Being Catty

by Pari Noskin Taichert

P1010029 Lately, I’ve been marveling at how chic it is to scoff at kittycats. There’s this overarching bias in our crime fiction community that equates felines with frippery. It’s a kind of odd snobbery, snuggly and warm as a winter blanket, but woven with disdain.

If a mystery contains a cat — and that cat has even a small role — it’s a hairball in the world of literature.

Meow.

And yet, sometimes, when I’m imbibing my second shot of scotch, I raise a glass to the queen of cat mysteries . . . Lillian Jackson Braun. Her dozens of CAT WHO books have sold millions of copies for years. She has a rabid fan base that spans the globe.

Obviously, all of those readers are wrong.
Right?

Cat mysteries denigrate the important work we’re trying to do in the crime fiction genre.
Don’t they?

It’s interesting that at the same time this bias exists, you can go to a community-connection site like Crimespace and find many people who are using cats as avatars (representations of themselves).

What gives?

Why is it cool to dis fictional felines?

Let me tell you a brief story . . .

A little more than a decade ago, I was pregnant — sick, hostile and of a murderous mind. That’s when I discovered the curative powers of traditional mysteries, of fun and fast reads. Only these could momentarily soothe my nausea and frayed nerves. Braun, Grafton and a score of other authors became my sanity.

Alas, one day the CAT WHO series stopped working for me. I got angry. If Braun could slam out so many books and sell so well, why couldn’t I? Hell, I was a better writer than she was! (DANGER! DANGER! DANGER!)

P1010030 It’s so easy to compare ourselves with other writers, isn’t it? Many of us tumble into jealousy or holier-than-thou attitudes that only serve to make us miserable, wet little kittens — the kind with stinky fur and runny eyes.

I know I suffered in a major way because of these attitudes. When Braun’s books lost their magic for me, I wanted something to blame. The cats were an easy target.

. . . So, I understand some of the current snickering.

But guess what? I ended up putting a cat into my New Mexico series. This was — and is — an absolute tip of the hat to Braun. Without the disappointment I felt with that book long ago, I might never have had the impetus to put my butt in a chair and write the first manuscript. I might not have stuck through the failure of that attempt, and the one after that, before finally selling a work.

You see, I think it’s seductive to feel superior. Sometimes it can generate wonderful action. More often, it deprives us.

I don’t write cat mysteries, but I don’t mock them either. In my series, Leo does have a role in my protag’s life. Anyone who has had a pet to love, knows how important an animal can be to maintaining a sense of stability when the world seems rocky and mean.

What I find intriguing is that cats get bigger play, bigger attention, in the excuse to neglect a sector of books.

Why cats?

Why not goldfish
or cigarette smokers
or men who can’t maintain healthy relationships?

What’s up with that?

P1010032

26 thoughts on “Being Catty

  1. billie

    Pari, I can’t answer the question about cats, but you have no idea how wonderful it is to wake up and read this today – I’m in the final stretch of The Belen Hitch and it is the biggest kick reading you writing about why you put Leo in!!

    Love the books. Sasha is wonderful – and between the green chiles and the cans of whipped cream, I’m ready to sign up as her assistant as she cruises New Mexico. 🙂

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  2. Alex Sokoloff

    Well, first, people who hate cats REALLY hate them. It’s the same virulence you see in misogynists – people who hate cats don’t just hate them, they actually seem to feel threatened by them.

    But I think some of us who love cats (and I’m writing this with one of mine on my lap right now) avoid the cat books because we’re a little embarrassed by our own ardor. I don’t buy cute cat stuff, either, or post pictures of my cats on my website, because, well, it’s a slippery slope down to even more abject feline dependency than I’ve already got going. One must maintain at least the illusion of control.

    Also – well, I’ve never read the Braun books so I have no idea really, but I highly suspect cuteness, and I’m not interested in reading cute. Cute is not the essence of cats to me. For my money the best portrayal of a cat in semi-recent literature is Church in Stephen King’s PET SEMATERY. Not a cute cat in any way, and not at all like my own very feminine cats, but there was a pure catness about that character that I just don’t feel I would get out of some of the other cat-based books. The very concept of having a cat interested enough in human affairs to solve a mystery rings false in an essential way.

    So I steer away.

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  3. Mark Terry

    I honestly don’t get the cat mystery thing, but that’s okay. Different likes for different folks, and all that. And I didn’t care for the one Braun book I did read. But so what? Obviously SOMEBODY’S buying them and enjoying them. Doesn’t mean I have to.

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  4. David J. Montgomery

    Pure speculation here…

    I think a large part of the bias comes from the belief that in all mysteries featuring felines, the cats are the ones solving the crimes.

    In actuality, this doesn’t seem to happen as much as people might think it does — although it does happen in Lilian Jackson Braun’s books, of which I must have read at least 20.

    If you have a mystery novel where the cat solves the crime, that’s more than a little silly, and is probably going to cause people who aren’t dyed-in-the-fur cat lovers to roll their eyes.

    (It would also be silly to have a cockatoo that solves crimes, but I haven’t seen that book. Yet. I’m sure it’s coming.)

