Attributed to Banksy
Back in 2000, to help pay for the ranch, I took a teaching job at UC Davis, requiring me to be there for two ten-week quarters each year. I chose spring and fall, because summers are glorious in the high country and miserable in Davis, and because farm animals die most often in winter. I hired a series of house-sitters to tend the ranch while I was gone, often former students who needed a place to finish a book. Twice yearly I’d trade my down, fleece and Xtra Tuffs for corduroy and linen. ….
To the people in Creede I am intelligent, suspiciously sophisticated, and elitist to the point of being absurd. To the people at UC Davis I am quaint, a little slow on the uptake, and far too earnest to even believe.
Complete story available online
at About Place
I’ve noticed that Pushcart, free of the alphabetical-order dictum that forces the order of BASS stories, tends to put a piece out front that resonates through the entire volume, as well as carrying forward into a smaller subset of material that will follow until a new theme emerges. We have several themes to choose from with this piece: appreciation of nature, environmental damage, ironic distance vs engagement. And, given that Mr. Henderson just lost his canine companion of eleven years, it’s fitting that the first story should begin with the author in a similar scenario.
My first reaction was to simply trace the essay’s path from a heartrending scene encompassing the last days of her dog, to a passionate outcry about the ongoing destruction of the biosphere that sustains our civilizations and lives with a side-slam on academia for being academic, and back to encountering the grim side of nature with the sweet story of a baby elk orphaned by illegal hunting, all on the premise of favoring hope and genuine emotional engagement over the quicksand of irony and cynicism. But it started to get complicated: while I basically agree with the overall theme – caring is better than not-caring, and we can’t afford to be sealing ourselves behind a wall of cynicism and irony – I somehow have a lot of issues with the how she gets there.
Just as I was putting this post together, I saw a tweet from Michael Schaub: ‘Logically I know that people don’t come up with new words just to piss me off, but I don’t know how else to explain “hopepunk.”’ I had no idea what that meant, but it sounded related to what Houston is saying, so I went hunting and found an article by Aja Romano in Vox explaining hopepunk as the opposite of grimdark and in contrast to noblebright. Caution: I’m about to venture into unknown waters, and I may be getting this wrong.
It seems that, particularly in the genres of speculative fiction and fantasy, as well as in gaming, the approaches of grimdark and noblebright have been jousting since 9/11. Grimdark is exactly what it sounds like: abandon hope, all ye who enter here. Apocalyptic despair. Resignation. Helplessness. Noblebright is an opposing approach that, as Romano explains it, “social systems are good because the leaders we choose are inherently good.” This sounds so ridiculous at this moment in history, I feel like my keyboard is going to explode with laughter. Other sources define it more as a heroic character who embodies good qualities and battles evil, particularly in fantasy and game settings.
So where does that leave hopepunk?
“The opposite of grimdark is hopepunk,” declared Alexandra Rowland, a Massachusetts writer, in a two-sentence Tumblr post in July 2017. “Pass it on.”
With this simple dictum, the literary movement known as hopepunk was born.
Depending on who you ask, hopepunk is as much a mood and a spirit as a definable literary movement, a narrative message of “keep fighting, no matter what.” If that seems too broad — after all, aren’t all fictional characters fighting for something? — then consider the concept of hope itself, with all the implications of love, kindness, and faith in humanity it encompasses.
Now, picture that swath of comfy ideas, not as a brightly optimistic state of being, but as an active political choice, made with full self-awareness that things might be bleak or even frankly hopeless, but you’re going to keep hoping, loving, being kind nonetheless.
Through this framing, the idea of choosing hope becomes both an existential act that affirms your humanity, and a form of resistance against cynical worldviews that dismiss hope as a powerful force for change.
“Hopepunk, the latest storytelling trend, is all about weaponized optimism”, Vox
Romano gives examples. Game of Thrones (which I have never seen/read so don’t @ me) is grimdark, in spite of the noblebright character Jon Snow. Parks and Rec (which I just watched in its entirety for the second time since it went off the air, solely because The West Wing Weekly podcast featured a special episode showing how it was a comedy version of TWW) and The Good Place (which I lost track of in Season 3 but was a big fan of the first two, given its enthusiasm for philosophy) are hopepunk.
