Wednesday, August 25, 2010


There has been an interesting little discussion recently on the Page 247 blog about Animals—about the questions regarding non-human animals that are at the heart of the novel, but also about the question of what is appropriate or inappropriate in dealing with sensitive issues.

The blogger began the discussion with a posting likening Animals to Brave New World and calling it “a difficult and challenging read” that prompted some contradictory thoughts; “LePan claims his main argument is against factory farming and for the humane treatment of our food animals, but I was left with a much broader sense of ‘let’s stop eating meat and fish, period.’”

The most interesting comment posted thus far has been from “El Fay,” who takes the discussion in quite a different direction. El Fay also finds the premise of the book “disturbing—but for all the wrong reasons.” He or she argues that comparing marginalized peoples to [non-human] animals is “highly problematic due to the history of labeling many of these groups as sub-human,” and points to a recent PETA blog posting as an example of why this sort of comparison is “so troubling.”

The PETA ad is indeed deeply troubling. It shows a photo of Tiger Woods with the following words superimposed:
… for little tigers too.
Help keep your cats (and dogs) out of trouble; always spay and neuter.

The advertisement seems to me to be offensive in several ways. To start with, the “bad thing” in this case wasn’t the amount of sex—it was infidelity. But the more serious issue is the way the advertisement engages with the long-standing myth propagated by racists that black sexuality is inherently dangerous—and the accompanying view that it needs to be controlled, forcibly if necessary. As another blogger (Renee of Womanist Musings) has pointed out, the ad displays no sensitivity whatsoever “to the ways in which black bodies have been stereotyped” or to the “history of black men being castrated for having relations with white women.” The advertisement doesn’t engage with what is sometimes referred to as 'the myth of the big black buck' by questioning that pernicious myth in any way. Quite the opposite; it feeds off it in pursuit of a cheap laugh.

Is Animals insensitive—or downright offensive—in parallel ways? There is no question that it also deals with material that is highly sensitive; the list of categories under which humans have labeled other humans as subhuman is appallingly long (Jews, women, blacks, native North Americans, Chinese, Armenians, Roma, Tutsi, those suffering from disabilities, gays and lesbians, Protestants, Catholics, Ndebele—it goes on and on and on), and what humans have done to other humans, using these labels as justification, is endlessly horrific.

Far from joining in (or feeding off) that sort of labeling, Animals is deeply critical of it. But is the very fact of its using story material of this sort inappropriate? Why use story material of this sort in the first place?

For one thing, to point out what I think are entirely legitimate (albeit provocative) parallels. For it is not just other humans that we humans have had a habit of separating into categories that result in horrific cruelty. We have developed habits of classifying dogs and elephants, for example, as beings to be treated with kindness and respect, and pigs as beings who we can in good conscience subject to lives of endless suffering before we kill them. To draw parallels between that sort of labeling and the labeling of other humans as sub-human is not to make a claim as to degrees of wrong; I have no wish to defend the view that our treatment of non-human animals is as bad as the ways in which various human groups have been treated. That simply does not to me seem a fruitful discussion; the point is rather that the process is similar—the process of labeling in such a way as to justify horrific cruelty.

There is another reason too for using this sort of story material in Animals. The reality is that most of us tend to be more readily capable of imaginative sympathy with other humans than we are with non-human creatures. The closer a protagonist “standing in” for a non-human animal is to a human being, the more easy it is likely to be to bring home to readers the horrific realities of factory farming in a way that may engage their imaginative sympathy—and lead to real change. And clearly the book has led to at least some such change; a significant number of readers have been in touch to say that they have changed their eating habits as a result of the book, either reducing or eliminating from their diets foods that are the product of the cruelties of factory farming.

The strategy, then, has at least to some extent been effective. But from fairly early on I recognized that it was indeed a highly problematic approach. There is a thin line in dealing with sensitive subjects that it is important not to cross; it would be essential in this case not to inadvertently create the impression that the book was in any way disrespectful towards people with disabilities—that it could be read as in any way questioning the legitimacy of their rights, or the importance of their ongoing struggles.

I won’t go into detail here as to the book’s narrative strategies (the ways, for example, in which Broderick is shown to be an unreliable narrator). But I will say that I am confident that the book cannot be fairly read as in any way supportive of discrimination against people with disabilities. It’s not a solitary confidence, I may add. I don’t have unbounded faith in my own knowledge or my own judgment in such matters, and I thus thought it appropriate to consult a number of people who are far better versed than I am in issues relating to human disability. I am particularly indebted to one academic, who is also a parent of a child with Down Syndrome, for reading the unpublished manuscript and making a considerable number of helpful suggestions—as a result of which I made numerous revisions, some of them quite significant.

As to the Page 247 blogger’s lingering suspicion that Animals doesn’t just criticize factory farming but also leaves “a much broader sense of ‘let’s stop eating meat and fish, period’”—that’s a question I’d like to leave for the moment—and let others weigh in on.

Monday, August 2, 2010

No Country for Animals

I caught up last night with Kevin Newman's No Country for Animals, which aired last Wednesday on the Global television network. I found it an absolutely first-rate documentary--the first program I've seen to give a good overview of how non-human animals are treated in Canada, and of how little legal recourse there is to stop the horror. Twyla Francois of Canadians for the Ethical Treatment of Farm Animals is interviewed extensively for the show; her commentary is excellent--as is the footage she provides showing what goes on behind the walls of Canadian factory farms. And there is very good (and extensive) coverage of how far behind many European countries Canada is in its approach.

Google "No Country for Animals" and you'll be able to download and watch the show--I can't recommend it too highly.

* * *

No new reviews of Animals since the Publishers' Weekly and Boston Globe ones of several weeks ago, but two very positive reviews were posted on recently--both from distinguished readers:
“If you read any novel, read this! Animals is one of the most important Canadian novels to have emerged in many years. ... What can get lost in the brilliance of the satire is just how beautiful the writing is—always at its most poetic at all the most awful moments. ... The final sections were about the saddest thing that I have read, but never in a way that seemed needless or opportunistic or excessive....”
-Paul Keen, Professor and Chair, English Department, Carleton University

“As gripping as it is important, LePan's brilliant first novel tackles the largest moral issue of our time...”
-Jonathan Balcombe, author of Second Nature: The Inner Lives of Animals

It now looks as if there will be a San Francisco Animals event November 23. More soon.

Afterwords and Prefaces

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 Elizabeth Gaskell wrote her preface to Mary Barton: she laments that “the woes, which come with ever-returning tide-like flood to overwhelm the workmen in our manufacturing towns, pass unregarded by all but the sufferers” and speaks of how the more she discovered of this suffering, the “more anxious I became to give some utterance to the agony.” 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.

[Most of the material in this posting originally appeared in advance of the publication of the Canadian edition of Animals in 2009.]