Pet story…

What kind of a pet would your story be if it were a living thing?

I was in the waiting area of my car’s service department while said car was being worked on, and they had put in a large aquarium, full of brightly coloured and exotically shaped tropical fish. Flashes of bright yellow, striped blue, hot pink flickered in and out of my sight; fins long and elegant or short and stubby, heads elongated into pointy snouts or smoothed into flat squares, flitting in and out of the fake coral and the artistically stacked rocks, ducking the bubbles from the filter…

Bubbles. FIlter. There went the illusion. All of this is quite pretty and quite captivating, but the upkeep and the commitment are flabbergasting. The filter. The food.. This water has to be kept pristine, at the proper pH and salinity. And the reward was… what? The ability to stand forever outside this enchanted world and watch it through thick glass? Tropical fish are magical, but they are a cold and distant pet (ever try to hug one?…) And other aquaria, perhaps slightly easier to manage, dealing with freshwater fish… well, you lose the exoticism of it all, the colour, the rush of being transported into another world. The fish are your literary stories, in a way, because they’re so hard to touch and to understand and (all too often) to love – because they are removed from you. You’re watching it all through glass, and hoping that the pH holds and you don’t find all your pretty fishies floating belly up in the perfect tank in the morning…

Then you have, for instance, a cat. A cat is a terrific pet animal – your cat will snuggle with you, purr, make you giggle by doing weird things with cat toys. This is also the animal that will leave you half-eaten mice beside your bed so that you can step in mouseguts when you get up in the morning – and then be baffled by your inability to understand the concept of that present. These are the stories of fantasy and science fiction, concerned with aliens and elves, which (if you understand them sufficiently well to be able to hug and pet them) will return fantastic rewards – but which will nonetheless, on some fundamental level, always be a little bit beyond your understanding.

We could make a case for a dog being the coming-of-age or a YA story. Or the horse being the adventure story. Or the parrot being humour. Or the snake being mystery. Or the hamster being… um… well, I don’t have to do all the work here. You tell me what kind of story a hamster would best represent…

But the point remains. There are oodles of things to know about the care and feeding of your stories. You’d better know what kind of pet  you’ve got before you despair because your cats are turning up their noses at fish food (yes, well, if you’ve ever owned cats you’ll know that occasionally they will turn up their noses at EVERYTHING, but you know what I mean…) Fish of fowl? What are you writing?

There is far too much that’s been said and written, most of it disparaging, about “Genre” vs “literary” kind of writing. But I will say here once more what I’ve been saying over and over through the years, and the more I write the more I believe it: beware, beware, when you dismiss “fantasy” as the inferior thing – because by definition ALL literature (without quotes) is by definition fantasy. The high-falutin’ types who look down their noses at what they consider to be the entire fantasy oeuvre might pause to remember that none of the works of fiction which they prize so highly over any given romp with dragons and elves (and we all known there’s more to fantasy than that!) is, you know, TRUE. It’s easy to make that mistake. Remember James Frey?…

But having said that… there is a certain kind of care and feeding that a certain kind of story will respond best to, in order to reach the kind of reader who will take it as what it is, and understand that it’s possible to stroke that cat, or to crouch beside a tropical aquarium for a moment to admire the richness of form and function within.

What kind of animal is YOUR story…?

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  1. 1. Deb Salisbury

    My story is definitely a cat. My cat won’t allow me to write anything else!

    Would a hamster be a middle grade story? :-)

  2. 2. Elias McClellan

    Ms. Alexander, as always, you propose an excellent topic to consider. Oh, BTW, I think the hampster would be erotica; all fluff, no stubstance. Something tells me I’m gonna pay for that later.

    As for lit vs. genre, well, I don’t feel the need to explore Houston’s very fine mental-health facilities from the inside. That’s what the the very idea of attempting the work of Morrison, Faulkner, or Proux promises. Reading their work has damaged me aspiring to write on their level would no-doubt ruin me.

