An Affection Altogether Ignorant of Our Faults: The Canine Romance

Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Waikiki, HI

Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend.
Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read.
(Groucho Marx)

Often I find myself buying romances on the strength of a recommendation from someone I really trust.  As with all other genres and art forms, my taste doesn't run so much towards particular sub-genres, tropes, and tones as it does towards innovation, quality, and complexity within a particular form. (This is how I got looped into romance reading as a literary scholar at all, not to mention comics, horror films, anime, reality dance competitions, curling, etc.) So from time to time I just take the risk and buy while thinking that the less I know about what I am about to read the better.

And then I open up the ebook, and it has an adorable puppy on the cover, and I think, "Oh Jesus.  What have I done." (I can't even make this last a question, so heavy is the weight of dread upon my soul at the sight of that cheerful furball.)

Jean-Honore Fragonard "Girl with a Dog" (c. 1770)
Dogs and erotics
Seriously: what's this about?
I don't know why I have such an entrenched bias against dog-themed romances, but I encountered it again when I cracked (clicked?) the e-spine of Nikki and the Lone Wolf*.  I think it is the feeling that the text I'm reading has been so heavily engineered to fit within a marketable trope.  ("Banksia Bay," goes the tag-line for this series, "where lost dogs heal lonely hearts.")  I feel the burden of the commodification of literature particularly heavily when I see that I'm being manipulated by an adorable mammal.  But also, as an inveterate cat-person, I feel alienated by this creaky, ubiquitous association between dog ownership and romantic healing:  why dogs, I find myself asking?  Why associate dogs, of all creatures, with romantic (or, more unsettlingly, erotic) triumph?  Why not cats? Too on the nose?  I suppose the same must be true of snakes.  When are we going to see a rash of romances (a phrase that I should really put on my "never use again" list) about people brought together by their mutual love of ferrets?  Judith Ivory's already laid out the seminal text for that movement in The Proposition, a Pygmalion tale about a rat catcher and his linguist love. [And see Laura Vivanco's excellent note below on the continuing role ferrets have had to play in the scandals of romancelandia.]

I'm troubled by the idea that dogs have an entrenched role to play in a certain genre of romance because they set out a silent, adorable and adoring model for love as faith.  What the routinely skittish protagonists of a dog romance see in their canine companions is love that is patient and kind, love that does not envy, does not boast, and is not proud, love that does not dishonor others, is not self-seeking or easily angered, and that keep no record of wrongs.  Love that always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Beautiful, Biblical stuff - the love of dog as a model for romantic love, which itself becomes a model for love of god.

But, curb the canine and call me Darcy, I myself prefer romantic love with a touch of pride about it. Not love as self-abnegating devotion.

There's a certain irony here: despite my initial stomach-churning sense of dread, I often quite enjoy a good dog-themed romance.  One of my favorite authors, Jennifer Crusie, frequently features dogs in her  books, and they are fully-fledged characters, with as much personality and autonomy as any of the human players in the drama. And certainly I am a sucker for the sentimentalization of animal-owner relationships, and perhaps this is why I so resent being manipulated by them when they are in less skillful hands (or more blatantly mobilized by publishers) - I will snuffle into my drink about an ill-treated animal, but I'll also resent you for exploiting this empathy cheaply.

In Nikki and the Lone Wolf, Marion Lennox draws a vivid portrait of Horse, a massive and mistreated wolfhound who draws the hero and heroine from their homes one gothic night by howling inconsolably at the ocean.  His owner threw him overboard to drown, but still he's faithfully waiting for this abusive scoundrel, and will be until the hero can persuade the heroine to take a dominant tone with the poor misguided soul (and thereby provide a new home, a new bond of love).  Horse is a great character, as are his owners, but the resolution [SPOILER], which comes by way of a massive community-wide oceanic search for the beast, after he goes swimming off into the ocean like he's Edna Pontellier, desperate to find his mistress (who has herself, with irksome parallelism, stormed off in a fit of romantic pique), seems not just implausible but also exasperating.  Is this the model of love we're looking at, I found myself asking, suicidal, irrational devotion that takes a village to soothe?  If so, the hero and heroine are right to resist it.

*Is it piling on to talk about these silly titles?  Admittedly this one is less egregious than the previous two in the series, Misty and the Single Dad and Abby and the Bachelor Cop, but it's the formula that gets me.  Heroines get a name - a diminutive, early 90s identity - while heroes get a social role.