During the nineties and noughties, seeking constructive critiques, I tried a wide range of writers’ groups, and joined one for women only, in a women’s library, for a few weeks – until, instead of reading our own work, we each shared a sample of published writing. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
So, after some thought, I chose a passage in a historical novel based on fact, The Photographer’s Sweethearts (1996). Diana Hartog’s surreal portrayal of a sexual encounter between two children amid nesting swans on an island off Denmark draws its power from both the fairytale setting and the reader’s knowing the older, male child will grow up to be a paedophile.
How could I have guessed that Hartog’s haunting writing would reduce one group member to age-regressed rage? Accused of abusing her, I pointed out in vain that I’d borrowed the book from the women’s library. Clearly the scene I’d selected – for its genius, not its potential to shock – had plugged her in to childhood trauma. Not all fiction is safely escapist. Forget creative inspiration; she needed a support group.
I’m not, strictly speaking, a vegan. Though I haven’t eaten red meat for more than a quarter century, chicken for several years, nor dairy and seafood for four, I still eat 2–3 eggs a week: on the two days my partner makes breakfast. I consent to eat the eggs he buys provided the number of hens sharing a hectare doesn’t exceed 300. Picture 10,000 hens per hectare and the meaning of ‘free-range’ changes.
My interest in veganism began before I gave anything up. It grew from my love of animals and a gut-level revulsion re the cruel logic of optimal production. As I learned more about the abject conditions that farmed fish and dairy cows suffer, along with the non-sustainability of these vast industries, I began to research plant-based sources of protein, omega-3, calcium etc., and by the time I stopped eating yoghurt, cheese, butter, salmon, prawns, oysters and so on, I no longer craved or even missed them. And though the change has been physically beneficial, the greatest blessing for me is the relative peace of mind I feel when preparing, eating and digesting a meal.
Now freed from the conditioning that I mistook for a need, I don’t much care for the sight of others consuming, say, ice cream or a latte (not always discernible with the rise of vegan alternatives). And yet I can’t avoid it unless I want to live like a hermit (even if lockdown has helped); some of my favourite people eat meat, whether in blissful ignorance or full knowledge of where it comes from and how that harms our environment, let alone the sentient beings enduring overcrowded confinement. Nor can I escape ads on billboards, bus shelters or subway walls, as well as films and literature depicting animal consumption. And even if I could, I can’t erase my own memories. Luckily, I’m not the sort of viewer or reader who needs to see my own values reflected, but fictional characters or narrators who eat animals (however much they love their own pets) are less likely to strike me as sympathetic.
Does my empathy for animals stem from a lonely childhood in which the local wildlife seemed friendlier than my own kind? It’s not as if I can’t bear to read about human cruelty to other species. What staggers me is how the product is so completely taken for granted that it’s not seen for what it is: carrion and stale if sterile secretions. If that’s food for thought, should we be surprised that AI is predicted to supersede us? What we eat is often less practical than symbolic – of comfort, pleasure, power, sex, love, health, or even self-abuse – because we’ve become addicted to consumption as an end in itself… the end of our planet if we don’t wake from our capitalist trance.
To take ‘food for thought’ as a metaphor, opening a novel by an unfamiliar author is akin to turning up for a first date. First impressions carry weight. A taste or distaste for similar foods may not make or break a relationship, but it will affect compatibility.
Dept. of Speculation (2014), an elegant novella by Jenny Offill, opens with a fascinating factoid. Antelopes can see the rings of Saturn. I’ve always been a sucker for wildlife docos, so Offill had me eating out of her hand – until, a few paragraphs later, she writes of an animal as mere meat, a steak the narrator orders then can’t eat: it’s too raw for her to swallow. Instantly she lost all my sympathy. What was her problem? Did the blood remind her of where steaks come from?
In theory I know most characters in books and films are omnivorous, and that representing this is part of the task of realism, which I tackle in my own fiction. Yet this early vignette affected how I read the rest of Offill’s book. Distanced from the narrator, I didn’t care when she discovers her husband’s affair. So what, I thought. Is that all? I can’t prove I would have cared more if she’d eaten a tofu burger before. But she wouldn’t have struck me as so entitled and insular – ripe for a shock to her system.
With the rise of identity politics and the upsurge of novels riding the wave of #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, I’m waiting for vegan-themed fiction to take off. Okay, not just waiting but writing my own, entwined with the theme of domestic violence (and hey, if eating creatures that bellowed, squealed, squawked or thrashed as they fought for their short, shitty lives isn’t a prime example of DV, what is?).
Michel Faber makes an impressive case against factory farming in Under the Skin (2000), a thriller about enterprising aliens who abduct then fatten, slaughter and process humans for export in rural Scotland, and Han Kang connects meat-eating with patriarchal Korean culture in The Vegetarian (2007). But where are all the others? They’re out there, yet how many can you name? Meanwhile, so many original writers of colour come to mind: Alexis Wright, Paul Beatty, Arundhati Roy, Haruki Murakami, Carmen Maria Machado… So white authors no longer need to raise awareness of racism through cultural appropriation, like William Styron with The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967). But even as the field of animal law gathers pace, animals remain unable to testify, leaving human authors plenty of room for invention.
Imagine my disenchantment on seeing vegan values satirised in a story published by a leading leftist literary quarterly. Did cheap shots at people from minorities not flaunt editorial policy? And besides, a honey-abstaining character opposed to exploitation of bees, with whatever fuzzy logic that implies, seems to me less absurd than a character who frequently dines on the flesh of debeaked, deformed, antibiotic-fed birds.
Of course, characters mock, as well as hate and harm, one another – that’s realistic. But any writer worth reading needs to maintain critical distance – as does any reader who wants to write powerful literature.