Growing up as a vegetarian in rural England in the ’90s, I was sometimes under the impression that my lifestyle was unusual—if not radical. In recent years, vegetarianism (and reduced-meat diets) have become more mainstream even in rural areas.
With time I’ve come to realize that there have always been vegetarians and vegetarian communities. Perhaps the more interesting ones for me are the artists and thinkers who go against the grain, choosing to think and live differently from the people around them. There is sometimes difficulty in ascertaining the validity of claims that certain historical figures actually followed a vegetarian lifestyle. For Da Vinci we have both Giorgio Vasari’s accounts and the letters between Andrea Corsali and Da Vinci’s patron Giuliano de’ Medici as convincing sources; for Pythagoras we have a number of ancient sources, as well as his enduring legacy. My awareness of Albert Einstein’s vegetarianism comes from primary sources—letters to Hans Muehsam and Max Kariel.
I will employ the term “vegetarian sentiment” here, as vegetarianism and veganism are ideologies before they are followed through in lifestyle and dietary choices. There are many writers and thinkers who advocate for vegetarianism and/or animal rights but still consume flesh meat. There’s Alice Walker, who I’ll talk about in more detail later; there’s Voltaire, who argued fervently against Descartes’s belief that animals were mere machines (though he may have been a practicing vegetarian based on what he writes in Dictionnaire Philosophique: “Men fed upon carnage, and drinking strong drinks, have all an impoisoned and acrid blood which drives them mad in a hundred different ways.”
Anna Sewell, through her children’s novel Black Beauty, taught young and old readers about how to treat both animals and humans with kindness—and in turn spurred progression in the animal welfare movement.
Raskolinov’s fearful horse dream in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is symbolic of what is soon to come—though also revelatory of what the author feels about animals. In his later novel The Brothers Karamazov, there’s a discussion between Alyosha and the elder Zosima:
Love animals: God has given them the rudiments of thought and joy untroubled. Do not trouble their joy, don’t harass them, don’t deprive them of their happiness, don’t work against God’s intent. Man, do not pride yourself on superiority to animals; they are without sin, and you, with your greatness, defile the earth by your appearance on it, and leave the traces of your foulness after you—alas, it is true of almost every one of us!
Suffragists who fought for women’s rights were also heavily involved in campaigning against vivisection and the consumption of meat. Many suffragists thought that the adoption of a vegetarian diet could herald a new world where women were not confined to the kitchens. Carol J. Adams writes in her book The Sexual Politics of Meat (extract obtained from Stuff Mom Never Told You):
We can follow the historic alliance of feminism and vegetarianism in Utopian writings and societies, antivivisection activism, the temperance and suffrage movements, and twentieth century pacifism. Hydropathic institutes in the nineteenth century, which featured vegetarian regimens, were frequented by Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, and others. At a vegetarian banquet in 1853, the gathered guests lifted their alcohol-free glasses to toast: “Total Abstinence, Women’s Rights, and Vegetarianism.”
Recently a friend came to me asking for a recommendation for vegetarian literature. I was taken a little off guard, for I have never actively searched for books on vegetarianism. Why read to be convinced of an opinion I already share? Though I realized that I had read books by vegetarian authors (of fiction), and writers who have expressed a vegetarian sentiment. And though I couldn’t answer his question, it compelled me to pick up work by authors whose experiences of (and sometimes motivations for) vegetarianism were entirely different from my own.
While far from exhaustive, I shall discuss some among them here.
1. Franz Kafka
Max Brod is often remembered as the friend who wouldn’t burn Franz Kafka’s life’s work, as was asked of him by Kafka, instead publishing it posthumously. If it were not for his refusal to follow his friend’s instructions, we might not have stories such as The Metamorphosis and The Castle. But Brod was also a prolific published writer during his lifetime, and he eventually became Kafka’s biographer. Much of what we know about Kafka comes from Brod, including his experimentation with different diets—in part to ease his lifelong sickness.
One of the most striking images from Franz Kafka: A Biography is where Brod recalls how Kafka, a recently turned strict vegetarian, once visited the Berlin aquarium:
Suddenly he began to speak to the fish in their illuminated tanks, “Now at last I can look at you in peace, I don’t eat you any more.” …
Among my notes I find something else that Kafka said about vegetarianism…He compared vegetarians with the early Christians, persecuted everywhere, everywhere laughed at, and frequenting dirty haunts. “What is meant by its nature for the highest and the best, spreads among the lowly people.”
