Sunday, December 27, 2009

Real People

I had an interesting conversation with my daughter Naomi over the Christmas break as to whether or not she resembled Naomi in Animals—or, to be more precise, over the degree to which her much younger self resembled the fictional character. Certainly I had not intended to make the two resemble each other. I chose that name for the character because of a different sort of real world connection. Naomi as a student had been influenced by a pamphlet she had been given at Simon Fraser University one rainy day, with pictures showing how factory farmed animals are treated. That in turn had been one thing that had influenced me to try to act against factory farming, so there seemed an obvious appropriateness to giving Naomi’s name to that character in the book. I hadn’t expected the connection to go beyond that—but (the real) Naomi is not alone in thinking that in fact I ended up portraying someone quite like the person she was when she was growing up.

Zayne and Tammy are two other “real” names in the novel. I knew slightly for a time a few years ago someone called Zayne. He is in many ways a good and gentle man, as is Zayne in Animals, but I don’t think overall the two have very similar personalities; certainly I did not intend them to. I wanted a relatively unusual name for Naomi’s father, and that was simply the first one that came to mind.

For several years early this past decade Tammy Roberts worked at the book publishing company where I work. She’s a very lively (and very entertaining) person with a strong conscience—and she has been vegan throughout her adult life. I used to admire how well she accommodated herself to the ways of the world when it came to food—never complaining if it was difficult to get something she could eat at a restaurant we were going to for some company lunch, never thinking less of others who didn’t think twice about eating animals, whether factory farmed or any other sort. I thought it would be appropriate to give someone in the book the name “Tammy”—but here again I didn’t see any close resemblance between the character of Tammy in Animals and the real person Tammy Roberts.

One other note about names and Animals; for many years I had a cat named Sam. Unlike the character in the novel, he wasn't much of a learner. But he was certainly immensely lovable.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A Good Read?

In one of my first postings on this blog I suggested that while it is a truism that reading literature tends naturally to do good by extending our sympathy for other humans, that assumption is “untested—and perhaps untestable.”* I recently discovered that some scholars now claim to have tested this very assumption, and to have evidence that it does indeed hold up. As Keith Oatley reports ("The Science of Fiction," New Scientist 25, June 2008), scientifically conducted studies have now concluded not only that regular readers of fiction tend to be more empathetic than other people (which could of course be merely a matter of correlation), but also that when tested immediately after reading a work of fiction—in this case, Chekhov’s “Lady with a Lapdog”—readers exhibit reactions that are more empathetic than those of a control group who are given a version of the same narrative written “in documentary form.” Evidently we are led as we read fiction to empathize with the characters in ways that we do not in reading non-fiction; the suggestion is that this leaves as a residue a slightly increased tendency to empathize with real human beings once we finish reading. “Readers found it easier to identify with the characters in the literary story than in the documentary version. By empathizing with these characters, readers became a bit more like them.”

The researchers caution that the effect has not yet been proven to be long-lived. Nevertheless, these are very interesting findings. The full scientific evidence is, I gather, to be found in Creativity Research Journal, vol. 21—which I have not seen, and I should perhaps therefore reserve judgment. But if it seems plausible that reading fiction could affect readers in this sort of way, it also seems to me highly doubtful that such a study could possibly prove the existence of an inherent improving tendency in the act of reading literature. I can quite believe that reading Chekhov might tend to make the average reader more empathetic; Chekhov is surely among the kindest and most understanding of authors, and his characters, generally of a mixed rather than than a saintly or heroic nature, are drawn in ways that lead us to feel for them in sometimes unexpected ways--ways that can surely expand our emotional capacities. But does that constitute, as Oatley claims, “scientific evidence that reading fiction does have psychological benefits”? That is can have, yes. But that it does have, by its very nature? What happens when we read James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, as I did recently? It’s written from the point of view of Frank Chambers—a drifter who murders a harmless garage owner in order to further the progress of a sexually charged but otherwise empty adulterous love. It’s a powerful first-person narrative, and certainly as I read it I was led to some extent to empathize with Chambers—simply through the mechanism of being made privy to his murderous intentions before he acts on them. As readers most of us find it hard to resist that sort of forward narrative pull. (Much the same thing happens when we read Macbeth, I would argue.) It may lead us to empathize with the character who is driving the narrative—but what are we empathizing with? I found that I felt strangely almost emptied of feeling after having read The Postman Always Rings Twice—which I guess may count as evidence that I became a bit more like Frank Chambers through the experience of reading. But being led to empathize with evil, to feel temporarily emptied of emotions such as kindness and pity, is not, I suspect, what Oatley has in mind when he writes of fiction having psychological benefits.

Whether you agree with all the conclusions or not, all this is highly interesting stuff; I look forward to reading more about the efforts of Oatley and others to conduct empirical investigations into literature’s effects.

* In contrast, I suggested that there is a great deal of empirical evidence that books such as The Jungle, Mary Barton, Oliver Twist, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Black Beauty can help to bring about change in very focused ways—helping to persuade readers of the evils of slavery, of the need to change the way horses are treated, of the need to provide better for the poor, and so on.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Rage against the factory farm

In his thoughful review of Animals in last weekend’s Globe and Mail (, Jim Bartley writes that the novel is “spot on: psychologically incisive, admirably disquieting.” He also writes that it is “an angry book.” Until I read that I wouldn’t have characterized it in quite that way, but on reflection I don’t think Bartley is wrong.

I have tried to think a little further on this. Everyone is comfortable with works of art being characterized as passionate; we are a little less comfortable with angry. Yet I suspect a fair bit of anger is often at the root of “impassioned” works. Certainly rage against cruelty or injustice is part of what motivates some such works. According to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s biographer Joan Hedrick, for example, Stowe began Uncle Tom’s Cabin after she had become “consumed with a rage unlike anything she had ever experienced” following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850. And certainly I did, and do, feel something similar about the way factory farming is practiced today (and at the way in which society condones its cruelty).

But I think, in my own case at least, that another sort of rage may also be at play here—anger of a sort more deeply rooted psychologically. Though most of the time I gather I’m a reasonably pleasant human being to be around, I’ve sometimes had to struggle to control my temper—and I have at least occasionally failed completely to do so. In a few cases where I’ve been drinking too much, an anger has surfaced that seems to have nothing to do with surrounding circumstances—that apparently resembles nothing so much as a furious and quite irrational child coming out from under an adult mask. I don’t think that these feelings are in my case very hard to explain. I gather, indeed, that similar feelings are very common in the psyches of those who grew up as my brother and I did with a loving but demanding and somewhat overbearing mother and a largely absent father.* I don’t for a moment believe that this angry self which emerges only very occasionally is the “real” self; all of us have multiple sides to our personalities or characters, multiple selves, if you will, and I don't see any reason to privilege rarely seen and unattractive selves as being more important than the ones which predominate the vast majority of the time. But the angry self that has sometimes surfaced is certainly one manifestation of a powerful force within me—and I suspect that one of the more successful ways I’ve dealt in my unconscious with deeply rooted anger is to try to channel it into rage against things that deserve being raged against. Is it coincidence that an angry passion for social justice issues took root within me at just the time in adolescence when I was first struggling to control rage against both my parents? I suspect not.

