If I write a blog about my cute dog, then I court The Dog Problem. I have been aware of The Dog Problem for some time (it is a relative of the Cat Video or an F bomb – not a lowbrow easy laugh, but a lazy emotional conveyance) but I had never heard that name put to it until a workshop last spring with Meg Wolitzer. A young man in the class had submitted a very powerful story about a bereft father who adopts a retired greyhound named Grace. The young man was a very good writer, and the story nearly made me cry – but as Meg kindly pointed out to him in her critique, “you have The Dog Problem”. And though she didn’t articulate it more than that, what I understood was this: An injured or dying dog packs an unassailable emotional punch that lets the writer off the hook for actually earning that punch.
It’s similar to a phenomenon I’ve noticed in TV screenplays – when a pop song starts playing instead of dialogue, you know that the writers are asking the pop song to convey a message that their dialogue and action have failed to do.
No I haven’t said that right, but I’ll keep coming at it.
It’s like I noted in the Pompeii blog, the way people respond to the suffering of the ancient Roman dog more readily that that of the humans.
Now, does the great JM Coetzee’s disgrace suffer from the dog problem? In that terrible scene at the end, the one that pulls tears from my eyes, does the author cheapen the human suffering depicted earlier in the novel? Is he manipulating me?
Why is it that the suffering of helpless animals moves us in a way that the suffering of our fellow humans does not?
In the discussion that ensued in Meg’s workshop, we talked about what this young writer was asking this retired greyhound to do, to stand for, to represent. And I thought about how, in my own The Vigo Reaction, I have created a cat named Mort, who stands in for terrible losses in the narrator’s life, who is asked to do way more than any ordinary tabby kitten should do. Does Mort give me, the reader, the characters some kind of safe distance, some remove, from their real pain? No that’s not right. Perhaps she’s a conduit, a way into that pain rather than away from it?
As you can see, I am still working this out, this Dog Problem……