In a letter from Brod to Kafka’s fiancee Felice Bauer, Brod writes:
After years of trial and error Franz has at last found the only diet that suits him, the vegetarian one. For years he suffered from his stomach; now he is as healthy and as fit as I have ever known him. Then along come his parents, of course, and in the name of love try to force him back into eating meat and being ill—it is just the same with his sleeping habits. At last he has found what suits him best, he can sleep, can do his duty in that senseless office, and get on with his literary work. But then his parents…This really makes me bitter.
2. Jonathan Safran Foer
Jonathan Safran Foer returns to fellow Jewish writer Kafka’s moment at the Berlin aquarium throughout his first nonfiction work, Eating Animals. The book is the result of three years spent immersed in the world of animal agriculture. This was in part motivated by a desire to make an informed decision about what to feed his newborn son—but also to become more resolved with regard to his wavering vegetarianism. He makes the invisible realities for factory-farmed animals visible for himself and the reader, forcing us to think about what is impaled on our forks.
Eating Animals is essentially his own denunciation of factory farming, but it is also a reflection on the culture that surrounds meat eating: the history of ambivalence toward carnism; societal hypocrisies; the myth of consent and other stories cultures create for themselves to justify slaughter; the language we use to devalue some animals but place value in others that we love as companions.
In several places, Safran Foer refers back to that moment when Kafka looks at fish at the Berlin aquarium. He uses Walter Benjamin’s interpretation of Kafka’s animal tales to frame this part of his own story. Benjamin tells us how Kafka’s animals are “receptacles of forgetting,” while shame—as paraphrased by Safran Foer—is “a response and a responsibility before invisible others.”
“What had moved Kafka to become vegetarian?” asks Safran Foer:
A possible answer lies in the connection Benjamin makes, on the one hand, between animals and shame, and on the other, between animals and forgetting. Shame is the work of memory against forgetting. Shame is what we feel when we almost entirely—yet not entirely—forget social expectations and our obligations to others in favor of our immediate satisfaction.
Shame doesn’t just prompt forgetting about the animals we harm. “What we forget about animals,” writes Safran Foer, “we begin to forget about ourselves.”
During the spring of 2007, Safran Foer lived in Berlin with his family, and they would visit the aquarium Kafka had visited the previous century—and like him, they would stare into the tanks at the sea life. “As a writer aware of that Kafka story, I came to feel a certain kind of shame at the aquarium,” he writes. Among the various manifestations of shame he experienced: shame at feeling “grossly inadequate” compared to his hero, shame at being a Jew in Berlin:
And then there was the shame in being human: the shame of knowing that twenty of the roughly thirty-five classified species of seahorse worldwide are threatened with extinction because they are killed “unintentionally” in seafood production. The shame of indiscriminate killing for no nutritional necessity or political cause or irrational hatred or intractable human conflict.
For Safran Foer, remembering thwarts forgetting when he visits the kill floor of Paradise Locker Meats and looks into the eyes of a pig who is minutes away from being slaughtered; he didn’t quite feel at ease being the pig’s last sight, though what he felt wasn’t quite shame either. “The pig wasn’t a receptacle of my forgetting,” he writes. “The animal was a receptacle of my concern. I felt—I feel—relief in that. My relief doesn’t matter to the pig. But it matters to me.”
3. Alice Walker
“KNOW what the caged bird feels,” wrote Paul Laurence Dunbar in a poem entitled “Sympathy.” With this poem, Dunbar—who was born to parents who had been enslaved before the American Civil War—opened up this dreaded comparison between human and animal slavery. The line was borrowed by Maya Angelou for the title of her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Most will feel uncomfortable with comparisons between animal suffering and human suffering—the title of Marjorie Spiegel’s The Dreaded Comparison acknowledges this. The African-American writer and self-described womanist Alice Walker, known best perhaps for The Color Purple, prefaced Marjorie Spiegel’s controversial title. Walker writes, “It is a comparison that, even for those of us who recognize its validity, is a difficult one to face. Especially so, if we are the descendants of slaves. Or of slave owners. Or of both. Especially so if we are also responsible in some way for the present treatment of animals.”