If it is the case that the capacity in me to be powerfully motivated by a passion against injustice or cruelty stems in large part from a transference of rage directed initially at parental sources, I don’t think the feelings themselves should be taken as any less legitimate for that. Indeed, it may well be an unfortunate truth in the other direction that people whose upbringing has been entirely benign may find it difficult to feel outrage, even when outrage is an entirely appropriate response. On that I can only speculate. But I do know my own case that if I can direct whatever anger there is within me against things that are deserving of anger, it can only lead to good effects, within me as well as in the world.

* That is of course only one of numerous sorts of childhood that may breed frustration and anger in the young mind. Stowe is an interesting case here too. Her mother died when she was four; her powerful father praised her accomplishments but openly wished she had been a boy, and sent her off to live with relatives for extended periods. Did that background help to fan the flames of her abolitionist passion? It is impossible to be sure.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Ego and the Imagination

It’s a great day to have something in common with Margaret Atwood—a dystopia that’s been published this season in Canada and that hasn’t been nominated for any of the major awards. Oddly enough, it was just after 8am Pacific time this morning—just after I’d heard on the CBC national news who the finalists for this year’s GG's Awards were—that it struck home for me just how inconsequential all these awards really are. Funny how some incidental piece of news can spur a significant realization of that sort.

More generally, it’s a funny thing with awards. No matter how much one may tell oneself that they’re not really important—how often great books miss out completely, how often horrible books win, etc. etc.—it’s hard not to pay attention. That’s true for both readers and writers, but for readers it’s a matter purely of information and attention, whereas for writers, of course, it’s also a matter of ego. In my own case I have eternally in front of me a reminder of how deeply awards don’t matter in the end—my father’s winning the 1964 Governor General’s Award for Fiction for his novel The Deserter. Dad also won a (to my mind richly deserved) GG for poetry, but The Deserter is a difficult and I would say not very satisfactory novel—I think my mother was right to diagnose among its various flaws an excess of ego showing through. But no one cares now; The Deserter today is largely forgotten, while a novel that didn’t win that same year—Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel—remains arguably the finest of all Canadian novels.

How to get beyond ego is to my mind a vitally important question for novelists—no doubt for dramatists too. You can write great poetry showing off your ego; it’s a lot harder to do so and write fiction or drama that doesn’t come across as self-conscious—or just self-centred. On the whole, successful novels have to be able to convey an understanding of and sympathy for other creatures—pointedly, here, I won’t say other humans. And to do that requires a forgetting of the self, at least while the writing process is underway. For me at least, the great stylistic trick that facilitates such a forgetting in fiction is what academics term free indirect discourse (also known as colored narrative). It’s writing in the third person that takes on the coloring of different points of view—essentially through omitting such phrases as “he thought that” or “it seemed to her that…”. It sounds like a small thing, but such writing seems to me to do far more than allow for faster shifts from one point of view to another in fiction; I think it can also provide to the reader a much stronger and more direct sense of the feelings of different characters. Just as important, for me at least, is how it affects the creative process; I’m sure that using colored narrative allowed me far more easily to lose myself in the characters of Animals than I would have been able to otherwise—and allowed me to stay lost for pages at a time.

(It’s vitally important, of course, not to have the CBC on in the background at such times; otherwise even the least self centred of us runs the risk of getting distracted by news of yet more awards he or she hasn’t been nominated for!)

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Animals and progress; Coming events in Toronto, Nanaimo, Victoria, Montreal, Calgary

Many thanks to everyone who came out for the first two events connected with the book—Vancouver Sept. 22 (with Angus Taylor) and Calgary this past Thursday (with Jack MacIntosh). Topics discussed at the Calgary event included the implications of drawing dividing lines between human and non-human animals, and whether there is a realistic chance of ever eliminating the factory farming of non-human animals. On that one I’m guardedly optimistic. Two hundred years ago we North Americans lived in a world in which slavery was legal (in Canada as well as the United States), and in which women could not vote and had few legal rights of any sort. Even a generation ago it was unimaginable to most of us that gay marriage might become legal. Progress may be slow but it is possible.

There was an interesting column in yesterday’s Globe by Margaret Wente on how much greener she and her husband have become by moving downtown. She quotes environmentalist David Owen on how “urban density, more than any other factor, is the key to sustainability.” The same notion is advanced by Steven Johnson in his extraordinarily wide-ranging and interesting 2006 book, Ghost Map—and, to me at least, it makes a lot of sense. For sustainable living we need greater density of humans in human spaces (so we can get to what we need by walking or taking public transit). Conversely, we need far less density of non-human animals in hog enclosures and feedlots for cattle. The greater risks to animal health caused by overcrowding, the greater risks of some of their diseases being passed along to human animals, the difficulty of dealing safely with the vast amounts of excrement produced, the overuse of antibiotics that becomes necessary to the everyday functioning of these operations--all these put the larger environment at risk. Wente has clearly re-thought a number of environmental issues recently, and hats off to her for that. Maybe she will also come round before long to the realization that the fight against the factory farming of non-human animals is not only a struggle to eliminate unspeakable cruelty; it's also part of the struggle for environmental sustainability.

Several more Animals events are now confirmed for later this season, including a Montreal launch (with Claude Lalumiere) and a Calgary event at the Plaza Theatre (with Linden MacIntyre):

Upcoming Events:

Wednesday, October 28, Toronto
Book Launch / Discussion Forum ("We Are What We Eat") Don LePan with Thomas Hurka (Philosophy Dept., University of Toronto)
Location: Clinton's, 693 Bloor St. W at Clinton St. (one block east of the Christie subway station)
Time: 7-9 pm

Tuesday, November 3, Nanaimo
Book Launch / Discussion Forum ("We Are What We Eat") Don LePan with Angus Taylor (Philosophy Dept., University of Victoria, author of Animals and Ethics)
Location: Vancouver Island University, Building 355 (Liberal Studies, First Nations Studies), Room 211
Time: 4-6 pm

Thursday, November 5, Victoria
Book Launch / Discussion Forum ("We Are What We Eat") Don LePan with Angus Taylor (Philosophy Dept., University of Victoria, author of Animals and Ethics) and Nicole Shukin (English Dept., University of Victoria, author of Animal Capital)
Location: University of Victoria, Room to be announced
Time: 4-6 pm

Thursday, November 19, Montreal
Book Launch Don LePan with Claude Lalumiere (author of the just-published collection of short fiction Objects of Worship)
Location: to be announced
Time: to be announced

Sunday, December 6, Calgary
Book Launch Don LePan with Linden MacIntyre (author of the just-published novel The Bishop’s Man)
Location: Plaza Theatre (hosted by Pages-on-Kensington Books)
Time: 11am-1pm

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Animals is now published and available

Animals now exists—and more than that, it’s in many stores, thank goodness (and thanks to the reps and the buyers!). Many people have been asking me where they can get hold of a copy. The main thing I would say is “phone first.” I checked several Vancouver area stores today; some (such as Duthie's) had just received stock; others hadn’t but were expecting stock soon; and some seemed unclear as to whether the book was on order or not. Chapters/Indigo stores are often unclear as to their own situation: when I phoned the large downtown Chapters on Robson Street, for example, I was first told that they had none, and that I should try the Chapters store in Richmond, which had three. But then when I asked if any were on order they checked and said, “Oh yes, there are 7 on order; they should arrive any day.”

