Thursday, May 19, 2011

Cat Books

I was really into books about cats when I was younger. And when I say I was into books about cats, I mean I was into all books, and all cats, and people in my life frequently brought the two together at Christmas and birthdays.

A few cat books still hold up. I still think Ursula K. Le Guin's Catwings series is pretty well written. Mine came in a tiny set, each book about as big as your hand. Le Guin is, of course, pretty much a master of strange and beautiful creatures, but what always shone to me in these books were the utterly mundane settings. The flying cats were, let's face it, pretty spectacular, and they brought the book around to really interesting presentations of the family bond and of feeling lost, but what I remember more are her cityscapes at the beginning, her forest in the middle, and the family farm the cats find in the end. That each location was presented through a cat's-eye view gave her a chance, I think, to show off her incredible specificity with place, along with her powers of describing the way that something with wings might be uniquely vulnerable and uniquely at risk.

Another of my favorite cat books was Elizabeth Coatsworth's The Cat Who Went to Heaven, which sounds like a really awful attempt at reassuring kids that Puffs went somewhere nice after losing that raccoon fight. But it's not! Most of it just concerns a guy in Japan, a literal starving artist, who finds a cat that brings him good luck in his work. It's more a story about faith--faith in luck (the cat's lucky markings), faith in a deity (the cat's appearance of praying to the Buddha), or faith in one's own choices. The artist is pretty clearly making a leap of faith with his choice of career, and though this is a well-worn theme, I think now that it was an especially sensitive treatment. The question seems to be less what will fulfill the artist personally, or what will give him the strength to pursue his dream. He knows he's going to keep making art. It's more a question of what ways he will ensure his health and wellbeing--how he will live with the nearly inescapable repercussions of the choice he's made, and what he will count as worthwhile if his art disappoints him. And maybe when your life is simple as this, a cat can be what keeps your brain and heart alive. That's naturally a common theme among cat books, too, but a strength of this book is that the cat is not taken to be representative of a human in any way. It does not do what it does out of an understanding of the man's problem. And so what it does can be seen as a trigger to his story, a phenomenon for him to react to.


This was not so with the Cat Who... mystery series written by Lilian Jackson Braun, which I pretty much forced myself to read because, at age 10, I craved series along with the company of cats. The problem with these was not that the cat was too central or too humanlike. Ursula K. Le Guin's cats, after all, were basically written with human cares and motivations. The titular cat in the Cat Who... books actually appeared rarely, even though its purpose was to direct the main character to the one clue essential to solving the mystery. The problem with the mystery was not that it was a bad mystery, and it wasn't that there was a cat in it. It was the House problem--the cat was the suspended music that precedes House's diagnosis, or the sudden gleam in his eye when the joke he's just told hits closer to the truth than he knew. The cat in these books was a trigger, but it was a trigger that worked independently of the main character, pushing events to the next step when things got slow. It was the harbinger of coincidence. In the best mysteries, the detective is the one acting as the trigger for the plot, the one whose actions both unravel and enable the plot. If he or she has no part in pushing the mystery to the next height, then there's no reason to read about why it had to be him or her that solved it.

To be clear, I'm no longer interested much in cat books, even those that were my favorites. What I'm interested in is what might make a particular cat book better and worse than another. I'm interested because there are many people in the writing world who believe that the presence of one element that is sentimental, childlike, immature, or cliche can completely demolish a piece before it even has a chance to prove itself. And I think we're seeing fantastic writing right now that gets its start from these kinds of impulses. To blacklist a piece because it's about prom or dinosaurs, Super Mario or super spies, King Kong or Christmas, seems like a very lazy way of figuring out what makes writing good or bad, and seems to shut down some possibilities for what could potentially be very engaging or important writing.

This is increasingly why I have a bit of hostility toward the notion of "craft," which typically seems to denote having all of the right tools and none of the wrong ones—beautiful language without cliches, engaging plot without formula, characters who are flawed without sacrificing dignity. If anything, craft should refer to what you do with the tools you've got, and how you work with the tools either appropriately or creatively to achieve a desired effect. If kitties are in your toolbox, then use them! There is nothing to say they can't be used well.

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