…talking about the one narrative occurrence I really, truly cannot stand, whether it pops up in a book, a television show, a movie, etc.
Now, keep in mind, I have an open mind and eclectic taste in reading, which exposes me to a lot of—well, let’s just call it “weird shit.” When experiencing a story narrative, I am usually able to distance myself from the distasteful events happening in the book and the narrative value of the project. More often than not, I am able to discern what parts are the characters doing their thing, and what parts are the author on a soapbox, and then skip over the soapbox-y harangues to get back to the story.
There are a few things that irk me. Rape scenes disguised as sex scenes in romance or erotic. Barely-concealed political opinions that fall further right on the spectrum than I care to agree with. Forgetting that women are people when writing them as characters. Making assumptions about veterans’ experiences or their political opinions or—my especial not-favorite—gender. The list goes on—hey, I’m human—but not for too much longer because the things I enjoy far outweigh the things I do not.
But there is one thing that will cause me to stop reading, stop watching, stop enjoying, and has literally caused me to toss a hardcover book in the garbage. Which, as my fellow bibliophiles will attest, is quite drastic in a literary type of way. How to make sure this does not happen to you or your work of fiction?
Don’t kill the dog.
Now that I have given you the ultimatum, I will give you the caveat. There are some books I enjoy in a very heartfelt manner, namely A Dog of Flanders, Where the Red Fern Grows, or Old Yeller, in which the dogs … well, if you haven’t read them, you know where I am going. I loved these books as a kid, but I have read each of them no more than once or twice and never as an adult. It’s just too much. Also, these are the only works of narrative fiction that I have enjoyed in which … well, you get my point.
But that’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is this weird temptation to show how bad someone is by having them kill a dog. Or even worse, show a dog dying for no good reason but to fit some vague, disjointed literary pathos. The book I tossed in the trash? The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman. I bought it based on a glowing review in the NY Times, and an interest in fictionalized newspaper adventures. I tossed it in the trash when someone murdered the Basset hound. To tell the truth, the book wasn’t impressing me much up to that point, and when poor Schopenhauer—my favorite character in the entire book—was subjected to such an end, I immediately suspected a lack of authorial creativity on the part of this “highly acclaimed” novelist.
This is one of the reasons I just couldn’t get into the show The Leftovers on HBO. There has been a lot of great critical reception of the show, and several friends just love it. They lost me when they started shooting dogs. That wasn’t the only problem I had with the show; let’s just say that was the last piece of cat hair in the kibble for me.
When I was studying filmmaking at NYU, more than one professor referenced the movie shorthand: If a man pets a puppy in the first scene, he’s the good guy. If he kicks the puppy, he’s the bad guy. Maybe it’s a failing on my part to want to embrace that sort of unequivocal morality when it comes to our four-legged friends, but it is an embedded part of my personality. How you treat a dog, or any helpless creature, really, says more to me about you than any amount of image negotiation you may engage in.
As creators, men and women engaging in storytelling certainly have the right to do so in whatever ways may appeal to them. However, I will never see the death of a dog at the hands of a morally ambiguous person for no reason other than to show that moral ambiguity, as more than a cheap trick. The deaths of the dogs in the books I referenced above showed dogs as heroes, and their people as worthy of the sacrifice. The dogs were treated with the respect and dignity owed to any other of the main characters.
Last but not least, If I wanted to see the results of indifferent, cruel, or obtuse human beings abusing dogs or treating them unjustly, I just have to look at the three hounds racked out on my couch. One, abused by a previous owner, still, six years later, sometimes reverts to anxious behavior around new people. Another, dropped off at the pound (a kill shelter) by a family who couldn’t figure out how to train him. A last one, our foster houndie, whose previous owners couldn’t be bothered to feed him, or buy him heartworm prevention, or take care of him in any way. Like I said, creators have the right to create what they want however they want. But for me, human cruelty to animals is too serious to be used as a cheap plot device.