Though Walker acknowledges the difficulty of this comparison, she concludes that she agrees with Spiegel’s line of reason: “The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men. This is the gist of Spiegel’s cogent, humane and astute argument, and it is sound.”
Walker is not a vegetarian. In a book entitled The Chicken Chronicles, the author writes about her relationship with her flock of chickens. Rather than turn her head, Walker confronts her food vis-à-vis—in this way, the chicken is not a receptacle of her forgetting. Interviewer Diane Rehm expressed surprise upon learning that Walker eats birds. “I know, I know. It’s a contradiction and I have been a vegan and I’ve been a vegetarian,” replied Walker, “but from time to time, I do eat chicken. I grew up on chicken and I accept that.”
Vegetarianism, or veganism, is something to which Walker seems to aspire, though. To an audience at Emory University, the author talks about her love of cows and says she is glad she doesn’t eat them. She then recites a short poem she wrote for an Italian friend who wanted help giving up meat, “La Vaca”:
She does not think
4. Isaac Bashevis Singer
The comparison between human and animal slavery is not the only dreaded comparison; the Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer has become the classic reference for comparisons between intensive farming and the Holocaust. In “The Letter Writer,” he wrote, “In relation to [animals], all people are Nazis; for the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka.”
Singer was born in a village near Warsaw, Poland. His father was a Hasidic rabbi, while his mother was the daughter of the rabbi of Bilgoraj. Singer seemed destined to become a rabbi, too, though a brief enrollment at a rabbinical school turned him off the idea. He worked brief stints in a number of fields before emigrating to the United States, fearful of the rise of Nazism in neighboring Germany. In New York City he worked as a journalist for a Yiddish-language newspaper before penning his own novels and short stories, including The Slave and The Family Moskat.
Vegetarianism crops up often in his work. Yet it is nowhere near as explicit as in “The Slaughterer,” a short story which first appeared in The New Yorker in 1967 and now resides in The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer. The story follows Yoineh Meir, a Jew who—like Singer—seems destined to become a rabbi. A competitor takes Meir’s place, and instead he is offered the role of the town’s ritual slaughterer. The career causes him daily anguish and eventually leads to his own untimely demise. The story is graphic and bloody, the protagonist sensitive and empathetic toward all living creatures:
Yoneih Meir no longer slept at night. If he dozed off, he was immediately beset by nightmares. Cows assumed human shape, with beards, and skullcaps over their horns. Yoineh Meir would be slaughtering a calf, but it would turn into a girl. Her neck throbbed, and she pleaded to be saved. She ran to the study house and splattered the courtyard with her blood. He even dreamed that he had slaughtered [his wife] instead of a sheep.
Yoineh Meir extends his love toward all animals when he realizes what it means to kill one. Later in the narrative, Singer writes that “when you slaughter a creature, you slaughter God.”
5. J.M. Coetzee
In his metafictional novella The Lives of Animals, Coetzee’s alter ego and fictional novelist Elizabeth Costello is invited to be a guest lecturer at a university’s annual literary seminary. Rather than talk about literature, she decides to talk about animal cruelty and in several places compares the mass slaughter of animals to the Holocaust:
The people who lived in the countryside around Treblinka—Poles, for the most part—said that they did not know what was going on in the camp; said that, while in a general way they might have guessed what was going on, they did not know for sure; said that, while in a sense they might have known, in another sense they did not know, could not afford to know, for their own sake. …
I return one last time to the places of death all around us, the places of slaughter to which, in a huge communal effort, we close our hearts. Each day a fresh holocaust, yet, as far as I can see, our moral being is untouched. …
It was from the Chicago stockyards that the Nazis learned how to process bodies.
We know Coetzee is a vegetarian and active animal rights advocate, though in The Lives of Animals it becomes difficult to distinguish between Elizabeth Costello’s views and J. M. Coetzee’s. He has written several op-eds for the Sydney Herald about beliefs we can safely say are his own.
In one article, Coetzee criticizes the manner in which consumers tend to idealize family farms:
It would be a mistake to idealize traditional animal husbandry as the standard by which the animal products industry falls short. Traditional animal husbandry is brutal enough, just on a smaller scale. A better standard by which to judge both practices would be the simple standard of humanity: is this truly the best that humans are capable of?
