Why Are Dogs Popular in Books, and Cats on the Internet?

Reading between the lines.
April 5 2013 1:30 PM

The Curious Incidence of Dogs in Publishing

If kittens rule the Internet, why do puppies reign in print?

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There's an old joke, often (and erroneously) attributed to the founder of Random House, Bennet Cerf, that since people love to read books about Abraham Lincoln, and people love to read books about doctors, and people love to read books about dogs, then the best-selling book of all time ought to be a book called Lincoln's Doctor's Dog.

That wisdom first appeared in print in 1938, in an essay for the Saturday Review by editor George Stevens. His piece, called "Lincoln's Doctor's Dog and Other Famous Best-Sellers," looked at how book publishers try—and often fail—to manufacture hits. The principles of viral marketing that he laid out 75 years ago ("advertising sells a book that is already selling," for one, and "it is up to the publisher to know when the iron is hot") have since become gospel in media both old and new. Whether it's The Art of Racing in the Rain, or just the Keyboard Cat, the lesson is the same: Success must be nurtured, not designed.

That's the point of the joke, of course: You can't squish together trends and expect to sell a million copies. But it's just as telling that the line itself still circulates in old-school publishing, and in old-school publishing alone. (I first heard of Lincoln's Doctor's Dog from a literary scout, who got it from an editor at Houghton Mifflin.) This long-running fad for dogs in books suggests a deep and strange connection. Consider that in '38 the dog itself was somewhat scarce: Around that time, the country had just 1 of them for every 9 of us. The doggy boom (IRL, I mean) did not occur until the 1960s, when the ratio of dog-to-man would rise to 1-to-5. (These days it's 1-to-4.) In other words, dogs were selling books before they sold themselves.

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Needless to say, no one in the business ever wondered if Lincoln's doctor had a cat. The parade of canine hits started with the corny classics—Old Yeller and White Fang—and now includes some very modern books of science, the kind that tell us what it's like to be a dog. Along the way, it swept up a few of the most famous writers ever to have written: Steinbeck did a doggy book, and so did Virginia Woolf. This highfalutin pedigree lingers even to this day. In the last few years, several of our leading journalists—old-media types, of course—have joined the long procession: The New Yorker's Susan Orlean and the Times' Jill Abramson have lately gone into the doghouse, and so has New York Magazine's executive editor John Homans.

Brainy writers have been so inclined to scrutinize the pooch, in fact, they've often tried to get inside its head. Jack London did an early version of the dog-narrator, but so have many others: Paul Auster and Dave Eggers, William Maxwell and Peter Mayle. Kitties, for their part, have mostly failed to earn the same regard. I've seen omniscient cats, but only on the Web. And here's another, final way to show that canines get respect in print: Dogs in stories die; cats almost never do. (That's just as true in movies, and really any form of narrative. According to one database, the ratio of lifeless dogs to lifeless cats on-screen is 4-to-1.)

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Cats have their place in art, of course. They've had it since the dawn of culture. In the Chauvet cave in France, where early humans sketched out animals in 30,000 BCE, the evidence suggests a preference for pussies: Among the horses and the bison, cavemen drew a pride of lions and a panther.

I'm guessing that since ancient times, the cat has been more an image than a text. One scholar of feline memology notes that in the 1870s, photographs of cats were put on cutesy cartes de visite. Nice to look at; nothing much to say. In later years the cat became a star of comic strips, starting with the black-and-white called Felix, and then on and up through Garfield, Hobbes, and Heathcliff.

Hart Crane invoked a kitten in his poem "Chaplinesque," and while tabbies may be good for comedy, they're better yet in verse. T.S. Eliot once wrote a book of cat-related poems, and he's not the only one: Searching through a site called PoemHunter for references to pets, I found an equal canine/feline split. It seems the tendency for putting dogs in print is limited to prose. Poets know the cat's a short-form thing, quick and nimble, cloaked with hidden meanings. "The thing about cats is that they're veiled," says Robert Trachtenberg, author of the recent meowmoir Another Insane Devotion.

"It's a question of companionship versus observation," adds Eamon Dolan, a man who's owned both dogs and cats, and edited a litter of best-sellers. "You develop a relationship with a dog, whereas you observe a cat. Dogs are companions; cats are beautiful, animate objects." I think he means to say: We dialogue with dogs and contemplate our cats.

If cats tend to sit for quiet portraits, it's in part because they tend to sit. When they do go outside, it's to pad around alone, which makes it hard for cats to gin up exploits fit for publication. That's why an animal like Garfield can only live in comic strips: He's too lethargic for a novel.

The feline tendency to laze about or wander off may explain a few unexpected cat-related hits. Literary cats may be missing pets, like in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, setting up the plot through mystery and absence. Or else they may be given some improbable contrivance, like the tiger on a raft from Life of Pi, forced into a place where sitting on one's haunches takes the form of high adventure. Either way, an animal that's prone to lonesome stalking must be stuffed into a novel, like a kitten in a sack.

Or maybe it's a gender thing: Dogs are boys and cats are girls. Dogs are voiced narrators, marching forth into the world. Cats are pigeonholed in quiet domesticity. If we end up seeing dog-boy books in print, it's because the cat-girl ones are pushed off to the side. But when I looked up recent deals for literature on dogs and cats, both categories were mostly female-written.

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