Please persist, if you can; if people don’t buy soon after publication these days, many stores quickly ship the books back to the publisher. So please buy early (and often—Animals makes a great gift!). The book is also available online through,,, and of course through Vehicule’s own site. In the US Soft Skull Press has now scheduled the book for April 2010 publication; Americans looking to purchase a copy now should be able to do so from one of the suppliers listed above.

The first launch event was Tuesday at the Sylvia Hotel in Vancouver; despite quite a bit of background noise from the bar, it went well, I thought—certainly a good number of people turned out. Angus Taylor of the Philosophy Dept at the University of Victoria opened with a very interesting discussion of the difficulties inherent in drawing any line separating human and non-human animals, and then I made a few remarks and read one long passage. Good discussion afterwards—particularly of Georges Laraque of the Montreal Canadiens, and of Prince Fielder’s baseball record since he became a vegetarian!

Upcoming events include:

Thursday Oct. 1, Calgary: Calgary Public Library, 6-8 (with Jack MacIntosh of the University of Calgary Philosophy Department)

Wednesday, October 28, Toronto: Clinton’s (Clinton at Bloor), 8-10 (with Tom Hurka of the University of Toronto Philosophy Department)

Tuesday, November 3, Nanaimo: Vancouver Island University, Building 355, 4-6 (with Angus Taylor of the University of Victoria Philosophy Dept.)

Thursday, November 5, Victoria: University of Victoria, English and Philosophy Depts., 4-6 (with Angus Taylor of the U Vic. Philosophy Dept. and Nicole Shukin of the U Vic. English Dept.)

A Montreal event and another Calgary event should be announced soon.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Creation and collaboration

At least since the late eighteenth century, Western culture has tended to imagine the writing of literature as a solitary process. The creative vision is an individual one, and the writer toils alone. Nowadays when writers are found to have deviated from that pattern it tends in an often obscure way to be held against them. To the extent that authors have collaborated with others, their achievement is likely to be taken as diminished—and the works themselves to be sullied, somehow less pure.

I’ve recently run across discussions of three cases in point. One is Laura Ingalls Wilder; it now seems that the wonderfully affecting spare prose of the Little House books may have been the product not of a pure imaginative vision but of collaboration between the rough hewn memories and stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder herself and the very different artistic sensibility of her daughter (whose imagination may have been more limited but whose language skills were less coarse). The second is Raymond Carver; the elliptical sparseness of his early work has now been shown to be substantially the product of collaborative work with his editor, Gordon Lish. The third is Mary Shelley. No one now claims (as some did in the nineteenth century) that Percy rather than Mary Shelley “wrote” Frankenstein. But a new edition suggests that as many as 5,000 words (out of a 72,000 word novel) were contributed by Percy Shelley. Again, collaboration to a very significant extent.

Should we see the work of these authors as in any way diminished by such collaboration? Absolutely not, I would argue. If an author is able to collaborate with others in ways that result in an imaginative vision being better realized, surely that should be to everyone’s credit. Credit to those who provided real help, certainly—but also to the author who was willing to accept the help, and to see that it was help.

I should here confess that I am far from disinterested in making this argument. When I first tried to write fiction in my teens and twenties I accepted without question that a novel was, almost by definition, the product of someone working entirely on their own. In my fifties, on the other hand, I have been lucky in knowing a number of people who have been able and willing to provide wonderfully good advice on how to shape Animals in all sorts of ways, big and little. And I have been lucky in being old enough to want to seek their advice and to take it, rather than insisting (as I surely would have in my twenties) that the work would be better if it were entirely my work. Animals isn’t entirely my work; in a number of important ways it is the product of collaboration. And I’m sure it’s much the better for it.

Interestingly, much as Rose Wilder Lane, Gordon Lish, and Percy Shelley each seem to have made great contributions to the fiction of others, none was able to write first-rate fiction on their own—though all three certainly tried. Perhaps if they had themselves been willing to accept help in the same way as they were willing and able to give it …

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Farmers on food

Blake Hurst puts forward some superficially attractive arguments in a July 30 article in the journal of the American Enterprise Institute (The American) that was picked up by Arts and Letters Daily and widely noticed. Hurst is a farmer, and when he puts forward the notion that “farmers have reasons for their actions, and society should listen to them as we embark upon this reappraisal of our agricultural system,” he strikes a chord that, for understandable reasons, resonates deeply. Of course we should as a society listen to farmers if we are contemplating changes to the agricultural system—just as we should listen to forestry workers if we are contemplating changes to the way in which we grow and harvest our forests, or fishers if we are contemplating changes to that industry. But which farmers, which foresters, which fishers? Foresters who have a vested interest in endless clear cutting, or foresters familiar with very different, and far more sustainable techniques? The fishers who were lobbying governments not to cut back on the cod fishery even as the cod stocks were in free fall, or the fishers who were taking a different approach?

Michael Pollan listened to more than a few farmers as he was writing The Omnivore’s Dilemma, but they are not the farmers Hurst would like us to listen to; Hurst's article is entitled “The Omnivore’s Delusion: Against the Agri-Intellectuals,” but in fact he is arguing against many farmers just as much as he is against many intellectuals. Leave aside for the moment those committed to a purely organic approach. Farmers such as Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms in Virginia disdain the “organic empire” but nevertheless argue that small to medium-sized integrated farms can be just as efficient as much larger factory farms while using far fewer chemicals, causing little or no damage to the environment, providing food that is far healthier—and imposing far less cruelty on non-human animals. Hurst doesn’t want us to listen to farmers such as Salatin, any more than he wants us to listen to those farming organically; he’d prefer to characterize all opposition to large-scale industrial farming as coming from “intellectuals”—by which he clearly means to imply, people out of touch with reality.