In another, Coetzee expresses his optimism concerning the compassion of children: “It takes but one glance into a slaughterhouse to turn a child into a lifelong vegetarian.”
6. V.S. Naipaul
V.S. Naipaul has a visceral response to the sight and smell of meat. Naipaul was born in Trinidad; unusual among Indian laborers in the Caribbean region, Naipaul’s paternal grandfather was a Brahmin—the highest ranked caste among Hindus in India. Naipaul’s father also claimed this distinction, though the validity of his claim is less clear. Often, due to general caste rules, Brahmins distinguish themselves from other castes by adhering to a strict vegetarian diet. All Hindus aspire to transcend this life through self-realization—halting the transmigration from one body to the next. To do so, in their daily lives they must act in accordance with the tenets of Sattva Guna (mode of goodness) laid out in the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu scripture which includes the abstention of flesh meat.
For many Hindus who follow a lacto-vegetarian diet, the ideological reasons for not eating animals are still ever present—for others, it is merely a distinction inherited from the cultural context into which they were born. I don’t know which category Naipaul fits into. He has, to the best of my knowledge, never spoken openly about any ideological reason for his vegetarianism.
He has, however, written about his disgust at the sight of meat. What is perhaps the first mention is in his early work Between Father and Son: Family Letters. A young Naipaul received a scholarship to study at Oxford, where he found himself struggling with depression and loneliness. In a bid to bridge the distance between continents, he wrote letters to his family—a correspondence that lasted four years and ended with the death of his father. In a letter to his elder sister Kamla, dated Sept. 21, 1949, he recapitulates a distressing situation during an Old Boy’s Association dinner: “Special arrangements, I was informed after dinner, had been made for me but these appeared to have been limited to serving me potatoes in different ways—now fried, now boiled.” Turtle soup was served to the other diners; being vegetarian, Naipaul asked the manager for corn soup instead. “He ignored this and the waiter bought me a plateful of green slime. This was the turtle soup. I was nauseated and annoyed and told the man to take it away. This, I was told, was a gross breach of etiquette.”
7. Leo Tolstoy
Vegetarianism was the focal point of several of his essays and tied in with his pre-existing beliefs in the benefits of abstinence. In On Civil Disobedience, for example, Tolstoy writes, “A man can live and be healthy without killing animals for food; therefore, if he eats meat, he participates in taking animal life merely for the sake of his appetite. And to act so is immoral.”
Tolstoy originally wrote The First Step as the foreword to The Ethics of Diet by Howard Williams. In it, Tolstoy encourages readers to practice harmlessness: “If a man aspires towards a righteous life, his first act of abstinence is from injury to animals.” He also suggests that vegetarianism is humanity’s natural state: “So strong is humanity’s aversion to all killing. But by example, by encouraging greediness, by the assertion that God has allowed it, and above all by habit, people entirely lose this natural feeling.”
He wrote extensively about violence, and in a letter to Mahatma Gandhi published later as A Letter to a Hindu, Tolstoy convinced Gandhi to use nonviolent resistance to gain independence from the British colonial rule in the Indian peninsula. In his essay “What I Believe,” Tolstoy emphasizes his conviction that we become more violent by inflicting suffering upon animals: “As long as there are slaughter houses there will always be battlefields.”
Four years after Tolstoy’s death, his private secretary Valentin Bulgakov wrote an article for London-based The Vegetarian News to celebrate Tolstoy’s “great service to the vegetarian movement” during the last 23 years of his life. The article ends like this:
I close what I have to say with the words of Leo Tolstoy himself: “Here, indeed, outwardly, are we met but inwardly we are bound to every living creature. Already are we conscious of many of the motions of the spiritual world, but others have not yet been borne in upon us. Nevertheless they come, even as the earth presently comes to see the light of the stars, which to our eyes at this moment is invisible.”
In her collection of essays and talks The Wave in the Mind, Ursula K. Le Guin wonders why we have book tours at all. “It wasn’t until the seventies, I think, that publishers realized they could sell more books by sending their author to two hundred cities in eight days to sign them,” she told a Women in Language conference in 1998. “So now here in Berkeley you have Black Oak and Cody’s, and we in Portland have Powell’s and the Looking Glass, and Seattle has Elliot Bay Books running two readings a day every day of the week and people come.”