    So I think this is a case where a certain specific type of book is coloring people’s perceptions of a broader type of book.

    Of course, there are also a lot of us who simply don’t see the allure of cats, and consequently respond to it just as some folks might to a protagonist who obsesses over guns, ballroom dancing, NASCAR, malt liquor or the infield fly rule.

    If, as a reader, you don’t share a character’s interest, you probably aren’t going to be interested in reading about it at length.

    But I think you’re right that cats as a topic do seem to provoke a disproportionate response among some readers.

    (Okay, I didn’t intend to write that much.)

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  5. Stephen Blackmoore

    I’m more of a dog person, but that’s because I’m allergic to cats rather than any dislike of them. Some of them are great. Some I’d like to slow roast on a spit. But then I have relatives I feel the same way about.

    I’m in the same camp as Alex on the whole cute thing. It just doesn’t work for me. The cat in Pet Sematary or Alien is much more my kind of cat.

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  6. Lisa

    I’ve long held to the theory that people who hate cats — and Alex is right, it’s not that polite, “I don’t like dogs” kind of thing, it’s much more aggressive — are threatened by the fact that cats can’t be controlled like dogs — cats won’t pay attention, much less obey unless there’s something in it for them. If that’s accurate, the feline-based mystery (I haven’t read Braun but have read Rita Mae Brown, which has talking, mystery-solving cats dealing with the inadequacies of humans)would be even more troublesome — not only won’t they submit to control, they’re smarter than we are.Meanwhile, true story — about a year ago, an elderly Philadelphia woman was in the early stages of a home invasion when her cat jumped off the top of the stairs and landed on the intruder’s back, clawing his face until he ran from the house, thus saving his owner from God knows what. The cat was lead news story for two days.I have a dog and a cat in my novel, and while neither do anything un-animal-like, the protagonist does mention the cat staring at her, judging.Gotta go — the cats want breakfast now OR ELSE…

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  7. pari

    Wow.

    Billie,What a nice email to wake up to. Do you think Leo is “cute?”

    Everyone Else:I think there are at least two threads here:CutenessandCatogyny (or felinogyny?) — the specific hate of cats.

    On the cuteness issue, I think that might make a really good blog–one I’d like to tackle. I despise “cute” but realize that it’s highly subjective. A couple of years ago, I found a calendar of frogs dressed in costumes. These were photos of real frogs. I thought they were hysterical — not cute, mind you — just funnier than all get-out. The person with me was mortified that I bought the calendar for my husband. She thought they were “cute.” That adjective would have never occured to me.

    Re: cat-hatersI understand not liking the animals, but I think it’s deeper with cats. Lisa may be right that it has to do with their true and perceived independence. I’d love to read more opinions on the subject.

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  8. Naomi

    There’s just something about pets, and cats specifically. It can also be a demographic thing, too–older women tend to have cats rather than dogs (they may be house-bound and can’t regularly walk a dog, etc.). We all know that more women read than men. So is some of the prejudice not only directed towards cats, but the older readers of these mysteries?

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  9. Alex Sokoloff

    I was going to say that the word for cat-hating would be more like misfeliniation (I couldn’t find a word for cat-hating, but fear of cats is Ailurophobia).

    But I think Pari’s on to something, combining feline with misogyny, because I really do think hatred of cats has to do with their specifically feminine qualities.

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  10. Alex Sokoloff

    Oops, posted without finishing – feminine qualities, as Lisa just said, like uncontrollability (I’m making up words left and right, today…)

    Can’t control women, can’t control cats… similarly rage-provoking.

    Reply
  11. Stephen Blackmoore

    The tie in between hatred of cats and misogyny never occurred to me. But then I neither hate cats nor women.

    I know my dad hated cats, but that was because he had to crawl under his house in Hawaii as a kid to get them when they went under to die. Dead cat, high heat and humidity. You get the idea.

    I’ve never looked at cats as particularly feminine. Some of them, maybe, but you get a big ol’ tom and that’s definitely not a feminine cat.

    In fact, I think I’ve always seen them as simply very visceral, wild creatures. They’re there not because of us, or even in spite of us. They just are. Very Zen of them, I think.

    As to Naomi’s comment about them (if I read it right, and knowing me I probably didn’t) being a proxy for antagonism toward old women readers, I think that might be stretching it.

    I can see them as being associated with old women the way doilies, knitting and rocking chairs are often associated with old women. And I think that goes toward casting them in the “cute” image.

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  12. B.G. Ritts

    I like cats (I grew up with one from 3-1/2 to 18 years of age) and have three now. Holding a pet can be very calming. I talk to them and they listen and talk back in their own way (usually with their eyes), so the idea of a cat having ‘dialog’ in a book doesn’t bother me. I understand it as the person who is hearing it processing what they are feeling and ‘interpreting’ that the cat has told them some ‘great truth’.

    (Ailurophobia, I think, is both fear and hatred of cats.)

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  13. Robert Gregory Browne

    When I went to Madison last year for Bouchercon, I got on the shuttle with a very nice couple who weren’t writers, but true fans of crime and mystery fiction. Very nice people.

