by Mary E. Lowd
“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” — Groucho Marx
“I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.” — Groucho Marx
There’s a question that floats around the furry writing community occasionally: how do you define furry fiction? At first glance, this question seems similar to the age-old, what’s the difference between sci-fi and fantasy? A nit-picky question about the borders of a genre that can be endlessly debated. Hours can be lost to arguing over whether Star Wars is sci-fi because of spaceships, or fantasy because of the Force. I would expect arguments about furry fiction to fall along similar lines. For instance, does Robert T. Bakker’s Raptor Red anthropomorphize the raptors enough to count as furry? Or is it simply a piece of speculative naturalism?
This kind of nit-picking about the borders of a genre assumes that people basically agree on what the genre is — when people see spaceships, they think sci-fi; when they see magic swords, they think fantasy. Sure, we can argue about whether light sabers are really sci-fi weapons, or if they’re actually magic swords in disguise. We can argue about whether sci-fi needs spaceships at all. (Obviously, it doesn’t, but I sure do like them.) But these arguments stem from a basic agreement about what sci-fi and fantasy are. They’re genres that people recognize.
Furry fiction isn’t hard to recognize either. Tell someone who’s never heard the word “furry” before that it’s fiction involving talking animals like Redwall or Warriors, Wind in the Willows or Animal Farm, and they can take it from there.
But there’s another definition of furry fiction that comes up from time to time — a wildly different and dangerous definition: Furry fiction is fiction written by furry authors. I hate that sentence. I hate it with a passion. At best, it’s a useless tautology. At worst, it takes one of the things I love most — furry fiction — and redefines it as something useless to me, while also making me question whether I’m even a part of the furry fandom.
There are obvious problems with defining furry fiction by whether the people who write it identify as part of the fandom. What if someone rage-quits the fandom? Does their fiction stop being furry? What if it was written before the fandom existed? What if there are absolutely no animals in the story whatsoever — no werewolves, unicorns, or even a perfectly normal pet cat — but it was written by a fursuiter? Maybe that doesn’t present a definitional problem, but it certainly presents a problem in terms of how useful the definition is. When I read furry fiction, I expect animals, and I won’t be pleased if the only animal present is a fursuit hanging in the closet of the author. That doesn’t mean anything to me as a reader.
However, I think there’s a more insidious problem. When you ask people to prove their credentials as a part of a group, you make them question who they are and whether they really belong. Especially with a band of misfits like furries, that’s an unnecessary cruelty.
I’ve seen a lot of analyses of the furry fandom. There are entire web-zines and books (this was originally published in one of them!) devoted to analyzing “furry” as a culture. When I read those analyses, I feel like an outsider looking in. Am I a furry? I ask myself. Would I call myself a furry? And the question feels ridiculous.
Let me break it down. I have at least four furry websites open on my computer at all times. I daily hang out in a chat channel for furry writers. I spent eight years running an award for furry fiction. I spent five years editing ROAR, an annual collection of furry short fiction published by FurPlanet, and I founded the furry fiction web-zine Zooscape. I’ve written countless furry short stories and bunches of furry novels, published by multiple different furry publishers. Almost all I talk about is furry fiction. How could I not be a furry?
I don’t get that warm fuzzy feeling of belonging that I read about in the previous volume of Furries Among Us. (This essay was originally published in Furries Among Us 2.) I mean sure, the line “I heard people say things like they did not speak to anyone, ever, outside of the fandom” from Dr. Shazzy’s essay struck home. It reminded me of the first furry convention I went to — I’d been going to sci-fi conventions for years, but I was never brave enough to talk to anyone. Then I went to RainFurrest and heard Phil Geusz read a story that reminded me of Watership Down, my favorite book. After years of silence, I went up and spoke to someone at a convention. And yes, he was a gentle and warm soul. Yes, I’ve enjoyed speaking to him several times since then. But mostly, I read his fiction — and other furry fiction — alone in my house, surrounded by cats and dogs.
I’ve never been good at making friends or getting along with people. I don’t like large — or even small — groups. Hell, I basically just don’t like people. That’s the default position I start from. Sure, as I get used to someone, I’ll grow fond of that person. But I’ve generally found that eventually most people decide that they don’t like me. So, I don’t work too hard at getting to know people any more. At first I won’t like them, and then when I come around, they won’t like me.
It’s easier to buy a dog. In fact, it’s even easier to win over a cat — that notoriously cranky species.
I’ve always had a way with cats. I can be still and patient, wait until a cat feels safe enough to approach me, and then scritch its ears and the base of its tail in just the right way. I do okay with dogs too. Though, they generally prefer my husband. He has a vibe that makes dogs fall at his feet, roll on their backs, and beg him to pay attention to them. The only dogs who do that for me are the dogs who love everybody, but there are plenty of dogs who love everybody.
So, I surround myself with dogs and cats. The room I’m in right now has five four-legged friends sleeping on various couches or the floor. But more than that, when I make up stories, those stories are about cats and dogs. Sometimes otters, turtles, lizards, squirrels, foxes, sheep, chickens… I prefer stories about animals. That’s what I like to write, and that’s what I like to read.