But the reality Hurst is himself in touch with is limited on every side. “We have to farm ‘industrially’ to feed the world,” Hurst asserts, seemingly oblivious to the fact that massive American subsidies for large American producers have allowed them to undercut producers in many developing countries and effectively destroy the agricultural base there. “Consumers benefit from cheap food,” Hurst asserts, and to him it is an unproblematic truth. Nothing here about the degree to which the real costs (to human health, to the environment) are externalized through the current cheap food system. Nothing here about the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that has been caused by all the herbicides, pesticides, and chemical fertilizer runoff from the Mississippi-Missouri system. For Hurst, “the biggest environmental harm I have done as a farmer is the topsoil (and nutrients) I used to send down the Missouri River to the Gulf of Mexico before we began to practice no-till farming, made possible only by the use of herbicides.” Has he even heard of the dead zone in the Gulf? Characteristically, Hurst makes no attempt here to actually weigh the evidence. Indeed, he does not even directly acknowledge that herbicides and pesticides may in any way cause damage to the environment; he appears willing to see only the benefits, entirely unwilling to acknowledge any of the true costs of the cheap food he is producing.

If Hurst ignores all evidence of the environmental and health costs of industrial agriculture, he is even more blind to the extraordinary level of cruelty to animals it entails. “Farming has always been messy and painful, and bloody and dirty,” is his line. “That’s something the critics of industrial farming never seem to understand.” Which critics those might be he never says; certainly not Michael Pollan, or Alice Waters, or Eric Schlosser, or Paul Roberts, or, for that matter, Peter Singer. When it comes to cruelty towards animals, the central point that all those critics have made is not that farming suddenly from the 1950s onwards began to become cruel and bloody and dirty when it hadn’t been before. Their point is that, with the shift to industrial farming, it went from a level of messy and a level of painful and a level of dirty that was relatively low to one that was extraordinarily high—cruelly so for the animals, and dangerously so for humans as well. Chickens crammed together in tiny cages, pigs unable even to turn around for their entire lives, cattle living 24/7 in their own manure, animals fed antibiotics endlessly. Hurst quotes Matthew Scully’s description of such practices as “an obvious evil so sickening and horrendous it would leave us ashen.” How does he argue against this point of view? He doesn’t even attempt to rebut the vast array of evidence on industrial poultry or hog farming. Instead he turns to anecdotes concerning non-industrial poultry and hog farming. His argument in favor of industrially farmed poultry? That a farmer he knew owned a lot of turkeys who died because he had allowed them to stay out of doors. His argument in support of the way in which pigs are treated in industrial style hog operations? That a hog he had been responsible for as a child (and as a 4-H member) fell over on its piglets, crushing them. “We can’t change nature,” Hurst concludes. Pigs will “always be crushed by their mothers,” chickens “will always provide lunch to any number of predators,” and so on.

There is a deep dishonesty to this argument. Hurst argues that “we can’t change nature” only when it suits him to do so. If it’s a question of breeding chickens so fat that they can’t walk so that we can have cheap food, it’s OK to change nature. If it’s a question of killing the marine life in the Gulf of Mexico so that we can have cheap food, it’s OK to change nature. If it’s a question of developing new chemical fertilizers and pesticides and herbicides so that we can have cheap food, we can change nature. But if it comes to reducing the cruelty we cause animals when we farm, suddenly “we can’t change nature.”

I would certainly not go so far as to suggest that Hurst is dishonest throughout his argument, but even where there is no dishonesty he is continually muddying rather than clarifying. Here’s one of many examples: Hurst tries to argue against organic agriculture through sentences such as this one: “Some of the largest farms in the country are organic,” he asserts, “—and are giant organizations dependent on lots of hired stoop labor doing the most backbreaking tasks in order to save the conscience of my fellow passenger the merest whiff of pesticide contamination.” Here he muddles at least three separate and very substantial issues: organic vs. non-organic, small vs. large, machinery vs. human labor. Each one is large, interesting, and difficult to resolve, even when they are disentangled from one another. But Hurst evidently has no interest in making that sort of effort; what he is interested in is discrediting those who oppose industrial farming—and even those who want to ask tough questions about it. In fact few advocates of organic farming these days would argue that organic farms need be small—or that organic farming is a silver bullet that can solve all the problems.

To be sure, Hurst seems to be enlightened in some of his own farming methods—notably, no-till farming. I am no farmer, but everything I have read about no-till farming suggest it is indeed a positive development—one that preserves the quality as well as the quantity of topsoil. It does indeed require the use of some herbicide and some fertilizer, and for that reason has, in the words of Paul Roberts, “earned the scorn of some in the alternative farming movement.” But many other opponents of industrial farming have applauded the introduction of no-till farming; on this one many of them are on his side. Hurst again and again portrays opponents of industrial farming as all of a piece, all of them always seeing things in black and white terms, all of them unquestioningly pro-organic, all of them unwilling to recognize that “farming is more complicated than a simple morality play.” Has Hurst read any of the books that he dismisses with such contempt (and that he never actually quotes from)? Here, for example, is Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma:

To grow the plants and animals that made up my [organic] meal, no pesticides found their way into the watershed, no pesticides found their way into any farmworker’s bloodstream, no nitrogen run-off or growth hormones seeped into the watershed, no soils were poisoned, no antibiotics were squandered, no subsidy checks were written. If the high price of my all-organic meal is weighed against the comparatively low price it exacted from the larger world, as it should be, it begins to look…like a real bargain.
And yet, and yet… An industrial organic meal such as mine does leave deep footprints on our world. The lot of the workers who harvested the vegetables… is not appreciably different from that of those on non-organic factory farms. The chickens lived only marginally better lives than their conventional counterparts. As for the cows, they may well have spent time in a actual pasture, …but the organic label guarantees no such thing. And while the organic farms I visited don’t receive direct government subsidies [as do almost all conventional farms], they do receive other subsidies from taxpayers, notably subsidized water and electricity in California. … [And], perhaps most discouraging of all, my industrial organic meal is nearly as drenched in fossil fuel as is its conventional counterpart.

So who is the one failing to recognize that “farming is more complicated than a simple morality play”? If anyone may fairly be accused of failing to take account of the degree to which calculating the costs and benefits of different farming methods is a complex matter, it is surely Hurst rather than Pollan.

Many organic farmers—like many non-organic farmers, and like many intellectuals, on all sides of all these issues—recognize that there are complex issues involved. Sometimes larger is better. Sometimes chemicals are appropriate. Organic is not always the answer. There is no one silver bullet. But change must happen. I recognize that some readers looking for an honest attempt to untangle and resolve some of the complexities are highly sceptical about vegetarianism. Others may be mistrustful for different reasons of Pollan or Singer or Schlosser. In that case I’d recommend Paul Roberts's The End of Food (2008). Roberts is to my mind dishearteningly lacking in concern over cruelty to animals. And he is by no means unsympathetic to arguments as to the necessity to produce large amounts of food to feed the world. Yet he sheds light on a good many of the complexities. In the end, for reasons quite unconnected to any concern over the treatment of animals, he too concludes that present-day industrial farming practices are largely unsustainable—and that humans must reverse the trend of the past few generations, and learn to eat less of the flesh of non-human animals. As for Blake Hurst? This is a farmer who began his writing career in 2002 defending the politics of George W. Bush-style Republicanism. This is a farmer who blogs with the likes of Bill O’Reilly on the extreme right-wing “Political Mavens” website, where he muses about how he and his fellow farmers should maybe consider “making our living raising crops for the energy market, and guys with ponytails can raise food for the rest of you in Community Gardens in Greenwich Village.” Like the rest of his writing, “The Omnivore’s Delusion: Against the Agri-Intellectuals” adds heat to the debate, but no light.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Pub dates, pub dates

Several pieces of news about the book. First, I’ve now heard from Véhicule that Animals is expected to be in their warehouse September 4, and to be in stores by September 18.

