King Crow, and Other Stories

06 Jan 2014 |

King Crow is a well-regarded novel, written by Michael Stewart and published in 2011. It's a tale of a young man who is exploring identity—his own and that of other people—as if everyone were anthropomorphic birds. The young man is introverted, hyper-focussed on specifics, and unable to grasp complex social dynamics.

It opens: When I look at people, I wonder what sort of birds they are.

There's a pretty good argument that King Crow, with its anthropomorphics and its exploration of the challenges of being an introverted young man, is the sort of thing that furries would be interested in.

And yet few furries will have heard of King Crow, and even fewer will have read it. It's very likely that you, reader, are hearing about it for the first time in this article, and that you'll never hear of it ever again. King Crow isn't on the furry radar.

But this article isn't really about King Crow. This is about what furries are choosing to read instead, and it's not found in the literary fiction section.

In Issue #1 of the relaunched Claw & Quill, Huskyteer writes: "If you happen to be under nine, you’re spoiled for choice in the anthropomorphic literature department".

She's right. It's always been that way. Over on LiveJournal, a fur named Perri hosts an informal Furry History Project: mostly a long, incomplete list of anthropomorphic media (TV shows, comics, movies, etc) over the years. There are hundreds and hundreds of examples, and a quick scan suggests that around 90% of them are media that were created for children.

Maybe Perri's lowbrow list reflects his preferences rather than the community at large? Well, the hifalutin Furry Writers' Guild lists nine 'Literary Classics'... and more than half are children's books.

It seems that we are, collectively, a group of adults that are choosing to pay attention to furry literature that's created for children. But that's a bit of an overstatement, and even then it's an observation, not a complaint.

We furries are more likely to discuss children's books (and TV, and movies, and comics, and other media) because it's the lowest common denominator. This doesn't mean that we're simpletons, it just means that (quality) furry children's books are something that many of us have in common. We are no longer children of course; we have all aged and become adults. As we have aged, our tastes have diverged from the relative simplicity of children's media. And so we are much less likely to find people who share our esoteric (adult) interests, and much more likely to find people who share our simpler (childish) interests.

Discussion of popular culture, by its nature, tends to overwhelm and drown out discussion of media that appeals only to a niche crowd. This creates a positive feedback loop, where popular culture receives more attention, and so it becomes more popular. You can see this clearly in meatspace retail, where store owners need to maximize sales—you're much more likely to find Harry Potter in a tiny airport bookstore than, say, Redwall.

It happens online as well. There are no physical spaces to fill, but popular items still attract the most attention, marginalizing non-mainstream items. There is plenty of non-mainstream stuff out there, but it's not always easy to find, and you're much less likely to find people with whom to share the experience.

By way of an example, consider this ludicrous article posted on Flayrah back in June. It's written by crossaffliction, and it's about the works of a sculptor who works with anthropomorphic animals. So far, so good.

(I wouldn't normally poke fun at Flayrah or anyone else, however I feel justified in this case because crossaffliction makes an aside referring to [adjective][species] as 'furries spouting pretentious nonsense'. You might consider this to be a mere equalizer.)

Crossaffliction, who cheerfully admits that he is a bad art reviewer, sees the sculptures as 'just like "feral" characters drawn by furries'. He thinks that the sculptures don't, or can't, have any merit beyond their facade; he is reducing them to their simplest component, how closely they reflects real life. Crossaffliction seems like someone who would rather look at a photograph of some irises than Irises.

Crossaffliction writes on A Rush Of Blood To The Head, a sculpture showing two goats with human erections, in an awkward but passionate kiss.

A Rush Of Blood To The Head by Beth Cavener Stichter

The sculpture is an exploration of taboo, challenging the viewer to react against an image which is clearly counter-natural. The goats' kiss is unnatural but it's the erections, almost fencing one another, that draw the attention. The sculpture draws a automatic reaction of disgust, in the way we all do when presented with some hitherto unexpected perversion of nature. We can't help but recoil, and at the same time we wander why we are being manipulated so.

