Over the weekend, the New Yorker ran a 1,000-word paragraph, penned by autobiographer Karl Ove Knausgaard, impugning the honor of dogs. The magazine promoted the piece with the incendiary tweet, “Has a single good author ever owned a dog?” Yes, the good people of Twitter answered in anguished chorus; Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Zadie Smith, and dozens of other good authors have been dog people. Despite the tweet, Knausgaard’s point, as is often the case with his work, was not truly about others, but about himself. He argues that dogs and authorship are incompatible because he did not write any literary prose during the two years he had a dog, before he gave it away. The piece pivots on an implied contrast between the dog’s bark—loud, overpowering, meaningless—and the writer’s output—nuanced, articulate, meaningful.
It’s easy to point out, as so many already have, the writers who, unburdened by Knausgaard’s contempt for animals, not only owned dogs but wrote about them. It’s unsurprising that an author like Knausgaard, known for self-reflective writing, would take little interest in animals beyond their impact on him personally. But for many other writers, as I found while researching my book Animal Subjects, writing about an animal shows an authorial desire to get outside of the self and imagine otherness—in some ways the opposite of Knausgaard’s introspective style. Those authors, often women and queer people, express empathy with animals that have also been the object of men’s contempt. It’s not just that these writers had dogs. It’s also that having dogs made them more ethical thinkers and more creative writers.
Take the case of Virginia Woolf. Woolf not only had her own dog, the cocker spaniel Pinka. She also wrote a biography of a dog—Flush, the 19th-century poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel. Woolf took a literary interest in the sensory worlds of dogs, which are so different from humans’. Here’s a passage describing Flush’s touch- and smell-based world:
The cool globes of dew or rain broke in showers of iridescent spray about his nose; the earth, here hard, here soft, here hot, here cold, stung, teased and tickled the soft pads of his feet. Then what a variety of smells interwoven in subtlest combination thrilled his nostrils; strong smells of earth, sweet smells of flower; nameless smells of leaf and bramble …
Woolf also imagined how Flush would have experienced the different social worlds of England, where he first lived with Elizabeth Barrett, and Italy, where they moved after her marriage to Robert Browning. While Victorian London kept dogs on leashes and segregated them according to the rules of good breeding (Flush, as a purebred spaniel, was an “aristocrat”), in the more democratic Pisa, Flush was free to roam and cavort with other dogs of all sorts.
Or take J.R. Ackerley, a gay British writer and editor who wrote My Dog Tulip, the best dog memoir ever printed. Ackerley and his dog Tulip (her real name was Queenie) lived together in London in the 1940s and ’50s. They went nearly everywhere together, and though Tulip was not exactly what one might call well-behaved, Ackerley could not help admiring her contrariness: “I could do with her whatever I wished—except stop her barking at other people. In this matter, she seemed to say, she knew better than I.”
Ackerley’s account of his life with Tulip is by turns funny and moving. It devotes a whole chapter to the dog’s “liquids and solids”—euphemisms for piss and shit—not because Ackerley has any affinity for gross-out humor, but because he was deeply attentive to Tulip and recognized the importance of urination and defecation in a dog’s life. Observing and cataloguing Tulip’s types of urination as “Necessity” or “Social,” Ackerley makes the unpleasant business seem both ordinary and, paradoxically, full of interest. Urine, he comes to realize, is one of the key ways dogs make sense of the world.
I thought of My Dog Tulip when I read Brandy Jensen’s tweet on the Knausgaard affair: “my take on authors with dogs is that regularly carrying a bag full of shit is a humbling experience lots of male writers could benefit from.” I think Ackerley would agree. It’s hard to maintain a sense of human exceptionalism when you are so intimately, mundanely connected to another animal’s bodily functions. It is not humiliating, but it is humbling, to do this kind of care work.
W.H. Auden’s late poem “Talking to Dogs,” like Flush and My Dog Tulip, focuses on dogs’ sensory experiences—the “odorscapes” they love, their lack of color vision, their delight at “meeting/ a fellow arse-hole to snuzzle at.” Auden’s poem attempts the kind of empathy and interspecies communication that Knausgaard seems uninterested in. It’s not “Ode to Dogs” but the more mundane “Talking to Dogs”—the poem is not a flight of poetic brilliance but a chat with a friend.
Auden has none of the scorn for canine virtues that Knausgaard does. In his New Yorker piece, Knausgaard describes his former dog as “infinitely kind but infinitely stupid … so submissive and humble that I could hardly look at it without a feeling of irritation or even rage rising in me.” Auden, on the other hand, muses in his poem that while obedience may be undesirable in people, in dogs it is acceptable because they are not children, but are “complete” in themselves. Auden respects kindness and humility as dog-ly virtues that writers should emulate.
What Auden, Ackerley, and Woolf have in common is an empathetic, humane, and curious outlook on the world, including other creatures. This outlook leads them toward a more humble, good-humored view of their own place in the world. Auden’s good-natured tolerance, in “Talking to Dogs,” even extends to people like Knausgaard himself:
Some great men,
Goethe and Lear, for instance, have disliked you,
which seems eccentric, but good people,
if they keep one, have good dogs