King Crow, and Other Stories

King Crow is a well-regarded novel, written by Michael Stewart and published in 2011. It’s a tale of a young man who is exploring identity—his own and that of other people—as if everyone were anthropomorphic birds. The young man is introverted, hyper-focussed on specifics, and unable to grasp complex social dynamics.

It opens: When I look at people, I wonder what sort of birds they are.

There’s a pretty good argument that King Crow, with its anthropomorphics and its exploration of the challenges of being an introverted young man, is the sort of thing that furries would be interested in.

And yet few furries will have heard of King Crow, and even fewer will have read it. It’s very likely that you, reader, are hearing about it for the first time in this article, and that you’ll never hear of it ever again. King Crow isn’t on the furry radar.

But this article isn’t really about King Crow. This is about what furries are choosing to read instead, and it’s not found in the literary fiction section.

In Issue #1 of the relaunched Claw & Quill, Huskyteer writes: “If you happen to be under nine, you’re spoiled for choice in the anthropomorphic literature department“.

She’s right. It’s always been that way. Over on LiveJournal, a fur named Perri hosts an informal Furry History Project: mostly a long, incomplete list of anthropomorphic media (TV shows, comics, movies, etc) over the years. There are hundreds and hundreds of examples, and a quick scan suggests that around 90% of them are media that were created for children.

Maybe Perri’s lowbrow list reflects his preferences rather than the community at large? Well, the hifalutin Furry Writers’ Guild lists nine ‘Literary Classics’… and more than half are children’s books.

It seems that we are, collectively, a group of adults that are choosing to pay attention to furry literature that’s created for children. But that’s a bit of an overstatement, and even then it’s an observation, not a complaint.

We furries are more likely to discuss children’s books (and TV, and movies, and comics, and other media) because it’s the lowest common denominator. This doesn’t mean that we’re simpletons, it just means that (quality) furry children’s books are something that many of us have in common. We are no longer children of course; we have all aged and become adults. As we have aged, our tastes have diverged from the relative simplicity of children’s media. And so we are much less likely to find people who share our esoteric (adult) interests, and much more likely to find people who share our simpler (childish) interests.

Discussion of popular culture, by its nature, tends to overwhelm and drown out discussion of media that appeals only to a niche crowd. This creates a positive feedback loop, where popular culture receives more attention, and so it becomes more popular. You can see this clearly in meatspace retail, where store owners need to maximize sales—you’re much more likely to find Harry Potter in a tiny airport bookstore than, say, Redwall.

It happens online as well. There are no physical spaces to fill, but popular items still attract the most attention, marginalizing non-mainstream items. There is plenty of non-mainstream stuff out there, but it’s not always easy to find, and you’re much less likely to find people with whom to share the experience.

By way of an example, consider this ludicrous article posted on Flayrah back in June. It’s written by crossaffliction, and it’s about the works of a sculptor who works with anthropomorphic animals. So far, so good.

(I wouldn’t normally poke fun at Flayrah or anyone else, however I feel justified in this case because crossaffliction makes an aside referring to [adjective][species] as ‘furries spouting pretentious nonsense‘. You might consider this to be a mere equalizer.)

Crossaffliction, who cheerfully admits that he is a bad art reviewer, sees the sculptures as ‘just like “feral” characters drawn by furries‘. He thinks that the sculptures don’t, or can’t, have any merit beyond their facade; he is reducing them to their simplest component, how closely they reflects real life. Crossaffliction seems like someone who would rather look at a photograph of some irises than Irises.

Crossaffliction writes on A Rush Of Blood To The Head, a sculpture showing two goats with human erections, in an awkward but passionate kiss.

A Rush Of Blood To The Head by Beth Cavener Stichter http://www.followtheblackrabbit.com/Rush.htm

The sculpture is an exploration of taboo, challenging the viewer to react against an image which is clearly counter-natural. The goats’ kiss is unnatural but it’s the erections, almost fencing one another, that draw the attention. The sculpture draws a automatic reaction of disgust, in the way we all do when presented with some hitherto unexpected perversion of nature. We can’t help but recoil, and at the same time we wander why we are being manipulated so.

So why does it seem so wrong? Surely it’s homophobic to suggest that it’s the penises, but it’s clear that the two sets of genitals are not (naturally?) compatible. Or maybe it’s the just the animals that are being sexualized in a human way. Or perhaps it’s the juxtaposition between the tenderness of their embrace, and their taut, aggressive muscle and sinew.

A Rush Of Blood To The Head is, I think, an exploration of the pathology of homophobia. It’s an image which is decidedly confronting, even among a society of the presumably liberal people that are drawn to sculpture exhibitions, and even among furries, who are used to seeing sexualized, anthropomorphic animals. It’s a complex work of art, although perhaps will only make sense in today’s world of changing attitudes towards homosexuality. I wonder if it might seem a bit twee or anachronistic in the future.