So why does it seem so wrong? Surely it's homophobic to suggest that it's the penises, but it's clear that the two sets of genitals are not (naturally?) compatible. Or maybe it's the just the animals that are being sexualized in a human way. Or perhaps it's the juxtaposition between the tenderness of their embrace, and their taut, aggressive muscle and sinew.

A Rush Of Blood To The Head is, I think, an exploration of the pathology of homophobia. It's an image which is decidedly confronting, even among a society of the presumably liberal people that are drawn to sculpture exhibitions, and even among furries, who are used to seeing sexualized, anthropomorphic animals. It's a complex work of art, although perhaps will only make sense in today's world of changing attitudes towards homosexuality. I wonder if it might seem a bit twee or anachronistic in the future.

Crossaffliction's take? 'I find the main difference between Stichter’s art and the average furry "feral" artist is that Stichter has a degree, shows her art in real galleries as well as online, and can spout pretentious nonsense about two goats making out with raging hard-ons better.'

A subsequent search through crossaffliction's contributions to Flayrah reveal that, since this gem, he's submitted some 30 articles. More than half of those have been about My Little Pony.

Which brings me back to my point. This situation is no negative reflection on crossaffliction. He is no art critic, but he is a MLP fan. In this he stands alongside a hell of a lot of other intelligent, thoughtful, worthwhile furries. In fact, crossaffliction stands ahead of most because he is taking the time to contribute to Flayrah, giving back to the furry community that he clearly loves. I know I've spent a bit of time poking fun, but I genuinely respect and appreciate his time and effort. (Also, he started it.)

It's no shame that the likes of My Little Pony or The Lion King are important to furry. It's a natural outcome when something appeals to the largest group of people: the Lowest Common Denominator.

There is plenty of highbrow furry stuff out there, it's just low profile. For example, see The Hooded Utilitarian, a culture criticism blog that intelligently looks at furry from time to time, such as this excellent missive from Midwest Furfest 2013. Or RRUFFURR, a furry comic anthology that could stand equal and alongside any well-regarded indie equivalent.

We can see this here at [adjective][species], too. Those of us who have been writing here for a while know that, if we write about something outside of the furry mainstream, we will attract fewer readers. But that's okay, because we're not writing to attract eyeballs; we're writing to contribute to the furry community in a way that is meaningful to us, just like crossaffliction is doing when he writes about MLP over on Flayrah.

So I may not be able to strike up immediate conversation with a random furry about, say, Never Cry Wolf or Pom Poko, even though they are two films that deal pretty directly with furry spirituality, or whatever we're calling the Furry Condition. But I can still share these films with friends, or write about them here, or maybe choose to discuss my own appreciation for MLP instead.

Furry artists—those who are serving the furry community—are aware of this too. They will have more success if they are able to engage the furry mainstream. A visual artist has extra incentive to draw porn; an author may be inclined to work within a familiar genre, perhaps romance (like [a][s]'s Kyell Gold) or sci-fi (like [a][s]'s Phil Geusz).

This means that successful by-furry for-furry art tends to be middlebrow: popular enough to draw an audience, but no so low that the niche is already filled by the non-furry mainstream. Like the ubiquity of children's books, this is a necessary consequence of furry's place in the world.

Harlan Ellison, science fiction legend and professional grumpy old man, complains that sci-fi isn't taken seriously because people think of spaceships and aliens. He sees speculative fiction everywhere, where just a few outliers get arbitrarily tossed into the disrespected sci-fi bucket. He thinks it's time to stop using such reductive categories.

Ellison is tilting at windmills, as I guess grumpy old men are prone to do. Nobody is enforcing the sci-fi category: it's a reductive term, but also a useful one. To argue that all speculative fiction should be treated with equal respect is to argue that furry should be paying equal attention to My Little Pony and King Crow. It's not going to happen.