Which works qualify as ecocriticism?

This is a difficult question.  On the one hand, a work that we may at first glance take as a work of environmental criticism, such as a study of medieval bestiaries, might have little to do with actual animals and their relation to the environment, as such bestiaries are often highly allegorical works that use animals merely as stand-ins for human beings.  This is not to say that such texts cannot be approached from an environmental perspective, but the fact is that this has rarely happened.  Similarly, a literary critic interested in an urban landscape from a cultural, political, or economic perspective might give little thought to environmental concerns.  Yet another example would be works that focus on the environment exclusively from the perspective of the history of science.

On the other hand, a work that may not deal with environmental issues directly may be an important ecocritical text.  For example, the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) named Robert Watson’s Back to Nature as the “best book of ecocriticism” published in 2005-2006, in spite of the fact that this book is not primarily referencing the environmental resonances that emerged with its title phrase in the 1960s and ’70s; rather, in this book, “back to nature” signals something like “back to reality” or, to be more precise in the phenomenological sense Watson intends, it means “back to ‘the things themselves.’”  The thesis of Back to Nature is that in the Renaissance there emerged an anxiety over whether poets and artists could succeed at representing between the boards of a book or on canvas “the things themselves” we encounter in the environment.  Consequently, this is a highly theoretical work that surprisingly does not significantly touch on important environmental issues emerging at the time, such as air pollution, deforestation, endangered species, wetland loss, and so forth.  Nonetheless, Back to Natureis in fact an important ecocritical work as it fascinatingly explores how late Renaissance writers squarely dealt with the issue of how to represent the environment.

As “ecocriticism” is a bit of a freely floating signifier at this time, it is difficult to know what works of criticism fit under the rubric. It is certainly the case that some works touch on environmental issues without primarily being works of ecocriticism. Similarly, a study that is primarily cultural or economic (such s Raymond Williams’s milestone The Country and the City, which is in many respects an early work of environmental justice) may importantly draw attention to the relationship between economics and the environment.  Although it may sound simplistic, perhaps the most important question to ask of a possible ecocritical work is whether it is primarily concerned with environmental issues as they principally appear in texts.