Literary Landscape

Rita Baleiro (ESGHT, University of the Algarve, CiTUR, Portugal)

The late nineteenth-century European concept of landscape attempts to sustain the pre-capitalist views of human relations with nature and the land in contrast to the capitalist economic order conception (Cosgrove, 1988: 252). In this view, the landscape becomes a spectacle to be appreciated, transforming into something perceived from the person’s intimate subjectivity, and the person’s activity is the very condition of its existence. The landscape is beyond functional usage and should be understood from a phenomenological perspective (Berque, 1994; Collot, 2005). The aesthetic arts, namely painting and literature, have been the first to provide testimonies of the sensory experiences of the subject’s new attitude and position towards the world’s natural beauty. Thus, the landscape is framed within a subject’s point of view, and the subject’s gaze may be steered by literary texts and information about the writers’ biographies. After that mediation, the construct of literary landscape emerges as the product of the individual’s experience of the physical geography after their knowledge of the literary. These intersections are possible because literary texts are “files of representation” that can shift the subject’s gaze and lend new meaning to spaces (Rojek & Urry, 1997: 53). They can potentially alter the perception, interpretation and narrative of the space. In this angle, the literary landscape entails dragging the representational literary elements (even symbolic elements) from these ‘files’ to what is observed and creating a new value for what is seen. This process implies re-signifying space and an act of “co-creation” because the literary landscape only emerges after the literary-filtered interaction of the subject with the place. At this point, it is helpful to establish a parallel with the reader-response criticism (cf. Rosenblatt, 1978), which focuses on the individual reaction and interpretation of the black marks on the page. Only after this process, lived by each reader, the literary text is produced, i.e., the reader assigns it sufficient meaning depending on what they read in the text, their previous knowledge of the literary, their cultural references, ideologies, mood and personal experiences. In this view, a text is an event resulting from the interaction between the words on the page and a reader’s perspective. Likewise, the literary landscape is an event produced after intersecting the subject’s literary references with the elements in the space. In this regard, the literary landscape is a mental perception framed within a subject’s knowledge of the literary in a process that involves memory and materiality. Concerning this process, in A Writer’s Britain (2009), Margaret Drabble states that it is improbable not to “see certain landscapes through the eyes of the writers that discovered them” (7) as the writers’ creative memory is embedded in the materiality of the sites.

In the context of tourism, however, not all visitors hold a literary “luggage” that allows them to interpret the literary references in a given space. Hence, considering that a landscape is experienced and produced by each person uniquely, to make sure a more significant number of people can experience and create the literary landscape, the tourism industry steers their gaze and re-signification of the space through signalling the literary markers or storytelling by the tourism industry. This means that the tourism industry may often signal literary places that make up the landscape. These literary places may be of two types: real-life and imagined (Smith, 2003). The former is associated with tangible heritage sites (e.g., the author’s birthplace, tomb or museum), and the latter comprises fictional locations associated with literary writings and at least partially fictional places, as many literary texts depart from real geography references (e.g., the Lake District).

The literary landscape may also be defined as a third space between the physical geography and the representations of the space the subject carries or creates in their mind. It is a construct that compiles the concrete and the abstract, the real and the imagined, the memory and the stories they have read or heard about, and it coincides with the subject’s gaze. This “constant and reciprocal interaction of representation and experience suggest place not only as a location but also as process.” (Weston, 2016: 15), a view of the recent so-called spatial turn in the humanities that challenges Yi- Fu Tuan’s perspective of immobility of place (i.e., space is movement and place is a pause) (1977: 6). After the spatial turn, the landscape becomes a verb (a process) and not just a noun (a place).

The literary landscape implicates the outcome of the subjective perception of the objective within an unreliable and unstable system: the language system. If, as Tuan claims, the act always implies personal interpretation, it is crucial to understand that the language used to describe and interpret the landscape conditions its perception. This view brings the matter of literary geography to the discussion, as this “process of reading and interpreting literary texts by reference to geographical concepts” (Thacker, 2005: 60), i.e., mapping the literary texts’ topographical and geographical references (i.e., the literary places), is always conditioned by the uncertainty of language.

In short, when addressing the concept of literary landscape, the subjects’ role cannot be omitted from the process of co-creating this construct. Indeed, individuals do not passively consume the meaning presented to them in that space; instead, they actively make the meaning they find in a given space.

In the scope of literary theory and literary studies, the landscape may also refer to a category of representation of the physical setting in literary texts. In literary texts, the landscape is a structure of meaning that sustains the actions and thoughts and a referent that opens the literary text to the outside world. In literary texts, the landscape might be read and tell stories; the landscape may also be a subject of writing, as it happens with ecocriticism, which started to analyse how literary works depict nature, seeking the intersection of literary studies and environmental discourse to move to issues of environmental justice and degraded landscapes.

How to cite this dictionary entry: Baleiro, R. (2023). Literary Landscape. In R. Baleiro, G. Capecchi & J. Arcos-Pumarola (Orgs.). E-Dictionary of Literary Tourism. University for Foreigners of Perugia.

  • Berque, A. (1994) (Ed). Cinq propositions pour une théorie du paysage. Champ Vallon.
  • Drabble, M. (2009). A writer’s Britain. Thames & Hudson. Collot, M. (2005). Paysage et poésie: Du romantisme à nos jours. José Corti.
  • Cosgrove, D. E. (1988). Social formation and symbolic landscape. Barnes and Noble Books.
  • Rojek C. & J. Urry (Eds.) (1997). Touring cultures: Transformations of travel and theory. Routledge.
  • Rosenblatt, L.M. (1978). The reader, the text, the poem: The transactional theory of the literary work. Southern Illinois University Press.
  • Smith, K.A. (2003). Literary enthusiasts as visitors and volunteers. International Journal of Tourism Research, 5(2), 83-95.
  • Thacker, A. (2005). The idea of critical literary geography. New Formations, 57, 56–73.
  • Tuan, Y-F. (1977). Space and place: The perspective of experience. University of Minnesota Press.
  • Weston, D. (2016). Contemporary literary landscapes. The poetics of experience. Routledge.