    But when I think of Herburt, Carey, and Butler, well, that’s just fun with a little bit of dangerous thrown in for good measure. Like the alley cat we took in; Sneak D. Katt. He will snuggle and cuddle and then kill something out of the blue, just to keep you interested.

  3. 3. Alma Alexander

    Wouldn’t a RABBIT be erotica – as in, what with their stellar “breed like rabbits” reputation and, ahem, the activities that need to take place before said breeding can occur…?

    But the mental image of hamsters… as erotica… OY. (Facepalm. Trying to get mind around this.)

  4. 4. Elias McClellan

    Gerbals, then? Yeah, I know, oy vey.

  5. 5. Marie Brennan

    Of course, if we run with your metaphor, then one day you’ll wake up and find your Genre Cat has flipped your Literary Fish out of the aquarium and onto the floor, then made a snack of its guts . . . .

  6. 6. Elias McClellan

    That’s it Ms. Brennan, remain diplomatic. Then you can bridge the gulf ‘tween the disparate groups. I seriously thought I was the only caustic character here. Me and Sneaky D. Katt love literary fish, but not so much the guts.

  7. 7. Ariella

    And then there’s my dissertation. It started life as an amorphous blob, a sort of jellyfish of a curious and hitherto unknown species. But I made the mistake of taking it home and making it mine. It grew tentacles and began to consume all my time and substance. Now it has become a Lovecraftian leviathan and I fear that I will never defeat it.

  8. 8. Megs - Scattered Bits

    I could see a hamster being a mystery. They’re blind beyond nine inches in front of them. My brother’s hamster died because she got out of her cage and couldn’t see she was walking off the second-story balcony (can’t think of the right word, so that one will have to do) in our house.

  9. 9. Alma Alexander

    Ariella: HIGH FIVE!

    Ladies and gentlemen I think we have a winner here…

  10. 10. Wolf Lahti

    What kind of animal is my story?

    A snake, a large black snake – probably an anaconda – that escaped from its terrarium and is slithering in the secret recesses of my house, waiting for its chance to strangle me when I go to sleep….

  11. 11. heteromeles

    Actually, when I was in grad school, we named our theses. One woman named hers “Mr. Pesky.” I named mine ‘My Precioussss.”

    Unfortunately, someone has already completed a thesis comparing the process of obtaining a graduate degree to The Lord of the Rings. That bastard! He ruined such a great metaphor!

    Genres as critters. Yes. I can see that, because animals tend to like things more ordered than humans do. That’s sort of like stories with plots and themes, as opposed to the messiness of real life.

    Confession: I don’t like straight up romances, so I’d compare them to zebra finches. You ever had those? They’re cute, not to intelligent, easy to feed. You put a pair in a cage, and after a couple of years, you have about 30 of them, all identical, all fluffy, chirping like a bunch of diminutive tribbles. They’re so cute!

    Personally, I think SF and fantasy are more like birds. Birds are a cross between a two-year old and a alien, and the smarter they are, the more you have to learn to live with them. That’s a proper SF novel at least. Makes you see the world a little differently, just like owning a bird does. And birds are smarter than they look. I once watched a pigeon reboot a computer by walking across the keyboard. Ctrl-alt with one foot, delet with the other, and fly away as the machine and owner make interesting noises….

    Cats though: cats are like mystery novels. On the one hand, they do like their routine. On the other hand, they can be comfortable to be around. On the third hand (cats require three hands), they do leave hairballs and other presents for you to find.

  12. 12. Mary

    Let’s see. Some of them are wolves, wary and stand-offish. Some of them are brightly-colored canary-like birds that like to fly about the rafters, out of reach. . . .

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Author Information

Alma Alexander

Alma Alexander is a novelist, short story writer and anthologist whose books include High Fantasy ("Hidden Quen""Changer of Days"), historical fantasy ("Secrets of Jin Shei", "Embers of Heaven"), contemporary fantasy ("Midnight at Spanish gardens") and YA (the Worldweavers series, the Were Chronicles). She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two cats. Visit site.

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