Crossaffliction’s take? ‘I find the main difference between Stichter’s art and the average furry “feral” artist is that Stichter has a degree, shows her art in real galleries as well as online, and can spout pretentious nonsense about two goats making out with raging hard-ons better.

A subsequent search through crossaffliction’s contributions to Flayrah reveal that, since this gem, he’s submitted some 30 articles. More than half of those have been about My Little Pony.

Which brings me back to my point. This situation is no negative reflection on crossaffliction. He is no art critic, but he is a MLP fan. In this he stands alongside a hell of a lot of other intelligent, thoughtful, worthwhile furries. In fact, crossaffliction stands ahead of most because he is taking the time to contribute to Flayrah, giving back to the furry community that he clearly loves. I know I’ve spent a bit of time poking fun, but I genuinely respect and appreciate his time and effort. (Also, he started it.)

It’s no shame that the likes of My Little Pony or The Lion King are important to furry. It’s a natural outcome when something appeals to the largest group of people: the Lowest Common Denominator.

There is plenty of highbrow furry stuff out there, it’s just low profile. For example, see The Hooded Utilitarian, a culture criticism blog that intelligently looks at furry from time to time, such as this excellent missive from Midwest Furfest 2013. Or RRUFFURR, a furry comic anthology that could stand equal and alongside any well-regarded indie equivalent.

We can see this here at [adjective][species], too. Those of us who have been writing here for a while know that, if we write about something outside of the furry mainstream, we will attract fewer readers. But that’s okay, because we’re not writing to attract eyeballs; we’re writing to contribute to the furry community in a way that is meaningful to us, just like crossaffliction is doing when he writes about MLP over on Flayrah.

So I may not be able to strike up immediate conversation with a random furry about, say, Never Cry Wolf or Pom Poko, even though they are two films that deal pretty directly with furry spirituality, or whatever we’re calling the Furry Condition. But I can still share these films with friends, or write about them here, or maybe choose to discuss my own appreciation for MLP instead.

Furry artists—those who are serving the furry community—are aware of this too. They will have more success if they are able to engage the furry mainstream. A visual artist has extra incentive to draw porn; an author may be inclined to work within a familiar genre, perhaps romance (like [a][s]‘s Kyell Gold) or sci-fi (like [a][s]‘s Phil Geusz).

This means that successful by-furry for-furry art tends to be middlebrow: popular enough to draw an audience, but no so low that the niche is already filled by the non-furry mainstream. Like the ubiquity of children’s books, this is a necessary consequence of furry’s place in the world.

Harlan Ellison, science fiction legend and professional grumpy old man, complains that sci-fi isn’t taken seriously because people think of spaceships and aliens. He sees speculative fiction everywhere, where just a few outliers get arbitrarily tossed into the disrespected sci-fi bucket. He thinks it’s time to stop using such reductive categories.

Ellison is tilting at windmills, as I guess grumpy old men are prone to do. Nobody is enforcing the sci-fi category: it’s a reductive term, but also a useful one. To argue that all speculative fiction should be treated with equal respect is to argue that furry should be paying equal attention to My Little Pony and King Crow. It’s not going to happen.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/King-Crow-Michael-Stewart/dp/0956687601

About JM

JM is a horse-of-all-trades who was introduced to furry in his native Australia by the excellent group known collectively as the Perthfurs. JM now helps run [adjective][species] from London, where he is most commonly spotted holding a pint and talking nonsense.

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10 thoughts on “King Crow, and Other Stories

  1. £1.95 on Kindle. Consider it bought.
    I do get a little worried about the highbrow/lowbrow matter though. I’ve often felt that people think that because something is popular it must be low-brow.
    How about the Dark Materials series with it’s partly furry theme?

  2. Well, I knew of King Crow but haven’t read it (yet.)

    Speaking as a librarian, a student of literature (ABD on that one, admittedly,) and sometime writer, I would point out that your inferences about “science fiction” as a pejorative label can also be drawn about “children’s literature” and the same error occurs in both conclusions.

    For instance, in that list of nine titles singled out by FWG, I would say that at least five of them were written for adults. They later were “reduced” to children’s writing status by the omnipresent bad assumption that anthropomorphic fiction is always intended for children only. Most people assume that Watership Down and Animal Farm were written for kids, but they weren’t. The careful reader quickly finds the political context of the stories and characters. Whether you choose to see them as an allegory or something more complicated, to read them on a solely juvenile level is to insult the author and yourself. I would say the same about Bambi, which is a powerful polemic against hunters and hunting as well as a probable allegorical tale of the Nazi forces in 1930s Europe. Salten’s works were banned by Hitler in 1936, and not simply because the author was Jewish.

    Sirius is a work usually labeled as science fiction, and certainly intended for adult readers as it delves into the angst and complexity of intellect, psyche, and inter-species communication and relationships.

    I maintain as well that Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows and Kipling’s Jungle Book are as much intended for the adult reader as the child, and meant to be read on two different levels as fits the intellectual capabilities of the reader.