I packed The Wave in the Mind into my luggage as I set out from Britain for North America. Not least because I’d be visiting Portland, Ore., Le Guin’s home city; and not only because 35 percent minimum of my carry-on is reading material; but as an unknown British writer, I needed to holdfast to Le Guin’s promise for my 12-events-in-seven-cities first book tour: people come!
I hoped my other reading would be as encouraging: Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, and, on the recommendation of a friend, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. I’d pick up others along the way. All would be serendipitous. I’m going to learn from them not only how to handle a book tour better, but how to be better, fully stop.
Lantern Books, Brooklyn, N.Y.
“This is how I want to spend my life,” writes Gilbert in Big Magic, “collaborating to the best of my ability with forces of inspiration that I can neither see, nor prove, nor command, nor understand.”
This was how I wanted to spend my life, too—as a published author. I’d come to Brooklyn for the launch of my debut, The Pig in Thin Air. The event marked a psychological “end” to writing the book; despite having done publicity events in the U.K., New York provided closure on the book’s making. Lesson one, perhaps: writing a book is a desperately personal thing, and only you know when it’s “finished.” I needed a public introduction for that. I needed that moment to be recognized.
Pig is my first published book. I’ve always written: journalism, non-fiction, short stories, flash fiction, and I teach writing too. I have a mob of novels complaining bitterly of unfinished business from their various stashes. Pig came after a 2014 tour of North America working with organizations and individuals changing our species’ relationship to nonhuman animals. I approached Lantern Books with an idea based on this trip: a carnivore-to-vegan literary memoir, and a study of how we come closer to the animals we eat. The publisher was keen. I wrote the book in six months. Another nine of rewriting, copy editing, and proofing later, and Pig was published.
Then the hard work began. If you’re Thomas Merton, it’s okay if your books “stand outside all processes of production, marketing, consumption, and destruction.” For the rest of us, there are sales to make. A publisher to please. It means months of emails, organizing events. It means the people at Powell’s and Elliot Bay saying, “We’ve got Murakami that night…what did you say your name was?” It means more time on social media than is good for any writer, in an attempt to secure an audience.
I’ve got an audience in Brooklyn. Readers, artists, wine buyers, magazine editors. My introduction is conducted by my publisher. I calm my nerves (will I read well?; answer clearly?) by recalling Big Magic’s closing exhortation: “we did not come all this great distance, and make all this great effort, only to miss the party at the last moment.”
On the face of it, you couldn’t get two more different books, or writers, than myself and Gilbert; Pig, and Big Magic. But in other ways I couldn’t have chosen (okay, it was a recommendation) a better book as company. Before Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert was a writer without fame or fortune. She had three well-received books, and still worked full-time elsewhere. But like Gilbert, “my intention was to spend my entire life in communion with writing” and that meant finding a way to be the professional writer; maybe even making money from it. Because I was not making any money from this tour. Lesson two: in Gilbert’s words, “I became my own patron” to make this tour happen. Even mid-list authors at big publishing houses are expected to organize, and usually pay for, their promotion and travel. And that’s okay.
Lesson three: opening nights will always be nerve-wracking. But that’s okay too. The evening is full of goodwill and good sales and good food and fireflies and my new shoes start to break in; and, yeah, I’ve finally achieved something I’ve dreamt of for 35 years. I count myself lucky; a little bit of big magic has found its way to my door.
Various Locations, Including a Chicken Slaughterhouse, Toronto
The last two chapters of Pig tell the story of my involvement with the Save Movement, a group advocating for the end of the exploitation of nonhuman animals, which holds regular vigils to bear witness to the vast numbers of animals killed every day. Pig is one of the first published accounts of this movement, and it’s important for me to return and support their work; okay, as well as sell my books.
On the flight from New York I read Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. As a vegan writer, there are few representations of veganism or vegetarianism in literature; I want to study them, to see how we come across. Pig is a vegan memoir; in my fictional writing, also, I experiment with vegan characters to explore difference, especially around toxic masculinities (the macho need for meat). The Vegetarian was—or should have been—the ideal book to read before hosting a potluck, reading to a crowd outside a slaughterhouse, and giving a talk to activists at the University of Toronto.
