The Furry Canon: Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Ugh.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a 1970 novella, hereon referred to as JLS, is really bad. How bad? Read on.

I’m reviewing JLS for the [a][s] Furry Canon project because it appears on Fred Patten’s “Top Ten Furry Classics”. Fred’s list was one of the inspirations for this project, and so I’m working my way through all ten of Fred’s choices. Unfortunately they include JLS.

To be fair to Fred, his top ten is obviously not intended to be a “best of” – it’s more a list of books that are important to furry in some way. It includes choices like the first by-furry for-furry book (Paul Kidd’s Fangs of K’aath), and (as Fred puts it) the first serious* intelligent* animal novel for adults*, Sirius.

* My experience with JLS has caused me to doubt Fred’s judgment of quality. So I’m going to consider these terms to be provisional, until I’ve read and reviewed Sirius.

All of Fred’s top ten—including JLS—receive Fred’s approval as “great reading”. I am here to tell you that JLS is not great reading. To the contrary: it is asinine, tedious, humourless, preachy, and (mercifully) short.

JLS is a story about a seagull who learns to transcend the boundaries of space and time using the power of his heart. Argh.

Do you really want to hear all the ways this book sucks? Because it’s worse than my synopsis in the preceding paragraph (minus my ejaculation of psychic pain) suggests. I thought that this review might be fun to write, but all it’s doing is reminding me of the experience of reading JLS, which is much like living through a Picard facepalm.

JLS starts with JLS himself—the triple-barreled name of our seagull hero—pissing about. He is ignoring his seagull mates and instead flying stunts. (This is written in weirdly specific aeronautical jargon.) Jonathan learns to go fast, and then gets kicked out of his seagull team because he has the moral courage to follow what’s in his heart. And then he meets a fucking immortal seagull guru and starts transporting himself around the place instead of flying. And then becomes this bullshit secular religious prophet, where he teaches other seagulls to follow their dreams.

The writing is bad. It is written alternately in the style of what I imagine goes on at r/seaplanes, and coddling new-agey claptrap. It’s about as edgy as a weak episode of Diff’rent Strokes.

In line with the softcock positivism of JLS, the tone of the writing is bland and—at its best—worthless. I’d compare it writing that appears on an eagle-themed inspirational poster, or the platitudes spouted by Malibu Stacy’s short-lived competitor Lisa Lionheart, or perhaps the motivational messages of professional wrestling cheeseball Bo Dallas. Except that JLS is less pithy, and has less to say.

I’d say that JLS is unpublishable, yet it has sold in excess of one million copies—that’s a lot of readers’ eyes being rolled as they suffer through this thing—and was rewarded with a film feating a Neil Diamond soundtrack. Both the film and soundtrack have a reputation for being terrible.

So I guess you could say that I respectfully disagree with Fred’s characterization of JLS as “worth reading”. I can only imagine that he included JLS in his list because of its commercial success, or perhaps due to some short-lived cultural impact on its publication in 1970 (Fred was 30 at the time). In either case I can’t imagine anyone picking it up in 2016 and deciding it’s worth a damn.

I’m happy to conclude that JSL fails at the most basic level to be a book of any value, never mind one of the quality necessary for recommendation into the [a][s] Furry Canon.

It think it fails on our other criteria as well – longevity & furry connection.

I know I’m not the only person who knows JLS solely through its use as an expletive by The Simpsons‘s sea captain, which I think says it all as far as longevity goes. And while I know of at least one furry seagull who takes a kind of furry pride in the existence of JLS, he is Scottish and therefore you can imagine how he feels about being told by a hippie to find the courage to let his heart soar free.

In summary, Jonathan Livingston Seagull deserves neither your time nor interest. It will not be taking a place in the Furry Canon.


The Furry Canon, recommended, at the time of publication:
Redwall
Black Beauty
Equus

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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9 thoughts on “The Furry Canon: Jonathan Livingston Seagull

  1. I agree it’s not particularly furry. It was a best seller at the time, however, and is primarily intended for a juvenile audience. Yes, it’s preachy, that’s intentional. The flying terminology is there, no doubt, because the author was a pilot.

    I might have forgotten this book long ago, except that for several years Chicago had a restaurant in the punnily named “Lettuce Entertain You” group, and it was called “Jonathan Livingston Seafood.” The restaurant was about as deep and imaginative as the book is.

  2. As I understand it Fred Patten’s list is supposed to include both good anthro animal books and books which aren’t so good but were functional to the fandom coming together around a core of common concepts in the 70s and 80s. JLS definitely belongs to the latter group. The whole “follow your heart” thing sounds silly today but it was the one message underlying most of the 80s entertainment aimed at children, from books to cartoons to movies, and I think the concept did have some influence on early furry culture. If you look back at the deeds and debates of furries in the 80s and early 90s you see a lot of really naive ideals, ranging from the hope that an amateurish site such as Yerf could launch real artistic careers to the whole “Burned Furs” delirium about saving the fandom and chasing out the perverted villains… it was lots and lots of preachy talk and “hold onto your dreams”, a stark contrast to the gossipy and utilitarian fandom of 2016.

