W.C. Fields said "Never work with animals or children," and I've often said the same applies for the written word. Of course, we love them; the problem arises when they are used as shorthand to disguise what is otherwise weak storytelling. Animals, like children, are complex individuals, and too often they are reduced to cute, two dimensional cartoons. And yet ... I write about animals. They are a part of all of our lives, and the best writing about them reveals something deeper about our human selves. In good writing, like in life, animals should actually add dimension.
It's deceptively difficult, and in recent years we've witnessed some otherwise talented writers stumble and fall. In 2009, Jill Abramson, the executive editor of The New York Times, wrote a year-long blog documenting her puppy's first year, in which learned that the puppy was cute, covered in fur and sometimes went to the bathroom in the wrong places. When it was later published in book form as "The Puppy Diaries", the Times reviewed it twice, even hiring a special critic ("Marley and Me" author John Grogan) in order to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. But it was almost mesmerizing in its awfulness. Abrahams made the fatal mistake of assuming that no one had ever come before her in their love of a dog, and each banal discovery was treated as an insight worthy of sharing.
But when a book or essay about animals is good, they are very, very good. Here are some of my favorites:
"Charlotte's Web," by E.B. White