But The Vegetarian is a disappointing book (Jon Yargo and I will have to disagree on this one). The emotions are “vague” and “almost.” The female protagonist is passive; we hear her voice only through italicized fragments or the eyes of of other people. As Kate Tempest says, “there’s a temptation to create passive female characters. It’s a narrative trap set up by the male standard that you’ve got to fight. I don’t know why I fell into it. I don’t even know any passive women!” It’s easy to see what Kang has tried to do by exploring the ways in which male culture objectifies women—but do you do that by again objectifying a woman?
But The Vegetarian was the right book to read for Toronto. It made me observe more closely the active (not passive) and present (not withdrawn) women who lead the advocacy movement in the city. The vigils are organized and run mainly by women. There are men participating, but the Save movement is led and shaped by proactive, intelligent, and compassionate women. So across my three events, I prioritize reading the sections that speak to the ways in which feminist ethical thought has shaped my work. That feels the right thing to do for this white, British, middle-class man with a book in his hand.
I need a new book for travelling. My host Lorena, who runs healing circles for those who attend the vigils, tells me about a second-hand store 10 minutes walk away: Circus Books & Music. Within half an hour I’ve got four new titles, including The Beluga Café by Pacific Northwest writer Jim Nollman, a book that will come in handy later.
The FARM Animal Rights Conference, Los Angeles
Four days in a hotel. I’m here to “work the room” and promote Pig to hundreds of animal-loving attendees as well as help out on the Lantern Books table, and do my first official signing. Conferences can be good places to sell your book if the theme is aligned. But four days? That’s a lot of “working the room” for a writer who prefers early nights.
By Day Three and the awards dinner it’s all a bit much. I’ve done my “meet the writer” signing. I need time out. I get caught reading a novel at the bar while the other 1,700 delegates are, mostly, attending the gala. At least the novel is Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, the most well-known fiction to explore our relationship with the animals we eat. The only “appropriate way and indeed the only way in which to absorb [the novel],” says Costello, “is in silence and in solitude.” It’s too cramped in the gala; too many people; and too much weird singing. For an introvert writer, a book tour is a many-peopled challenge. And the conferences at which our books might sell are one long, tiring, smiling engagement.
A Hollywood music producer comes over and starts chatting. This is the type of contact I should be cultivating, says my promotional brain; she produced the sound for the new advocacy film Unity. She’s attractive, too. “Does the mind by nature prefer sensation to ideas; the tangible to the abstract?” asks Coetzee of Elizabeth Costello’s son as he lies in bed with a woman he’s just met at…okay, a conference (albeit one at which his mother, not he, is the invited writer). Well, tonight the mind prefers the ideas, the abstract. I need quietude; to read.
As soon as I say this, the music producer admits she’s overwhelmed by all the people too. She squats down—I don’t ask her to sit—and we talk about the need for creative solitude. I didn’t expect there to be much on this tour—but this little? Another lesson: you cannot, as Le Guin says, be both a writer and a person on the book tour. “People line up to ‘meet the writer,’ not realizing this is impossible,” she continues. “Nobody can be a writer during a book tour […] All their admirers can meet is the person—who has a lot in common with, but is not, the writer. Maybe duller, maybe older, maybe meaner.” Right then, probably all three.
Writers live with this contradiction. We read in solitude, and we write in solitude. But in between, we need to make connections, and it can be a trial, a judgement. We do it as person or writer (or both); and yet who this I, this you, this writer/person is, is anybody’s guess. Perhaps, as Le Guin says, the book tour “recovers for us the social act.” It brings us out into the world again. It might feel like the gates of hell, but it is also a doorway to other people.
Phinney Books, Greenwood, Seattle, Wash.
The dreaded fear on every tour is, of course, that no one will turn up. Well, not no one. That would be okay; you slink off with only the bookseller’s disdainful smile and a few hours saved (nothing more welcome than a cancelled social engagement). But if two people and a dog turn up, you have to sit through the embarrassment and shame that they know that you know that hardly anyone came out for you. And that despite your author-status, in this town, on this night, you’re still a nobody. That smarts.
