I was at a reading for a feminist writing series a couple weeks ago where a writer was reading from her book about a female matador. In the Q&A period that followed the writers were asked about their worst reactions to their books. The woman who had written the matador book said an editor refused to read/work on her book because of the animal cruelty. It was at that point that the whole room gasped in shock. They were appalled! They rolled their eyes! How could that editor be so silly? was the general question that hung in the air. It’s an editor’s job to read books, so it shouldn’t matter what’s in it…should it?
I was taken aback. I frankly expected more from a bunch of feminists. If feminists expect people to respect their cause and concerns, shouldn’t they respect the causes and concerns of others?
I wanted to put my hand up and say I understood the editor’s perspective and shame on them for being so rude about someone’s preferences, but I didn’t. It’s not that I have a problem piping up, it’s just that it’s a complex topic and I didn’t want to derail the conversation and take the spotlight off the writers. So instead of speaking up then, I’m doing it now.
I’m a vegetarian. I was a vegetarian for about ten years before I started eating meat again around the age of twenty-five or six, now I’m happily back to my vegetarian ways. Every time I ate meat for the six or seven years I was back at it, I felt guilty. I really hated it because I really love (and respect) animals and because I love animals so much I tend to get easily turned off when someone is abusing them.
But in a fictional story does it really matter? To me it does.
Once when I wanted to write a horrible character, like a really horrible character, I made her kill a dog. When I finished writing the scene I was horrified, but to me it drove home the impact of her horribleness. Sure the character was manipulative and a rapist and was responsible for a couple of human deaths too, but to me none of that compared to the evil that was killing an animal. After all is said and done I still have a residual feeling of guilt for using violence against animals to enhance the negativity of a character. Why? Treating animals well is just something I feel strongly about, even in my fiction. So whenever I see a character in any circumstance be mindless or cruel to animals, I automatically hate them and hold it against them…usually forever.
Overall I believe animal cruelty does have a place in fiction, but if it’s sustained and pointless I tend to shy away from it because it’s just not fun for me to read something that makes me feel horrible for whatever animal is being harmed.
I think in some cases animal cruelty can have a point though. For example I just wrote a story about an aquarium (which I think are disgusting, cruel prisons for fish) where the main character learned to feel empathy for the fish and ultimately sad about their enslavement. But a lot of the time I feel that animal cruelty is either used because it’s an easy emotional trigger (like the way I used it to make my character evil) or it goes unaddressed as a problem. People eat animals all the time, so why should hurting them be a problem?
Ultimately I wouldn’t want to read a book about a matador because the violence against animals isn’t being addressed (as far as I know), it’s just a backdrop for the story of the main character and I don’t find that interesting enough to endure animals being tortured. Clearly the editor who was being mocked at the event felt the same way as me and I’m here to say I agree with her. I feel what she’s feeling. Everyone has their sensitive issues, or things they don’t want to see/read because it bothers them and I don’t think anyone should be put down for that.
For me, I deal with animal cruelty in fiction very selectively and frankly I think that’s perfectly okay.