No, I don’t quite get it, but I’m all for positive action and a current of hope and optimism underlying even the worst times. I never got Seinfeld either; they were all nasty, judgmental people who couldn’t stand anyone with man-hands or soft voices, and unlike Archie Bunker, the racist with a heart of gold (a troubling image in itself), there was no redeeming quality among any of them. Yet they were icons of the 90s. Which may be how we ended up with hipsters and twenty-something salesclerks who sneer at you for buying products that pay their minimum wages. Everything’s complicated, isn’t it?
What does all this have to do with Houston’s essay, with dying dogs and orphaned elks and impending environmental catastrophe and distant reading?
Oh yes, distant reading.
Last winter, a colleague taught a class in something called “distant reading.” Because I have spent half my life teaching close reading, when the grad students first told me about it, I thought it was a joke. But distant reading, according to the New York Times is “understanding literature not by studying particular texts but by aggregating and analyzing massive amounts of data.”
“It’s not actually done by people,” my student Becca told me. “You take a body of literature, say, all the books set in Paris from 1490 to 1940, plug them into a computer, and the computer can tell you how many mentions of the Pont Neuf there were.” It was, I understood, an attempt to repurpose literature. As if all beings are best understood only in terms of their aggregate, as if by making things less particular, one made them more powerful or clear.
Now wait a minute. As I understand it (I’ve have had some vague exposure, at a very low level, to this sort of thing via digital humanities and corpus linguistics moocs), distant reading is not a replacement for close reading; it’s a way to look at an author’s oeuvre, or at a genre or period, to find overall trends and patterns, which can then be aligned with history and/or compared to individual works to see what conforms to those patterns and what resists them. Sneering at distant reading is something like complaining about research into brain tumors because it doesn’t treat heart attacks or immunize children against measles. Then again, it’s Houston who’s a professor at UCDavis, so maybe I should just shut up. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d misunderstood, or missed the point.
I seem to be jumping all over the place here. That isn’t a bad thing, to me; an essay that connects to other ideas, that reminds me of something else, is a good thing, a great thing. Or maybe I’m just making excuses for using Houston’s essay to get sloppy about organization, to spout off on my own stuff.
Back to the beginning of the essay. We open with the last days of Fenton, Houston’s 11-year-old Irish Wolfhound. It’s exactly as you’d expect: heartbreaking, poignant, and beautiful, as love and loss flow across the page. I don’t particularly want to know anyone who could read this and not be moved. I myself was sobbing by the end.
Then we move into a broader focus on the natural world, and the impending and ongoing ecological disaster that Houston sees as analogous to the loss of Fenton:
If we pretend not to see the tenuous beauty that is still all around us, will it keep our hearts from breaking as we watch another mountain be clear cut, as we watch North Dakota, as beautiful a state as there ever was, be poisoned for all time by fracturing? If we abandon all hope right now, does that in some way protect us from some bigger pain later? If we never go for a walk in the beetle-killed forest, if we don’t take a swim the algae-choked ocean, if we lock grandmother in a room for the last ten years of her life so we can practice and somehow accomplish the survival of her loss in advance, in what ways does it make our lives easier? In what ways does it impoverish us?
We are all dying, and because of us, so is the Earth. That’s the most terrible, the most painful in my entire repertoire of self-torturing thoughts. But it isn’t dead yet and neither are we. Are we going to drop the earth off at the vet, say goodbye at the door, and leave her to die in the hands of strangers? We can decide, even now, not to turn our backs on her in her illness, we can still decide not to let her die alone.
…. There are times when I understand all too well what my colleagues in Davis are trying to protect themselves from…. If I hadn’t slept those three nights on the porch with Fenton, it would have been three fewer nights of my life spent with an actively breaking heart. But a broken heart—God knows, I have found—doesn’t actually kill you. And irony and disinterest are false protections, ones that won’t serve us, or the earth, in the end.
