A recent study in People and Nature claims that animals are being removed from novels at a rate similar to their extinction in the real world. The German Integrative Biodiversity Research Center searched the entire Gutenberg Project online archive of 60,000 texts, written between 1705 and 1969. They discovered that since 1835, the use of animals in fiction – other than domesticated beasts such as horses and dogs or “endangered” animals such as bears or lions – has declined to a fraction of its former propensity. Professor Christian Wirth, lead author of the study, says this has implications for our response to the climate crisis: “We can only stop biodiversity loss through a radical shift in consciousness. “
I think he’s right, but not because animals were written from novels. They have just been written the wrong way round.
Like all headline research articles, context is everything. I’m not sure public domain books only, written in English only, of a Western canon only, are fully representative of today’s rich and increasingly human fictional world. But the decline in real biodiversity is woefully real. According to the latest reports from the UN and WWF, we have not only lost 60% of animal populations since 1970, but a million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction if we don’t act now.
Did this deep sense of loss in fact make animals more attractive to fiction writers? There is certainly no shortage of animals in the world of children’s literature. My latest book, The Wild Before – on tackling biodiversity decline – has a hare as its main character and an animal cast, following the tradition of books such as Watership Down. Just last year, critically acclaimed children’s books featured a stranded polar bear, haunting Greenland shark, and a magical talking stray cat.
It is no coincidence that The Jungle Book, Wind in the Willows and the Beatrix Potter books, the first classics of children’s anthropomorphism, were born out of the industrial revolution and the first great leap into decline. of biodiversity. It seems that the less connected we are to other species, the deeper their mystery and appeal deepens. Would Judith Kerr have invited a tiger for tea, or would Yann Martel have taken one across the ocean in Life of Pi, if encounters with these endangered creatures were commonplace? Would the bestiary of fantastic creatures, from Tolkien’s wargs to George RR Martin’s giant wolves (based on an extinct species) have captured our imaginations if real wolves weren’t so absent from our landscape?
But although I did extensive research on brown hares for The Wild Before – their behavior, habitat, diet – trying my best to honor their interests on the page, the fact remains: any attempt to creating a fictional character for an animal is pure projection. Whether or not writers deploy animals in fiction as anthropomorphic agents of human concerns, fantastic monsters or poetic metaphors, are we collectively missing an opportunity for radical new fiction?
Novelists ignore the latest scientific findings on non-human consciousness at their peril. Where is the novel that incorporates Peter Godfrey-Smith’s findings on the animal spirit into his bestseller Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, exploring an octopus consciousness “strangely customizable without being human “? Or the revelation about how trees communicate by Peter Wohlleben in The Hidden Life of Trees, or the mind-blowing mushroom powers discovered in Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life? There are signs of hope – Elif Shafak recently gifted the world with a novel with a fig tree narrator (Island of Missing Trees), and Richard Powers made great strides towards shifting human perspective in The Overstory. .
There are millions of books on human beings, containing a multitude of anthropocentric perspectives. But none of us have a sustainable future on this planet unless we take action to protect the millions of other species we live with. Scientists are making sweeping discoveries about how these organisms interact and behave. Maybe it’s time for fiction writers to educate themselves and learn how to dramatically and authentically portray the non-human voice on the page.