Cat Lit

Why aren’t there so many books about cats?

I listened to David Sedaris read one of his essays from Me Talk Pretty One Day last night on CBC’s broadcast of This American Life. The question above was his, but I adopt it too. With the impact cats (and of course dogs) have on our lives, why aren’t they a fundamental part of our literature? Could they be?

TS Eliot wrote Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which got turned into Cats the musical. I would think that this, aside from any other children’s books where a cat is the main character (I didn’t have a cat growing up, I wouldn’t have read them), is the most extreme version of cats in literature.

(Photo credit Goodreads)

On most other accounts, I’ve only noticed cats in the sideground of stories. They walk by. Someone pets one. A well-employed characterization strategy in film and literature, used in order to help make a character more likeable, is to have them pet a dog, or insert a ‘pet the dog moment’. But how many pet the dog/cat moments can we have in a book before that dog or cat starts talking, and the story becomes comical?

Hemingway had a cat next to him in a lot of books. The cat minded his own business, as cats do. One cat, F. Puss, was actually Hemingway’s and Hadley’s son Bumby’s guardian, entrusted with looking after the two-year old child as Ernest and Hadley went out for drinks in Paris. (Hemingway was not exactly petting the dog with this moment). This is much like the dog Nana, in Peter Pan, though one is fictional and one is real life.

(photo credit Doggy Tails)

(In the original stage directions Nana was supposed to be a Newfoundland.)

There is a cat in my story. She doesn’t talk, but she is an important part of Jillian’s life. I first asked myself, how big can I make Lou? I love the Lou I know. Can I put her in this story with as much heart as I love her in real life? Well, no. Because Lou isn’t going to change the story, and I’m trying to tell you the story.

(Like, what if Lou wore a hat the whole story?)

But what if she did change the story? Story Lou almost did.

She presented a problem recently, and a pretty big one. I realized that Jillian can’t just up and leave, as my story demands she does. She has Lou at home, and Jillian would never leave Lou. So I’m in the process of editing Lou back in. Story Lou will have to travel, if this story makes any sense. Lou suddenly has the potential of turning things around.

How far can I take this? Can Loubie Lou become a plot twist? Where do we draw the line between cats as living, breathing, story-shifting characters, and pragmatic pet-the-cat moments?

I don’t know if cats can ever be anything more than pets in literature. Whether they can be symbols, whether they can carry themes, whether they can be present in scenes as more than just a function of their human owners.

What I do know is that we write literature to find out more about human character. About human characters. I don’t know that cats can tell us about that. I know that having them as pets is a part of what makes us human. I think because of this they will always serve a function in literature, characterizing us, humanizing us.

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