For now, I want to sit vigil with the Earth the same way I did with Fenton. I want to write unironic odes to her beauty, which is still potent, if not completely intact.
Here’s where I get confused. I don’t know anyone who isn’t concerned, to at least some degree, about our precarious biosphere. There are the deniers, but they have other agendas, and who knows what they feel; I don’t think they are who Houston is talking about, anyway. Is there some pact at UCDavis to ignore the problems of the planet? Does one have to live in close touch with nature to recognize the damage that is being done, and to do one’s best – through daily stewardship, voting, and contributions – to reduce it? Isn’t holding the earth’s head in our laps and weeping as we watch her die a little defeatist? It seems to me a great many people are working very hard to keep it alive; should they now sit upon the ground and tell sad stories?
And by the way, I do want people to write what they want, including unironic odes to the beauty of the earth. But isn’t there a place for ironic humor? Doesn’t it expand the reach of the message? Doesn’t the sign above leave a visceral message of the consequences of denial?
Yeah, I’m pretty sure I’m missing the point. Or being overly rigid in my metaphoric reading. Or I’m just feeling miffed, and striking back. I’m a city dweller; I always have been. I don’t think that renders me immune to feeling the horror as regulations are rolled back (radiation isn’t that bad for you; carbon dioxide is a good thing, just look at Venus; mmmm, mercury, they put it in thermometers, how bad could it be?) and acknowledging a tragic loss as the Amazon rain forests continue to shrink in the name of commerce (and just wait, the upcoming years are bound to be worse).
I’ve said before that the awe and majesty some see in the Grand Canyon or Lake Louise for me takes place when I get a glimpse of how a living body breaks down glucose to generate energy, or how a cell divides, over and over, for the most part correcting its errors along the way, how just by the tiniest forces of positive-attracts-negative we breathe and sing and love and write. And I have held three cats in my arms as, in their mid-to-late-teens, they died (one was put down while in surgery) and have mourned each one. I know the terrible process by which we decide the suffering is greater than the living, and surrender them to whatever is next.
How will we sing when Miami goes underwater, when the raft of garbage in the ocean gets as big as Texas, when the only remaining Polar Bear draws his last breath, when fracking, when Keystone, when Inhofe…? I don’t know. And I imagine sometimes, often, we will get it wrong. But I’m not celebrating the Earth because I am an optimist—though I am an optimist. I am celebrating because this magnificent rock we live on demands celebration. I am celebrating because how in the face of this earth could I not?
I was in high school on the first Earth Day. I lug my groceries in cloth bags. And, by the way, I haven’t owned or driven a car (or lived in a household with a car) for twenty years. I live in a city because there are busses that get me where I need to go. I did not, I should say, make this choice for ecological reasons; I simply hate driving, and prefer to spend money on things other than insurance and gasoline and repairs. But I’ll match my carbon footprint against anyone’s. I’m not cynical about nature; I just am more comfortable where I am. But that doesn’t mean I don’t care.
There’s one more thing that comes into play here. This isn’t my first encounter with Houston. Her article “Corn Maze” appeared in the 2014 Pushcart. I had a pretty strong reaction to that, too, when she defended 82% truth as a reasonable benchmark for non-fiction. Of course, now that we live in a land where truth barely exists, 82% sounds pretty good, but at the time I pretty much threw a hissy fit. And in the here and now, I kept wondering as I read this essay: which 18% is made up?
I may sound like I’m picking on Houston. I’m not (and if I were, wouldn’t that be like a black fly – one of the best reasons in Maine to avoid nature – picking on a moose?). I’m just reacting to what I’ve read, which is what I do here all the time. It’s just that she tends to come up with things that get strong reactions out of me. That’s not a bad thing. If I were being ironic, I’d just write up the structure and content and turn the page.
But I can’t do that. Because I’m engaged with the issues, and I care.