (picturing the Amazon as setting), I have to wonder if there is yet world-class literature of the type you’re looking for. Am I missing something?

The risk is that in the process of struggling to explain the sustainable issue, to compare past/present/future technologies, to show the impact of good and bad choices, and even to posit possible solutions, literary fiction might become didactic or shrill, its people fading in favor of mechanicals. Sometimes that’s just what you want to muckrake— The Jungle led to reform—but even Sinclair complained that in the end readers didn’t care about people like he’d portrayed as much as they hated the idea of tubercular beef. When I think of Grapes of Wrath I remember its characters and its ending about compassion—literally the milk of human kindness—not bad agricultural policies. (Though critics have said Steinbeck missed writing the great American novel by this much because he didn’t extend his sympathy to all characters, including the men kicking families off their land; in other words, they believe his desire for social utility overrode the literature.)

It’s one of the fiction writer’s hardest challenges, I think: How to make a specific world without the work becoming overdetermined. There’s a wonderful novel coming out this summer by a writer named Griswold that walks this line finely, and he’s likely to be called amoral because readers will wonder who exactly he’s condemning. After all, Moby Dick might worry a little along the way about sustainable fishing, but it also glories in the hacking and rendering of flesh, and to read it as a parable of how nature bites you in the ass when you mess with it is to miss the point. The point is experiencing the insoluble human experience.

Maybe if you really want to fall down this rabbit hole in an engineering class, you could discuss why fiction does or doesn’t illuminate your topic, read the wonderfully didactic The Lorax, and move on to nonfiction, which is abundant on the topic. But this is a non-answer.

Readers, a little help for the good doctor?

 

 

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