So far there are three events tentatively set up for the fall. The focus in each case will be far less literary than is the case with most readings or book launches (though I know Véhicule is also working on setting up several purely literary events, and last week Pages in Calgary expressed interest in holding something of a literary nature there in early December). Here are the three so far:

Tuesday, September 22, Vancouver:
Book Launch / Discussion Forum ("We Are What We Eat") Don LePan with Angus Taylor (Philosophy Dept., University of Victoria, author of Animals and Ethics)
Location: Sylvia Hotel, Bar/Bistro, 1154 Gilford St (on English Bay, near Davie and Denman)
Time: 7-9 pm

Thursday, October 1, Calgary
Book Launch / Discussion Forum ("We Are What We Eat") Don LePan with Jack MacIntosh (Philosophy Dept., University of Calgary)
Location: Calgary Public Library (Central), John Dutton Theatre, 616 Macloed Trail SE (at Olympic Plaza C-Train station)
Time: 6-8 pm

Wednesday, October 28, Toronto
Book Launch / Discussion Forum ("We Are What We Eat") Don LePan with Thomas Hurka (Philosophy Dept., University of Toronto)
Location: Clinton's, 693 Bloor St. W at Clinton St. (one block east of the Christie subway station)
Time: 7-9 pm

One other thing on the topic of pub dates: US rights for Animals have now been sold to Soft Skull Press, which seems to have a very good reputation among small American publishing houses. Certainly I’m very pleased that Jackie Kaiser (the agent I’ve been working with) has placed it with Soft Skull. They will likely publish in June 2010.

Perfectly Good

In her column in this weekend’s Globe and Mail, Margaret Wente writes on women and food—two topics that she often writes on, and often writes on well.* The central point of this column (“Being in the Kitchen with Julia…”) was a good one: for all that Julia Child may have raised the level of culinary awareness in North America, she also “put the heat on serious, cultured, and accomplished women to get back in the kitchen, just as they had begun to claw their way out.” From this angle and from more than a few others, there’s a lot to be said for convenience. But Wente is as blind to certain other issues as she is intelligently alert to the impact of social change on the lives of women. “Why bother to turn on the oven,” Wente concludes, "when you can buy a perfectly good roast chicken for $7.99?” Why indeed—unless you have given some thought to the ways in which the factory farming that produces the $7.99 chicken entails far higher total costs than are reflected in that price. Costs to the environment—and costs to the chickens that are cruelly bred and cruelly treated throughout their short lives.

In another column—one that I quote in Animals—Wente makes plain her refusal to think about such questions, and is disarmingly frank about the reasons why:

[L]ots of chefs have already kicked foie gras off the menu. They think it isn’t nice to torture animals before you eat them. Indeed, most of what we do to animals before we eat them isn’t nice. If we knew exactly how they lived and died, we’d be horrified. Fortunately for us, we’re so removed from where our food comes that we can choose not to know. Ignorance is bliss, and I, for one, am a devoted carnivore. I have studiously tried to avoid learning about the revolting details of factory farming, because if I knew, then I would have to stop eating meat and start sending money to the animal-rights movement, or at the very least search out meat that had an okay life. That would be hard. It’s easier to be a hypocrite.

From one angle I find this attitude oddly honorable; Wente is prepared to state openly and honestly the sort of thing that I know I dimly felt within myself for many years but never had the courage to acknowledge, much less state openly in public. I'm sure such thoughts and feelings must be widespread, but it’s rare indeed that one finds them stated frankly in print. Far more often we try to persuade ourselves that factory farming isn’t really cruel, or doesn’t really harm the environment, or that non-human animals don’t really suffer. Wente is at least honest about her refusal to think or feel.

How can one best respond? Not, I would say, by trying to argue that someone such as Wente should give up meat. Perhaps rather by pointing to some of the ways in which practices that are far less supportive of cruelty can be just about as convenient. Free-range chickens may not always be humanely raised, but on average there is far less cruelty involved in raising them than there is in raising the cheap factory-farmed varieties. And the same goes for free-range eggs and free-range beef and free-range pork. To be sure, there are fewer convenience foods available that are made from free-range meat or eggs. But there are some (I’ve just googled free-range convenience food in the city in which Wente lives, and in less than 30 seconds discovered “Table-Ready Food” from Cumbrae’s, with two Toronto locations), and it is certainly possible to make a very wide range of quick and convenient meals with meat or eggs from free-range animals. In short, the choice is not a simple dichotomy between giving up meat and consuming the products of factory farming without any thought or feeling for one’s fellow creatures; there is a substantial middle ground.

Granted, free-range meat and eggs are not dirt cheap—and people with limited means may be justified in taking the least expensive alternative, even when doing so supports what amounts to animal torture. For those whose incomes are not at the absolute low end of the spectrum, though, there is certainly good reason to consider the ways in which that $7.99 chicken is not “perfectly good” after all, and to be prepared to pay a bit more for a better alternative.

* Her June 6 2009 column on the murder of Dr. George Tiller, for example—and on the reasons why women are sometimes driven to consider late-term abortion as an option—was as enlightening as it was courageous.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Animals in the law, animals in the news

When I wrote a couple of weeks ago on the topic of how minds change I focused on individual psychology rather than on two broader mechanisms that can make an enormous difference in changing minds—the media and the law.

In areas where we don’t have a lot of background knowledge ourselves, we tend not only to respect laws but also to be more willing to equate the legal with the morally acceptable. So if the law says that a non-human animal is property and that a factory farm can do anything it wishes to such a creature, that matters not only directly, in perpetuating cruel practices and the animal suffering they cause, but also indirectly, in helping to perpetuate a complaisant acceptance of such practices among the general public.

In both Canada and the United States, the law is sadly deficient when it comes to meaningful action against cruelty to non-human animals. Much as we Canadians like to think of ourselves as kinder and gentler than Americans, we are no better in this regard. Over the past ten years there have been three significant attempts in Canada to pass new legislation on cruelty to animals; none has succeeded. In the US, in contrast, California (with last year’s Proposition 8) and several other states have begun to place some restrictions on cruelties of factory farming. Thus far the restrictions are modest and apply to only a very few of the worst factory farming practices. But at least it is a start; in Canada we have done nothing.

