AWP '19 Observations: Fabulist Fiction for a Hot Planet

Eco-Fabulism: 5 Years Later—A Guarded Update

by Damian Dressick


Five years ago, at the AWP conference in Seattle, Washington, five panelists sat down together for a session entitled Fabulist Fiction for a Hot Planet. This year’s AWP, again in the Pacific Northwest, brought together those same (for the most part) panelists to take stock of the landscape of Eco-fabulist literature at the present cultural moment.

The panel was moderated by Erin Stalcup, a faculty member in the Writing & Publishing MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts and author of the eco-fabulist novel Every Living Species as well as the editor of the literary journal Hunger Mountain.

Stalcup began with a brief discussion of the initial panel—its attempts to formulate a definition for eco-fabulism as well as one of its essential questions: to what degree can art to help fight ecological catastrophe. Stalcup also stressed the urgency of the ecological situation, describing the increasing number of extinct and soon-to-be-extinct species as well as the approaching reality of an ice free artic.

The first panelist was E. Lily Yu, winner of the 2017 Artist Trust/Gar LaSalle Storyteller Award and a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, Locus, and World Fantasy Awards. In her presentation Yu put two ecologically-engaged novels written 30 years apart in conversation. Both Australian novelist George Turner’s 1998 Drowning Towers and Kim Stanley Robinson’s more recent (2017) 2040 describe worlds in which rising sea levels have brought about large-scale changes in the social structure and humans are forced to live in high-rises in flooded cities. Yu discussed common thematic choices in the two novels written decades apart.

Matt Bell, Director of Creative Writing at Arizona State University and author of novels Scrapper(2016) and In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods(2013) and the story collection A Tree A Person or A Wall (2016) discussed his class Climate Fiction, Eco-Fabulism, and the New Weird at Arizona State. Students in the class read seven books, all from the genre of climate fiction. Bell talked about his own preparatory reading in science, environmental philosophy and history, as well as his desire create a course friendly to students often more inclined toward the production of genre fiction than literary fiction. Bell also talked about his success engaging his students with a project that asked them to craft artifacts from various imagined futures and put them on display in a “marketplace.”

Megan Cass, associate professor of English University of Louisiana-Lafayette and author of Range of Motion, took over for Christian Moody. She discussed how eco-fabulist stories can serve as calls to accountability for their readership.

Assistant professor at the University of Maine at Machias and author of Lungs Full of Noise, Tessa Mellas spoke about the last five years being particularly dark in terms of environmental impact due to ecological policies currently being pursued. Mellas suggested that the difficulty in understanding our ecological role starts when we “put nature on one side and human beings on the other.”

The panel’s overall conclusion seemed to suggest that while the road may be long and dark in terms of art making a meaningful difference in the planet’s outlook—and even though folks may see themselves as sometimes preaching to the choir—what writers can do and what writers must do is write about the things that matter to them.


Damian Dressick is an American author from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was nominated in 2009 for the Pushcart Prize for short fiction. He is the winner of the Spire Press 2009 Prose Chapbook Contest for his collection Fables of the Deconstruction. In 2007 he won the Harriette Arnow Award for short fiction