First there was Katie Arnold-Ratliff's remarkably fact-free article in which she argued that no woman could ever successfully publish a memoir about a cat, because women with cats can't overcome (as Mr. Arnold-Ratliff put it) the "sad-sack single cat girl" stigma. This despite the appearance on the New York Times Bestseller LIst of no fewer than three cat memoirs written by women within the 18 months prior to the publication of Ms. Arnold-Ratliff's piece. (Full disclosure: one of those bestsellers was mine.)
I always feel sorry for journalists rushing to meet a deadline on the very day their Google is broken.
And now, more recently, we have Daniel Engber's article in which he argues... well, he's all over the map. In his piece, entitled, "The Curious Incidence of Dogs in Publishing," Mr. Engber starts by stating that there are more internet photos and videos of cats than dogs, whereas there are more books from mainstream publishers about dogs than cats. From these two facts (which are true, and I take no exception with them), Mr. Engber draws a series of conclusions ranging from the speculative and unsupported to the downright sexist -- although I will give him credit for having found new and inventive ways of hammering the old "women with cats haz the sads!" canard that we female aurophiles (believe it or not, there are also male aurophiles) have grown painfully accustomed to hearing.
Mr. Engber attempts to account for this disparity between cats on the internet and dogs in books in a number of ways. He takes, for example, the much-higher number of dog books versus cat books as proof that the general public would simply rather read a book about a dog than a book about a cat. Perhaps. Or perhaps this disparity is more reflective of publishers' and critics' preferences than readers'.
According to the 2011 U.S. Humane Society Pet Ownership Statistics, 33 percent of all U.S. households contain at least one cat; and according to the most recent U.S. Census, there are approximately 114,800,000 households in the U.S., each containing on average 2.6 persons. In other words, there are roughly 90 million people in this country living with at least one cat. Publishers and book critics hoping to remain relevant ignore a potential readership of that size at their own peril.
Mr. Engber also goes on a lengthy (and unsupported by any evidence) discourse to the effect that dogs make better subjects for books than cats because dogs are active (going for walks and to dog parks with their humans), while cats are "lazy" and "lethargic." I'm no scientist, so I can't empirically disprove the claim that cats are "lazier" than dogs -- although, having lived with cats and dogs, I've found that both tend to spend a good eighteen hours a day snoozing. Yet, by Mr. Engber's own admission, cat videos online outnumber dog videos by a three-to-one margin. If cats are so much lazier than dogs, then how come there are so many more videos of cats, y'know, doing stuff?
But the bottom-line reason, as Mr. Engber nutshells it, is that, "Dogs are boys and cats are girls." And, according to Eamon Dolan, an editor whom Mr. Engber quotes, "You develop a relationship with a dog, whereas you observe a cat. Dogs are companions; cats are beautiful, animate objects." If Mr. Engber can't read his own subtext here and see what he's actually saying about the relative roles and importance of women versus men, then perhaps analysis of literature isn't his bag. Speaking of bags, he also makes the observation that, "trying to stuff a cat into a novel is like trying to stuff a kitten into a sack." Perhaps he thought this was a clever analogy? I know that my friends in animal rescue and I laughed and laughed at this piquant reference to one of the most barbaric forms of feline population control ever outlawed by a society with a conscience.
What I ultimately find most irksome about Mr. Engber's article is two assumptions he makes: The first is that there haven't been, and couldn't be, successful novels written either about a cat or from a cat's perspective. He references the The Art of Racing in the Rain, and novels and stories by Virginia Woolf, Jack London, Dave Eggers, and William Maxwell as examples of the literary potential that exists in choosing to narrate from a dog's perspective (note: I have read and enjoyed nearly all these works -- I truly am an equal-opportunity animal lover).
He provides, however, only one example of a novel written from a cat's perspective. A novel originally published in German. Twenty years ago. And based on the fact that this one book hasn't found much traction on Amazon among a U.S. audience, Mr. Engber extrapolates the limited future of and potential for cat-centered fiction. He could have looked at Soseki Natsume's classic I Am a Cat, which has remained continuously in print since its 1972 publication in English and is currently doing a brisk business on Amazon. He could have considered the works of Paul Gallico. He might have mentioned the wildly popular series of cat mysteries (occasionallynarrated by the cats themselves) by the likes of Rita Mae Brown, Shirley Rousseau Murphy, and Lilian Jackson Braun--some published as recently as last year, and some going alll the way back to 1966, long before the term "dogoir" entered the publishing parlance. (Full disclosure: I also have written novel -- a mother-daughter story -- narrated primarily from a cat's perspective and published within the last two months.)
Basically, Mr. Engber falls into the same error as his colleague Ms. Arnold-Ratliff -- he begins from the assumption that a certain type of book shouldn't and couldn't exist, doesn't find what he isn't looking for, and then takes this as confirmation of what he thinks he's known all along: that memoirs and novels about or narrated by cats are a non-starter.
And why is that? Here we come back to Mr. Engber's second irksome assumption -- that because dogs go out with their humans on walks or to parks while cats primarily remain at home, cats are therefore unfitted by their association with interior family life and"domesticity" to be the subject of serious, successful, or even interesting fiction. (Free SAT prep: "domestic" is to "women" as "urban" is to "African-Americans.")
I know what you're thinking: But I've read and enjoyed many novels about women and the interior lives of families! I'm sorry, but you haven't. You may have read some of the works of Jane Austen, Richard Yates, Anthony Trollope, Jennifer Weiner, Amy Tan, Marianne Robinson, Barbara Pym, Alice Hoffman, Philip Roth, George Eliot, Alice Munro, and Jonathan Franzen (among nearly countless others). You may have read these authors, but you certainly haven't enjoyed them. How could you? Those novelists spent so much time writing about things that happen in homes among families -- you know, those places where women and cats primarily hang out.
Lord knows that nothing interesting -- nothing novelistic -- ever happened privately, within a family, behind closed doors but in full view of that darn cat who never seems to rouse herself from her lethargy long enough to do or see anything of any interest to anybody.
Or, to put it another way, Slate.com needs to stop telling me and the other women writers in my category that books like ours don't exist and wouldn't be successful even if they did. Because they do. And they are.
Gwen Cooper is the New York Times bestselling author of the memoir Homer's Odyssey: A Fearless Feline Tale, or How I LearnedAbout Love and Life with a Blind Wonder Cat, and the novels Love Saves the Day and Diary of a South Beach Party Girl. She donates 10 percent of her royalties to organizations that serve abused, abandoned, and disabled animals. Gwen lives in Manhattan with her husband, Laurence. She also lives with her three perfect cats -- Homer, Clayton, and Fanny -- who aren't impressed with any of it.
Follow Gwen Cooper on Twitter: www.twitter.com/homerblindcat