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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Perhaps it's not the feline's body but its soul, so ephemeral and slick, that matches up with certain forms of entertainment. Cats like to stare at things and lurk: They're built for surfing on the Web. We bond with them in little spurts, like videos on YouTube. Dogs, meanwhile, demand a lasting interaction. They're thick and shaggy, musty-smelling like a book, and while they have their standard tricks, they're famously unable to adapt. "The dogge must lerne it, whan he is a whelpe, or els it will not be," wrote John Fitzherbert in a very early book from 1534. As we might put it now: You can't teach an old dog new publishing platforms.

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In the summer of 1993, two years before anyone had ever used Internet Explorer, the artist Peter Steiner published a famous cartoon in The New Yorker. His picture shows a pair of mutts sitting in an office. One perches with its paw against a keyboard, explaining to the other: "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog."

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Back then we might have seen this as a comment on the new and growing World Wide Web, anonymous and strange. (Even dogs were logging into AOL.) Now the caption reads as something more morose. Looking back at Steiner's image as it nears its 20th anniversary, it seems to me the pets are measuring the instruments of their own demise: They're peering through the window of a brand-new edifice of culture, and finding that it wasn't built for them. All dogs' experience and expertise—the skills that made them scruffy darlings of the paper-printed word—would have no place in publishing 2.0. They were masters of an antique medium, mascots on a sinking ship.

Steiner's message is more poignant for where it was disseminated. For years The New Yorker served as the leading dog park of the literati. An archive search of NewYorker.com comes up with 632 articles on mutts, going back to 1925. (There are just 245 articles on cats.) Last year, the magazine put out The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs, a 416-page anthology of the editors' favorite dog-related essays. (The cat edition, held over to this fall, will be more than 100 pages shorter.) If Eustace Tilley has a pet, it's the kind that wags its tail. Surely we can draw some connection to the fact that last year The New Yorker lost 6 percent of its advertising pages and 12 percent of newsstand sales. The canine media are in decline.

On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog. Nobody cares, either.

So what's the future of the literary pet? One thing is clear enough: As the print familiar starts to lose its influence—as that breed of dog slowly goes extinct—a well-trained kitten army lies in wait. "Cats and dogs are now equal for us," said an executive with Animal Planet in a recent interview with the Boston Globe. For 15 years, his channel never aired a single show on domesticated felines, but now he says the rules have changed: "We tapped into this never-before-acknowledged-on-TV passion base." The content cats have made the jump onto another screen. What's to hold them back from reader apps and Paperwhites?

At some point, though, the media will have to merge into a mishmash whole, where cats and dogs live in peace and learn to play each other's roles. To some extent, it's happening already: You may have noticed that Marley has a blog and Maru has a book. The fence between the habitats has begun to fall apart, and one day soon we'll end up in the world imagined by another great cartoon. Published in The New Yorker in 2002, it shows two skinless creatures with giant eyeballs as they slip into a pair of furry pelts. The first one's costume has a set of whiskers and the other's comes with floppy ears. Then one creature asks, "What say this week you be the cat and I'll be the dog?"

Writers, let this caption be your motto. As the taxonomy of publishing continues to conflate, you'll be left without a choice between a job online and one in print. The market will be looking for a hybrid animal instead: Some days you'll be asked to purr, and other days you'll bark.

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