Apparently there’s an anthology about book reading failures. I cannot find it, and perhaps the included writers have thought better and sought injunctions to have it censored. Or maybe it’s that, as Gilbert says in Big Magic, failure is not what it seems to be. According to the acclaimed Anne Enright, “failure is what writers do.”
Tell that to a writer waiting for a crowd to arrive on a warm, sunny evening in Seattle. Warm and sunny means people don’t want to come inside. Great.
I go onto social media to seek advice from fellow writers. The best is from ethicist Carol J. Adams, author of The Sexual Politics of Meat. “Don’t judge by numbers. Give those two people (and the dog) everything that you’d give a larger crowd. Then you know you haven’t let them down. Or yourself.”
And so that’s what I do. Seattle is my smallest event. But there are some people, including a friend, and including a woman from the mid-sized non-profit Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine, who happens to be in town. She buys a book, and is generous in her praise of the talk. And yet that isn’t the magic. About halfway through, two young girls (and a dog! called Fenway) slip in at the back. When the questions begin, one of the girls shares her story: she was diagnosed as diabetic, and was on her way to losing her sight and having a foot amputated. But she adopted a vegan diet, recovered her sight and saved her foot. She’s still diabetic, but her health is massively improved.
I understand that—while it is no panacea or cure-all—vegan food practices are healthier for humans, and the only way to feed a planet of nine billion. Others in the audience give the girl incredulous looks. But the woman from PCRM corroborates her story with direct reference to medical research.
Then I understand: this event isn’t for me. I didn’t organize it to sell books. I organized it so this young woman could have her story validated by the woman from PCRM, who she would never have met otherwise. And I learn this lesson well: you don’t write the book for yourself. Once it’s published, it’s not yours. It’s theirs.
“It’s an old book, but reissued,” he says. “It’s my favorite right now.”
“Okay, then I’ll take it,” I say, equally unequivocally.
I’m full of relief the evening is over, eager to settle up and have a drink at a bar. So eager in fact that I trade the sale of three Pigs for which Tom has taken the money, for The Last Samurai. This is a learning in itself: that getting out of the bookstore with your profit can be an escape act—not because of the bookseller, but because of a) the relief of selling any at all; and b) what else do you do with cash in a bookstore?
So I leave two bucks down, and four copies of Pig heavier, taking back some advances I’d sent ahead. I start reading The Last Samurai that night. It’s a sublimely written tale of the life of Ludovic, a child genius, and his mother Sybilla, that explores the limits of genius (or knowledge porn, as Brian Hurley puts it) through Ludo’s search for his father, told through his prodigious learning—dozens of languages, engineering, history, literature, film. All this is sieved through their mother-and-son obsession with Akira Kurosawa’s film Seven Samurai.
It’s only now that I wonder if my fear of the low turnout and the, well, actual low turnout, was on Tom’s mind as he recommended The Last Samurai. In the last pages, when Ludo’s narrative arc has come to its end, he meets another genius, a pianist his mother once took him to see in concert. This pianist cannot play concerts any longer because of his unconventional and noncommercial approach. Their discussion turns to what art is worth making and how to put it into the world. That is, even if there are only five people in the world who will buy the pianist’s CD (my book) but they are the type of person who will buy his CD (my book) and get off their train (path in life) to work for a sculptor in Paris (challenge themselves and do something amazing)…does he (me) need 10,000 people to buy his CD (my book)? Does he (I) need 1,000 people at his concert (my reading)?
Or just the five people (and dog!) that matter? Discuss.
Village Books, Bellingham, Wash.
Or, let’s talk about fathers. Jim Nollman’s The Beluga Café is an enjoyable book. Considering it was published in 2002, it was weird how often it turned up on shelves during my tour. Perhaps the most magical element is that, for an adventure with “art, music and whales in the far North” the artist-adventurers never actually see any whales. There’s a hint of this when Nollman quotes Rainer Maria Rilke: “The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things.” But it’s a good book for touring the Pacific Northwest. It’s a story of the clash of cultures between Western colonial whites and the Inuit. It would be a lifesaver during the reading at Village Books.
I’d fallen on a successful pattern for book readings of less than 20 people. I’d introduce how I wrote Pig, then read for 10 to 15 minutes and open it up to the audience to hear their stories, before reading another section. I ask Clarissa, a local vegan who’d given me support on Twitter in generating interest for the event, to share her story. Then I open it up to the wider audience; a man in his ’60s puts up his hand.