    This is often the case with the greatest “furry” writing. It is not written just for fandom readers, nor for children. It addresses universal themes and issues through the use of anthropomorphic characters, but is not about anthropomorphism as such. Only a few such works reach universal recognition, though Watership Down and Bambi have done so. Unfortunately in both cases this is a result of conversion to film media, though the more “elevated” or “historical” reader will have been aware of them long before that. Watership Down was on the New York Times adult best seller list for many weeks. Bambi was a selection of the Book of the Month Club shortly after it appeared in English translation in 1928, and a huge success with adult readers.

    I agree that furries who read, rather than devoting all their attention to visual media, have a lot yet to discover and are perhaps making a mistake when they turn too readily to the children’s shelves in the bookstore or library.

    1. Hi Altivo. I was thinking of you when I wrote the sentence “Furry Writers’ Guild lists nine ‘Literary Classics’… and more than half are children’s books.” I figured you’d challenge such a characterization.

      I count six children’s books out of nine, possibly five/nine as I’m not familiar enough with Bambi to make any sort of informed analysis. Our differences are, as you guessed, Wind In The Willows and The Jungle Book. It is certainly an arguable point. And regardless of whether we catergorize them as children’s book, I agree that they, and others, have plenty of literary merit.

      I’d be curious, by the way, what works you would add to that a list of the greatest “furry” writing. I’ll ask over in the FWG forums as well, perhaps we will turn up some gems.

      1. Just for starters I’d add Jack London’s pair of titles, The Call of the Wild and White Fang. These were also written for adults though they have come to be characterized as children’s books. They are a lot more than that, and display tremendous philosophical insight into humans and canines and the nature of our interconnection. Richard Adams’ Traveller is another, only it deals with the horse’s eye view of human society and behavior.

        I’d also point out C.J. Cherryh’s Pride of Chanur and its sequels, as well as Tim Susman’s Common and Precious. These are not children’s stories, nor are they fantasy. They are science fiction of a sort, but not the mainstream variety.

  3. I really just posted the art article for my brother; I expected him to help, but he seemed more impressed with Cavener’s technique than any meaning, so I said screw it and just was truthful.

    I don’t know what the goats making out mean, and there’s no need to add any more bull to the pile. Because those are nice goats making out, and people can draw their own opinions only if they see it, and getting people to see them, well, that’s the important thing. Not my two cents.

  4. Also, for the sake of … uh, something, I don’t know, but have you read the book “Never Cry Wolf?” Well, it’s very different from the movie; it certainly has an earthier sense of humor than the movie (which I am embarrassed to point out was a favorite movie of mine … as a kid). I think I saw it on DVD recently, so I may have to watch it again.

  5. Interesting fact: the FWG list doesn’t include the best selling furry book of all times, that is “Black Beauty”. (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Best_selling_books )

    While it’s not as deep or refined as other books in the list it’s arguably the only furry book that has had a direct influence on real world politics along with “Animal Farm”, so maybe it would deserve a mention. It’s also built on an intense human experience as the author was disabled from a very young age and had to rely on horse transportation in order to live an indipendent life, so she eventually wrote the book as a mean to raise awareness about the conditions of workhorses in her time.

    Another book which I think should be included in any list of best furry readings is “The Wonderful Adventures of Nils”. It’s about birds, which may be a reason why it’s not as popular as the books focusing on mammals, but it’s a boon for bird lovers and a charming book all around. It could boast a rare achievement too: it contributed to the birth of a whole new branch of science. Konrad Lorenz stated in several instances that it was his favourite book as a kid and it inspired him to pursue a science career studying bird behaviour, which eventually led to the birth of ethology.

    I’d also add a comic to such a list, the first few episodes of Grant Morrison’s “Animal Man” run. I wouldn’t suggest it to aspiring cartoonists but I would definitely suggest it to aspiring writers because the episode “The Coyote Gospel” is an intriguing reflection on the role of cartoon animals in our imagination which any furry writer can benefit from.

    And then there are some books which don’t feature anthro animals but are masterful examples of describing an almost-human-but-not-quite-human point of view. Off the top of my head I’d mention “Flatland” by Edwin Abbott, “Incandescence” by Greg Egan, and “Venus plus X” by Theodore Sturgeon.

    Oh, and let’s not forget “Gulliver’s Travels”!

  6. I’ve now enjoyed reading King Crow, but would only consider it peripherally furry at best. However, looking back at this article reminds me of reading Richard Adams and Henry Williamson as a child. Here I agree with Altivo, I think as they are about animals they are assumed to be children’s books. And futuristic books are denigrated to be science fiction, unless written by a known author.

    I am still wary of the high-brow/low-brow distinction too it can feel didactic to me.

    Is denigrate a reasonable word to use nowadays?

  7. Well, that’s weird. I didn’t want to read it right away, but I put it on my Amazon Wish List. I looked back over the list just now and it says the book is unavailable. When I clicked on the book link, it gave me an Amazon dead link error. Strange.

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