    When they found out that I was an author, the first thing the husband said was, “You don’t write cat mysteries, do you? I HATE cat mysteries.”

    I told him my book was about a Hippo who solves crimes.

    Obviously, there are those who love cat books and those who don’t. Some like private eyes, some don’t. Some like police procedurals, some don’t.

    I think there’s room enough in this world for many sub-genres of crime fiction. The problem comes when people start defining an ENTIRE genre by only one small part of it.

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  14. MF Makichen

    Pari,Interesting post today. I agree with, was it Alex, about the cute factor–some people don’t like it when cats solve the mysteries, or dogs for that matter. I think some people intensely disklike it when authors anthropomorphize animals period. And I’ve actually been shocked on some lists to see how many rules people have in general about what books they will read. I think they must have a check list. If a book has a cat or dog in it for instance they just won’t read it. It doesn’t matter if the cat/dog is a normal house pet that just gets fed and petted occassionally throughout the book. I don’t really understand this considering the number of pet owners in the US alone.

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  15. Louise Ure

    I don’t disdain writers who put cats in mysteries. Nor those who use serial killers, ex-debutantes, ghost-seeing tour guides, child pornographers or stain-removal experts. Whatever works for the story is fine with me.

    But there are some of those characters/tropes that I prefer not to read.

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  16. Elaine Flinn

    Oh, Pari – I’m really LOL with this one. I’ve never read Braun or Brown – but I have read Shirly Rousseau Murphy (a friend) and I’ve found her ‘cat sleuths’ fun when I’m in the mood for something light (about once a year). And yeah-for the record – I’m owned by a Siamese so it’s fun now and then to relate.

    A frequent DL poster has a great sig line he’s letting me steal: “Dogs have owners, but cats have staff.”

    Reply
  17. JT Ellison

    I’m a kitty girl myself, (mine is begging for a brushing as we speak) though I can honestly say I’ve never read a cat mystery. I loved Pari’s Leo, and the role he plays in Sasha’s life.

    It concerns me though that there are “people” who look down on any section of crime fiction. To each his own. Good writing is good writing, I say. And as Pari points out, can that many readers be wrong?

    Meow.

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  18. pari

    I don’t know . . . I kind of like the anti-cat/anti-woman angle, the whole feminism thing. It’s something I’d never considered before — just like the possibile correlation between age/cats/cute.

    And yes,It’s the rules that get me peeved . . . the outright dismissals. Perhaps it’s because we’re all so busy, so innundated with media and information, that we want to filter the world through whatever sieves to make our lives easier. If you say, “Oh, I don’t read any mysteries with cats,” well, then that cuts out a large chunk of potential material. It makes life simpler.

    I’m almost like Louise in my reading; I don’t have many caveats beyond writing that I enjoy (and a good plot is nice). Right now I won’t read about crimes against children . . . but that’ll change when my kids are older; then I won’t be so susceptible to nightmares.

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  19. pari

    Now, now, Simon. I think dogs have better things to do than worry about cats getting more attention.

    Actually, one of our children is allergic to cats . . . so we made the jump to a dog about four years ago. I couldn’t believe the difference in the animal’s personalities. Our lab is absolutely devoted to humans, adores us — is blissed out whenever we show the slightest bit of attention (believe me, he gets alot of attention).

    It took quite awhile to get used to him.

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  20. billie

    No, Pari, Leo is not cute.

    He’s a bad boy (bad but not malicious) mystic, kinda like the boyfriends in my twenties. Loved ’em, hated ’em, couldn’t quite figure them out.

    They slid in and out of my life, but always knew to come back right at the precise moment I was getting ready to be DONE.

    🙂

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  21. JLW

    Some facts from a cat owner:

    The correct word for describing hatred of cats is “ailurophobia”.

    Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Chandler were cat lovers.

    Samuel Johnson used to go to the market to buy oysters for his cat, Hodge, because he didn’t want to order his servants to wait on his pet.

    40% of all criminals in the US keep a pet cat. That’s almost 10% higher than the general population.

    There are about nine million more pet cats in America than pet dogs.

    Most cat owners own at least two cats.

    20% of American households with pets have both a cat and a dog.

    Cats do not write cat mysteries, so they cannot be blamed for them.

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  22. pari

    JLW,I love your posts. They’re wonderful toppers to the day.

    Last week’s was a gem.

    How do you pronounce *ailurophobia*?

    I miss having cats in our home.

    And, Billie? I see we share many of the same experiences. That description of your boyfriends and Leo, well, it was almost too familiar. Ya know?

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  23. Daniel Hatadi

    For me, the presence of cats in fiction is a question of personal taste. I’m a cat owner myself and I love the little buggers, but I’ve never understood why people feel the need to centre stories around cats. I get an image of a writer who looks around the room for inspiration, sees their cat, and decides to include it in the story. This can either be a case of ‘write what you know’ or plain laziness. But that all depends on the story and the writer.

    It makes me think of ice-cream. Some people like chocolate, others prefer strawberry. And there’s nothing wrong with that either way.

    Reply

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