“So, you, as a vejjan [sic]” he says to me, “what do you think about the Native Americans hunting whales?”
I’d wanted the moment to be a sharing of stories, not Q&A, and whales hadn’t featured; but okay, I’d read Nollman so I was prepared. No, I’m not another white British colonialist telling the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest they can’t hunt whale. But for myself, as for Jim Nollman and his companions, I just don’t believe people can “own” whales.
It settles him. The conversation continues, I read another section, and then there’s the Q&A. The troublemaker raises his hand.
I often read from the first half of Pig, a memoir of growing up as a meat eater, and the family consternation at my attempts to go vegetarian. So I talk about growing up, and explain how my father is/was an alcoholic, and in 2008 went on a bender and went missing—and remains missing. I read this bit, admitting that it’s also for affect. I want to move people with my writing; and this bit moves people.
I never guessed anyone would actually ask me about it.
“So can you explain the relevance of your missing father to this book?”
Later, a friend says she wanted to hug me (and slug the guy). But wasn’t this why I’d written the book? To answer that question: not for him, but for myself?
I say that toxic masculinity is a major global problem; the perverse need for men to dominate others, to own or consume their flesh, is wrecking our world. And maybe having a father whom I rebelled against at such an early age, who left my mother when I was two, providing my sister and I with a childhood shaped more by women who cared and less by men who drank, made me feel this way. Staring down the crises we face—climate change, deforestation, water pollution, our common health problems, gender inequality, the suffering of other species—calls for care and interdependence, not more toxic machismo.
Another guy in the crowd thanks me for what I’ve said, and shares his own story. After the reading is over, the troublemaker comes up.
“You know, I rescue those little black and red ladybugs from my car windscreen and put them into the grass,” he says. “So maybe I’m a little bit vejjan too.”
Hey, maybe. Isn’t that a start?
Silently I thank Jim Nollman and his sober failure in the Arctic, a failure that, as a writer and artist, he suffered, but was able to blend into a humble story of adventure and commitment. “Few professionals make their livings describing internal demons,” writes Nollman. “These professionals have decided that the internal story must be excised from their documentaries and non-fiction accounts, best left to novelists and feature-film writers to invent. What is it? Sissy? Too difficult? Too personal? Or is it just deemed uninteresting?”
Too difficult? Too personal? I don’t know. What I do know is I’m glad I wrote that part about my father. I’m glad I read it out. And I’m glad I was asked that question.
Portland, Ore., Vancouver, B.C., the End
There are two more stops on the tour—Portland and Vancouver, B.C., and five more lunches and readings and dinners and signings, including a talk in a church to 150 people, which emphasizes the lessons I’ve learnt. Not least of these is that having locals on the ground organizing and supporting makes the event go swimmingly. So what practical things have I learnt for the next tour?
two people and a dog is okay, too—and sometimes, better
invitation is better than confrontation
rely on social media only so far
don’t think that you’ll get downtime in between events
being professional counts; those sore shoes, trimmed nails, suit jacket all go towards the impression you leave on the individuals who turn up
I may have laid down on the floor of an Airbnb apartment and cried that I did not want to get up and travel for another six hours to do it all again. But I did get up. I did do it all again. And what I earned from doing that will not be taken away easily.
What did I earn? Freedom. Freedom from the fear that your work doesn’t count. It counts. Even if it’s for the five people who buy your book, but those five people, as Ludo says, cross the bridge, take a train, and go to work for a famous sculptor (or some similarly beautiful thing) because they read your book (or listened to your CD).
“The most ancient, most urgent function of words,” writes Le Guin, is “to form for us ‘mental representations of things not actually present,’ so that we can form a judgment of what world we live in and where we might be going in it, what we can celebrate, what we must fear.”
We create books or write essays and invest in the infrastructure around that writing; we put it into people’s hands and ask them to read, or listen. This is an auxiliary but no less essential part of the writer’s craft. It is a hard slog; there is little downtime in the downtime. But the joy of meeting people and having them hear your words; the emails and reviews that emerge from the ether; the connections made between people who ‘get’ the same mental representation that you do… All this means that maybe you’ve given them something to think about, and that changes them.
And remember this: you will never have a first book tour again.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.