    Not saying JLS is a good book or deserving to be part of a furry canon of course. It would be interesting to know how many old school furries did actually read it. I did read it as a kid following enthustiastic suggestions from friends but was not very impressed. Other arguably bad books such as “The Ancient Solitary Reign” by Martin Hocke left a much stronger mark on my imagination. But JLS does at least sum up a specific part of the zeitgeist of the time, and I can see how it could impress kids who aren’t used to good writing – or weren’t looking for good writing at all. Because, let’s not forget it, furry is first and foremost an offspring of pop culture. Motivational eagle posters and Native Wolf shirts are part of our heritage whether we like it or not, and so are many bad books, bad cartoons, and bad fan fiction. We furries of 2016 cannot just dismiss them as a whole. Some of the “bad” stuff needs to be reevaluated because of its continuing influence and because of the way the fandom improved on the original ideas. Although I agree this is probably not the case for JLS. It’s a gimmicky product of its time which hasn’t aged well at all.

    (I’ll point out there is a very short My Little Pony fan fiction which seems to be somewhat inspired by JLS and does a much better job of conveying a sense of transcendence: “The Summer Lands” by Midnighshadow. It’s interesting how several early MLP:FiM fan fictions seem based on well known anthropomorphic books.)

    1. Hi Scale. That’s the second time you’ve reference a MLP fan fiction in the context of the Furry Canon project – very unorthodox, and you definitely have me curious.

      I appreciate a lot of what you said, and I did consider extending my review to take a closer look at the philosophy of JLS. It is, as you say, a product of its time, but it’s a message that persists in the world today. I don’t think “follow your heart” is anachronistic.

      In the end I decided not to delve into that, simply because JLS isn’t good enough to merit a critique of its message. I think it was Roger Ebert that compared JLS to The Little Engine That Could, and I’d generally agree with that, although of course I’d never be able to write something so succinct.

      My bigger issue with the philosophy of JLS is a personal one: I think that the idea of abandoning your community for the pursuit of entirely selfish goals is destructive. Community is fundamental to personal happiness, and an important part of that is the ability to care for the vulnerable and weak. Happiness doesn’t come from the personal triumph and the I-told-you-sos at the heart of JLS – that’s just juvenile.

      Furry is a leaderless, decentralized community, and at its heart is care and trust for the group as a whole. That’s one of the reasons why it is important to me, just as other communities – church or family or whatever it might be – are important to other people. JLS wants us to stop caring for each other, and worry only about ourselves. I think that’s wrong.

      And while I agree with you that Fred collected his “top ten” for more reasons than just quality, he does make statements regarding the supposedly high quality of JLS and his other nine books, as I quoted in my article here. I honestly, honestly, can’t see where he is coming from. Maybe he, or someone else, would care to write a defence.

      1. Thank you, and I hope my mentions don’t come across as advertising since I’m neither a huge MLP fan nor a big fan fiction reader. I just feel we are going through a sort of Golden Age of fan fiction as you can find some very interesting stuff out there (I’ll mention “Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality” as an excellent non-furry example). In the early days of the brony fandom I got curious and read more fan fiction than usual because I noticed bronies rediscovering many small ideas which were present in old school furry fiction I remembered fondly from the 90s. You can tell some brony writers were fascinated by the “horseness” of the characters or driven by actual sense of wonder rather than just using premade characters from the series as a shortcut.

        I definitely agree that the message about abandoning one’s community is bad, that’s where JLS’s idealism crosses the line into egotism or even more dangerous ideas. Seagull Scientology anyone?

  3. Scale, you’ve understood why I included this on my list of the Top Ten. If you’ve read my other reviews elsewhere, you’ll see that I regularly put down the “you can be whatever you wish to be, if you don’t give up on your dream” message. My comment is usually, “Gee, I want to be the King of England! How will not giving up on this goal make it become true?”

    JLS was mega-powerful in 1970, and it can still be true today for those outside of furry-dom who see it constantly put down by the mundanes around them. On second thought today, I would not rank this among my Top Ten furry books because this is a list for those who are already in furry fandom. If you’re already a furry fan, you don’t need to read JLS except for historical interest.

    But it is still mega-powerful for those who buy into the “you can be whatever you want to be” message. (As a side note, Richard Bach later wrote “The Ferret Chronicles” series about a dimension of intelligent ferrets. He claimed that this was not fiction; the ferrets were all real and were telepathically beaming their message of ferrety Peace and Brotherhood into his brain! Woooo! But if you ignore that they’re Message books, they’re still good reads.)

    If I may cite a similar example that doesn’t have anything to do with “furry”, read Timothy Shay Arthur’s 1854 Temperance novel, “Ten Nights in a Bar-Room and What I Saw There”. Or since you probably can’t find it today, read the Wikipedia article. The famous 19th-century play adaptation (with the exaggeratedly maudlin “Father, dear father, come home with me now!” scene) is laughable now, but Shay’s novel about how one single drink will turn the strongest-willed man into a raging drunkard is still convincing, even to those who’ve taken many beers or glasses of wine with no evil effects.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ten_Nights_in_a_Bar-Room_and_What_I_Saw_There

  4. Wikipedia’s “plot” of “Ten Nights in a Bar-Room” ignores how the new town tavern starts out on the first night expected to herald its small town to grow into a major city, and how the successive nine nights a year apart chronicle the town’s ruinous descent into drunkenness, slovenliness, and finally murder.

  5. The cover does make it appear like its set in historical times, do;7n&#821set it? I loved this one. It didn’t scare me much either but I’m hard to scare. I loved the characters and especially the setting which really came to life for me. If I ever get caught up I plan to read more of her work.

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