Our media are not much better than our lawmakers. This weekend was not untypical; a Friday Lorne Gunter column in The National Post railed against the Vancouver Humane Society’s efforts to draw attention to the cruelties of rodeo calf roping (and was blithely accepting of cruelty to such animals), while Rex Murphy in his Saturday Globe and Mail column railed against PETA and against Sarah McLachlan for opposing the seal hunt—without devoting even one sentence in the column to arguing directly as to whether the seal hunt is cruel or not. Also in the Globe and Mail, an article reported on hog farmers’ demands for government assistance—with no mention of the extreme cruelty that is central to the businesses they run.

But there may be hope at the Globe, which recently appointed John Stackhouse as editor. As a reporter Stackhouse often displayed a real social conscience, and it was when he was editor of Report on Business a few years ago that the ROB Magazine published the best article I’ve seen on factory farming in any mainstream Canadian publication—an exposé of cruel practices written by someone who had worked at a factory hog farm. It was interesting this past week that the Globe ran the controversy over the Humane Society’s rodeo campaign—and the Calgary newspapers’ refusal to run Humane Society advertisements making their case—on their front page. One small but hopeful sign.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Changing our minds

How do we change our minds? I heard earlier today of an academic who had been persuaded in recent years to change his eating habits as a result of teaching a course on ethical issues; he decided as he worked through the arguments himself regarding ethics and the treatment of animals that he would alter his own behavior. It does often happen that people are directly persuaded by argument—whether the issue be the treatment of animals, capital punishment, gay marriage, whatever. (I remember being so persuaded on the issue of capital punishment many, many years ago—for me the “mistake” argument was the unanswerable one.)

It often happens too that emotion and imagination come together to bring about change; such was famously the case with the reaction to works such as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and, of course, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. On an almost infinitely smaller scale, I’m very happy to be able to report that even well in advance of the publication of Animals there are several people who have told me they are eating less meat (or no meat) as a result of reading the novel.

But some of the most interesting changes in attitude seem to happen without any such prompting, and without any overt persuasion. Such was the case for me with gay marriage. I remember at some point in the 1980s trying to think through the arguments for and against. I couldn't think of any really solid objection, but I nevertheless clung to some vague sense that it wouldn’t be quite right to call it marriage if it wasn’t between a woman and a man. And then I didn’t think about the issue at all for ten years or more, and when it surfaced again in my mind as an issue it had somehow come to seem glaringly obvious to me that legalizing gay marriage—and calling it just that—was the right thing to do. It’s that sort of process that I was thinking of when I wrote in Animals about how Rose and Jesse change their minds:

… just as often change happens as it was doing with Rose and Jesse, ideas popping up as if from out of the blue, vague worries that you should be worrying about something you haven’t in fact been worrying about, and then maybe months or even years and years go by and suddenly you can come to realise that you hold in your mind, already fully formed, a conviction that the way you had been used to seeing things all that time ago had been wrong, of course it had been wrong, any sensible person could see that you had to do x and not y. That was how it was with Rose and Jesse. Eight, nine years later Rose told Jesse out of the blue that she’d decided she should stop cooking meat, stop eating the stuff, and Jesse said yeah, they should go that route, for sure most of the time they should and it turned out that most of the time was all of the time and they never missed it, it never even seemed important.

More on this soon.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

pigs, seals, slaves, and hypocrisy

An excellent letter in yesterday’s Globe and Mail from Prof. Dana Medoro of the University of Manitoba, complaining about the previous day’s op-ed piece by a veterinarian, who had exhorted readers to respond to the swine flu scare in the following fashion: “put pork on your fork.” Here’s part of Medoro’s response:

For almost a decade, I have been studying the pork industry in Canada. … Ninety per cent of pork production occurs in massive facilities; the pigs are confined in cages and fed by technicians. So I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when Cate Dewey, a professor of swine health management, wrote that “pigs infected with the influenza virus are reluctant to get up or walk around,” because the statement implies that the pigs are permitted to get up and walk around in the first place.
Most Canadian pork comes from pigs confined in cages so small that the animals can’t even turn around. They defecate through slats at their feet and stand up only to eat. These animals barely remember how to use their legs when they are forced to walk to trucks transporting them to slaughter. So sure, go ahead and put pork on your fork, as Dr. Dewey urges. But don’t think it came from a sunny little farm inhabited by happy pigs.

Here’s the (less well informed) letter I had written to the Globe on the same theme:

Veterinarian Cate Dewey’s op-ed piece (Pig Farmers Are Victims of a Swinish Disregard for the Truth—May 15) is an extraordinary piece of cheerleading for factory farming. “Put pork on your fork,” she exhorts us, while saying nothing about Canadians’ legitimate concerns not only about swine flu but also about the environmental impact of the vast lagoons of feces that modern day intensive pig farming produces, the way in which antibiotics are used in the industry, and the well being of the animals themselves on these intensive farms. Her only concern is for the health of humans—and on this point it is notable that she asserts rather than argues that a sick pig will never make it to Canadians’ dinner plates, and that “Canada's food standards are among the most stringent in the world.” If the Globe is to give space to cheerleading for factory farming interests, it should also give space to representatives of environmental and animal welfare groups—or to organic, free-range pig farmers—to present the other side.

It’s great that the Globe printed a letter in response to Dewey's piece—though it would be better still if they would allow those concerned about animals’ welfare to contribute entire articles. Interestingly, the Globe’s coverage of this year’s seal hunt controversy has so far followed the same pattern. A full column by Lysiane Gagnon in yesterday’s paper devoted to “European seal hunt hypocrisy,” and then a (very good) response in the next day’s letters. Nicholas Read makes the central point very clear in his letter:

What Lysiane Gagnon fails to realize in her charge of hypocrisy against the European Union and its stand on the seal hunt is that where animal protection is concerned, everyone’s a hypocrite (European Seal Hunt Hypocrisy - May 18). There isn't a nation on Earth—including and especially Canada—that treats its animals well. … So what is she suggesting? That everyone ignore everyone else's wrongdoing and let the suffering continue? Better that a little cruelty ends somewhere. And if that somewhere happens to be Canada, it's something we as Canadians can all be proud of.

The hypocrisy refrain is one that is sounded again and again on this sort of issue; a CBC Radio opinion piece last week hit the same note, suggesting that the Europeans had no right to criticize our seal hunt when their treatment of geese in the making of foie gras was much more cruel. Interestingly, such arguments were also a staple of arguments on behalf of American slavery in the nineteenth century; a great deal of time was spent arguing that outsiders—Europeans in particular—had no right to criticize slavery, since what they were doing in various parts of the world was arguably just as bad, or worse. Such evasion is often a sign that no good arguments from first principles exist on one side of a debate. And perhaps too, when supporters of cruel practices are reduced to such arguments, it may be a sign that those practices’ days are numbered.

* * *

Congratulations to the CBC, though, for having a vegetarian respondent to their promoting of pork (see below for the background) appear on the Eyeopener radio program last week—and for giving her a sympathetic hearing. As host Jim Brown said, they try to win over all their listeners, “one by one if need be”—and they don’t do a bad job of it!

