Saturday, May 9, 2009

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).

1 comment:

  1. The behaviour of the CBC is appalling. But this is also very interesting. It tells us a lot that it is still ok to laugh at vegetarians.


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