To me, “furry” is a genre of fiction, and I love it. I’d rather read about a bat raised by otters (Koa of the Drowned Kingdom by Ryan Campbell) or elephants in space (Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard by Lawrence Schoen) than just about any story about humans. Because of this, I share an interest with other furry writers, and that’s more than I share with most people. So, I’m more a furry than not, but I’m not a furry because of the community.
I’m a furry because I love animals and stories about animals. My life is devoted to telling and reading those stories, finding those stories and bringing them to other people. That means I go to furry conventions, and I hang out with furries online. Most of the people that I think of as my closest friends are furries, whether they realize their importance to me or not, but interacting with them still feels like work. Interacting with other humans always feels like work to me, but it’s work that I believe in.
There’s a magical quality to furry fiction, and the best of it can stand up to any literature out there — except better, because it’s about animals. Could Maus by Art Spiegelman afford to be so unflinching, so hard-hitting if the characters weren’t portrayed as mice, pigs, dogs, and cats? I don’t think so. Would Watership Down by Richard Adams be so charming, so spell-binding if it were simply about a band of human boys running away from their village? No, it would be a pedestrian work of fantasy or dystopian sci-fi. Animals add color and brightness to a story; they soften edges, making it go down easier and making it possible to dive into the darkest depths of humanity without getting lost in the dark.
When I was thirteen, all I wanted in the world was for Brian Jacques’ Redwall books to come out faster. I’d already read all six of them several times through, and I wanted more stories like them. The closest thing I could find was C.J. Cherryh’s The Pride of Chanur and David Brin’s The Uplift War. So, I devoured shelves-full of science-fiction, hoping to find more books about animal-like aliens or genetically uplifted animals. It was slim pickings.
At my first furry convention, I couldn’t believe my eyes — I was in heaven. But it wasn’t because of the people. It was the books. Until that moment, there wasn’t even a word for what I wanted. Suddenly, there were tables full of it — books with anthropomorphic foxes, tigers, and otters on their covers. I went home with a book that featured an anthropomorphic cheetah playing baseball on the cover — it was ROAR Volume 2, and the cover illustrates a wonderful novella by Phil Geusz, “Cheetah’s Win.” Now I have all of the volumes of ROAR on my mantle, and I keep adding new ones when they’re released. Of the ten volumes so far, two feature stories that I wrote, and I edited five of them. I told you, this has become my life.
If furry isn’t my tribe, then I don’t have a tribe. That’s a painful truth, and it’s one I shouldn’t be asked to face merely to prove that my novel about talking otters on spaceships is furry. Of course, it’s furry — all the characters are talking cats, dogs, and otters. So, whether or not I’m a furry is irrelevant. You shouldn’t need a membership card to write or enjoy furry fiction. All you need is a story about anthropomorphic animals, and there are more of those coming out all the time.
Furry fiction is a rapidly growing genre. More and better furry fiction comes out every year. When I edited ROAR Volume 6, I had to track down furry stories, reaching out to mainstream sci-fi/fantasy writers for submissions. Only a year later, the submissions for ROAR Volume 7 rolled in with little extra leg-work from me. The Furry Writers’ Guild has grown from fifty members when I joined to nearly 150 members when I first wrote this essay, and even more now. New writers show up regularly, bringing their talent, energy, and their stories to the genre. Honestly, I get really tired meeting them, keeping track of their screen names, and figuring out how to interact with them. But I get really excited reading their stories.
Furry fiction is a genre with broad appeal, and it’s gaining in recognition and momentum. From inside the fandom, it’s easy to see furry as a small, quirky, niche genre. But it’s not. It’s the start of an entire field of fiction. A lot of people like animal stories, and when they discover that there’s a word for that, they’ll come looking. Other people may take longer to win over, but as the furry aesthetic becomes more commonly recognized, most people will be able to find a work of furry fiction that speaks to them.
That’s one of the great things about furry fiction — it can be sci-fi, fantasy, noir, mystery, slice of life, humor, romance, horror, surreal, steampunk, cyberpunk, any kind of punk. Really, it can be anything — as long as the characters are animals. If you want a decent primer, check out any of the volumes of ROAR that I edited (6-10) or Zooscape. They contain stories from many different authors, in a wide variety of styles. (I don’t receive royalties on ROAR 6-10 or get paid by Zooscape, and they don’t contain any of my own fiction. So this isn’t quite a shameless plug. If you’re looking for a shameless plug, check out my novel Otters In Space — if you like goofy sci-fi, you might like it.) There’s a story out there in furry fiction for everyone, it’s just a matter of finding it.
In the immortal words of Levar Burton, “But you don’t have to take my word for it.” Go find some furry fiction and read it. There’s a lot of good stuff out there.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some more stories to write and some dogs who might like a scritch behind the ear.
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[This essay was originally published in Furries Among Us 2: More Essays on Furries by Furries, August 2017]