Saturday, May 9, 2009

part one of Animals now posted

A quick note just to say I've now posted the text of Part One of Animals on my (previously mostly artwork) site,

first three posts: Animals and writing with a purpose, Afterwords, the CBC and cooked dead pig

Saturday May 9, 2009: The CBC and Cooked Dead Pig

Since I was in my thirties (which is a long time ago--at 55 I might be considered a bit old to be a first-time novelist!) I have listened to CBC radio most mornings while having breakfast, doing my exercises, and so on. The local Calgary program (I can never bring myself to call such things “shows”—you can’t show things over radio waves) is called The Eyeopener, and on the whole it’s one of the better of the CBC local offerings (better than what I’ve heard of the Vancouver or southern Ontario ones, for example); its host, Jim Brown, is for the most part absolutely first-rate at his job, as capable of being warmly entertaining as he is of probing political interviews (nowadays he is often asked to fill in on the national radio program The Current).

This past week, though, I was starting to despair over the attitudes he and others displayed on the program. The trigger was the Eyeopener’s response to a request to the public from the Alberta pork producers’ association; they want to shape the public response to the closing of an Alberta pig farm where swine flu was discovered-we were all asked to eat an extra pork chop or an extra serving of bacon a week, in order to help the beleaguered pork industry. And how did the CBC respond? Did they use the occasion to ask a few questions about the pig-farm industry? Perhaps begin to investigate how safe Alberta pig farms really are? What the health implications of the practice of routinely dosing the pigs with antibiotics might be? How farms have changed over the past fifty years, becoming highly industrialized and in the process taking the pigs off the land and confining them in vast numbers inside sheds? How the factory farms and their vast lagoons of liquid feces affect the surrounding environment? How these factory farms treat the animals themselves? How alternative farms have sprung up, raising free-range pigs on a natural diet, without regular doses of antibiotics (all, apparently, resulting in much better tasting pork)? No, none of this. No questions asked, Jim Brown declared the Eyeopener’s unquestioning support for the local pig-farm industry, and asked the program’s weekly food contributor, Julie Van Rosendaal, to focus on recipes for pork during her weekly presentation. Much oohing and aahing over the smell and flavor of the factory-farmed pig meat ensued.

Evidently I was not the only one to call the CBC Eyeopener phone-in line with a negative reaction. During their Friday wrap-up of the week’s listener reactions, they played the response of one woman who had called to express her repugnance. A vegetarian, the woman had been frustrated that when such items came on she could often not make it to the radio soon enough to turn it off without hearing far more than she would have liked. Much laughter ensued, as Brown and a CBC reporter jokingly contemplated having warning notices for vegetarians before discussing meat smells on the radio—rather in the way (though they did not draw this comparison directly) that the media often warn, before airing a piece from a war zone on the sights and smells of dead humans, that listeners or viewers may find the material disturbing. The two had a good laugh over the idea of warnings for vegetarians, the clear implication being that vegetarians are just silly; what a ridiculous thing to be disgusted by descriptions of dead factory-farmed pigs, was the clear implication. I couldn’t help thinking of the contrast between the reaction these CBC personalities displayed to that caller and the respect that the CBC invariably shows to environmentalists, to those supporting any cultural or religious group, to representatives of industry. What makes those that would like us to think of the welfare of non-human animals (and of the risks to human health that result from our mistreatment of those animals) so much less deserving of respect?

But one ray of hope; the program’s producers have asked the woman who phoned in to be a guest on the program this coming week. Fingers crossed that Brown won’t merely use it as an occasion to poke fun at her, and at vegetarians or animal welfare activists generally.

* * *

March 2, 2009: Afterwords

I’m still only beginning to write for this blog, but in terms of subject matter I want now to go right to the end. Why should an afterword appear with a work such as Animals—indeed, with any work of fiction? (Or, for that matter, a preface by the author?) Surely a literary work should “speak for itself” without the author endeavoring to “control” the reader’s response.

Such has been the conventional wisdom for generations now—interestingly, the conventional wisdom as much of deconstructionist or post-modern critics of the 1990s or 2000s as of the leading critics of the 1950s and 1960s. Like the view that didactic or polemical literature cannot be good literature, it has for the most part been assumed or asserted rather than argued. And, like that view, it has flimsy foundations.

Of course no author should be allowed to “control” the response of the reader—and no author could do so. Inevitably (and appropriately), the author’s voice will be only one voice among many. But on what grounds should it be seen as inappropriate for authors to comment on their work? I can see the argument against doing so directly during the course of a novel. Aesthetically, it is certainly arguable that an author is well advised not to step outside the movement of the fictional world of the novel to comment on its progress. (There are plausible arguments in the other direction too, as any reader familiar with Henry Fielding’s novels must be aware.) But words such as “Preface” and “Afterword” signal clearly text that is outside the novel—text that shares the same covers but is no more part of the novel itself than are the blurbs often found on the opening page or the author interviews and other “reading club” material that is often found at the back. These things may all be part of the book, but they are not part of the novel.

Why would novelists want to comment directly on their work through a preface or afterword? One obvious point is that by including something of that sort adjacent to the novel one ensures that all readers will notice it and will have the opportunity to read it—as one is unable to do by commenting on one’s own work through a newspaper interview or a website or a blog. And there are surely many matters on which it is not unnatural for authors to wish to communicate to all readers. First and foremost, perhaps, is the question of how authors may see the imaginary worlds they have created as connecting to the real world. “How close to reality is all this?” may well be the first question of many readers. It was in response to such questions that Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote both a preface and a final chapter—she did not call it an afterword, but it was clearly outside the novel itself—to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in order to answer “whether this narrative is a true one”—whether the narrative truthfully portrayed the actual horrors of slavery. Animals is written to address a very different issue from that of slavery, but like that work it runs along parallel lines to various works of non-fiction and of argument that have tried to present the facts and to present a variety of reasoned arguments. The parallel role of the novel in such cases is to enlist imagination alongside reason and emotion in the cause of pointing the way towards positive change. Even for those that have had access to the facts and the arguments, such a work can provoke a different and sometimes more powerful response. But there will always also be those who come to the relevant issues as presented through the imagination without prior knowledge of the facts and arguments. “What’s written here about factory farming in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries—is it true?” they may well wonder. An afterword can provide only the briefest of responses to this sort of question—but it can, after such a novel ends, provide a useful beginning.

That said, I think that making clear the author’s moral intent or trying to clarify the connections between the facts of a novel and the facts of the real world are only two of an almost unlimited range of appropriate purposes to which an author’s afterword may appropriately be turned. Ursula LeGuin uses the afterword to Lavinia to speak to the aesthetic choices she made in re-fashioning classical material. Henry James in his famous prefaces also focuses largely on the aesthetic choices he has made—and no more than LeGuin or Gaskell or Stowe should he be accused of trying to “control” the responses of his readers, or of refusing to allow his novels to “speak for themselves.” He is simply exercising his right to put his own voice forward about his own work. In the visual arts nowadays it is entirely accepted—indeed, it is expected—that artists will foreground something of their interpretation of their own work when it is presented to the public. There is no good reason to feel it inappropriate for authors to be granted parallel opportunities.

* * *

February 24, 2009: Writing with a Purpose

Vehicule Press, the publishers of my novel Animals, have suggested I start a blog to discuss the book and related issues. I think I'll begin with a few reflections arising out of my interactions with potential publishers of the novel (and I should emphasise that I'm not thinking here primarily of Vehicule). In those interactions I can happily report that I've had a great deal of positive feedback about the book. But there's also been a great deal of discomfort. Discomfort, first of all, at the degree to which the novel has an avowed moral and political purpose. Second (and this is related), discomfort at the inclusion within the same volume in which the novel appears of an afterword commenting on the work and on what it may mean. I hope in this blog to write in a number of different ways about Animals, touching on the personal quite as much as on the political and the aesthetic. But I want to focus first on trying to address these two sources of discomfort. First, the issue of purpose.

What purpose does literature fulfill? For most of the millennia over which that question has been posed, the answers have included ethical or political goals. As often as not, indeed, those goals have been accorded explicit priority over any aesthetic or epistemological ones. In the Western world, from Plato through the eighteenth century, a widely held view was that all literature should play an active part in helping to make us better people, in helping to make a better world—including in ways that were explicitly political. In the nineteenth century fewer and fewer believed that it was the responsibility of all literature to play such a role, but a very great many—from George Eliot to Bernard Shaw to George Orwell—believed that literature could play such a role, believed at a minimum that such a role was one of its legitimate functions. In recent generations in the Western world, though, it has been all the other way. Literature is expected to eschew explicit ethical or political goals; according to the prevailing wisdom, there is almost nothing more damning than for a work to be (or be perceived to be) didactic or polemical.

Yet, while it is almost universally agreed that literature is not the place to express an explicit ethical or political agenda, it is agreed just as widely that literature somehow fulfills a set of broader but less clearly defined ethical and socio-political aims. It is a truism (almost a bromide) that, in general, reading literature enriches and broadens our understanding of other humans, and of the world.

One of the interesting things about these assumptions is that we have little or no evidence to support the one that is universally accepted as true, whereas we have ample evidence to support the one that is universally assumed to be false. That reading increases one’s understanding in ways that make one better as a person is intuitively an attractive position. But it is untested—and perhaps untestable. There is a great deal of evidence, however, that reading Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle led hundreds of thousands of people in the early twentieth century to press for changes in working conditions in slaughterhouses, and that real change ensued. There is a great deal of evidence that in the 1840s and 1850s hundreds of thousands were influenced by openly didactic novels such as Oliver Twist and Mary Barton to sympathize with those in wretched poverty, and to support legislation to ameliorate conditions imposed by ruthless factory owners. (In her preface to the first edition of Mary Barton Elizabeth Gaskell writes directly of her intent in writing the novel—to “give some utterance to the agony which, from time to time, convulses this dumb people”; she goes on to urge that “whatever public effort can do in the way of legislation, or private effort in the way of merciful deeds…should be done, and that speedily.”) And real change ensued. So too with other novels, and with other issues. Black Beauty was written to change attitudes about the treatment of horses—and did so. Ramona was written to change attitudes about the treatment of native peoples in America—and did so. Uncle Tom’s Cabin—perhaps the most widely read book of the nineteenth century—is universally acknowledged to have helped to turn the tide of public opinion in the United States against slavery.

Are we so very sure that we should be dismissing moral purpose of this sort as inappropriate to serious literature?

To be fair, dismissing the didactic or polemical is generally done not on the grounds that the didactic or polemical can’t make a difference to readers’ attitudes, but on the grounds that a work which aspires first and foremost to an ethical or political purpose cannot be “good” literature. We assume that an overt moral purpose will necessarily be accompanied by a lack of psychological shading, by an absence of intellectual subtlety, by a crudeness of style—in short, that a didactic or polemical work of literature will be “merely” didactic or polemical. And doubtless there have been many works over the centuries that have been just that. But as soon as one begins to cite examples at the other end of the spectrum, the argument that there is any necessary connection between didacticism and aesthetic failure falls apart. Jonathan Swift, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, George Orwell—some of the greatest writers of the past few centuries have written work that can fairly be described as didactic or polemical, but that is also almost universally accepted as having met extraordinarily high standards of aesthetic accomplishment. Tellingly, the critical consensus regarding Mary Barton is that the first half of the novel—comprising an imaginative polemic against the oppression of the poor—is far better realized aesthetically than is the more romantic and individualistic material that comes to the fore towards the book’s conclusion. Even Uncle Tom’s Cabin—long derided as a sentimental page turner—is now starting to be much more favorably assessed from an aesthetic point of view.

Animals is unashamedly a work in this tradition; as the afterword makes clear, it is a novel written with an explicit ethical and political purpose: to influence readers against the evils of factory farming. Along the way, it tries to explore a number of other questions—the ways in which humans are able to rationalize unconscionable behavior, for example, and the ways in which the “dividing line” separating the human from the non-human may be formed. It also aims to interest and stimulate readers in the way that conventional novels do—I certainly hope that readers will be engaged by the psychology of the characters, and by what the interactions between them reveal about their natures. And I hope too that the novel will go beyond what I intended it to be—will “take on a life of its own,” as the phrase goes. Already it has done so for me. I could feel it taking on an emotional life of its own as the tears streamed down my cheeks while I was writing the first draft of the end of Part One. I could feel it taking on a formal and stylistic life of its own as I tried to work out the intricacies of narrative viewpoint and the novel became a much more layered work than I had intended—in some ways almost a postmodern one. I could feel it taking on an intellectual life of its own as I came to realize that the interplay between the viewpoints of the various characters might end up pointing towards more thoroughgoing changes in behavior than I have adopted in my own life, or than I would feel comfortable in promoting with complete confidence. But I hope that under it all a purposeful core still glows with a white heat—a core that is entirely simple and straightforward. I will judge the novel to have failed in the way that I care about most if it does not influence many readers to think again—and feel again, or perhaps for the first time—the horror of what humans are doing to other creatures in order to obtain cheap food for themselves.

It would be foolish to expect that Animals and other works of the imagination today* can make anything like as much of a difference in bringing such cruelty to an end as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and other works of fiction of its era did in ending slavery. But it is never foolish to hope.

* Other such works I am aware of include James Agee’s “A Mother’s Tale” (available online), Angus Taylor’s tale and accompanying philosophical discussion “Hunting for Consistency” (published in Philosophy Now, 2008 ), and Claude Lalumière’s story “The Ethical Treatment of Meat” (to be published in a collection entitled Objects of Worship, forthcoming from ChiZine Publications).