Archive | March, 2013

A Paradox of Cats

24 Mar

We all know that a male cat is called a ‘tom’. Traditionally a female cat was called a ‘molly’, but the term ‘queen’ seems to have been widely adopted these days. I think this is a shame because the term was originally used by breeders and I think cats need breeders the way a fish needs a bicycle. I’d like to see a revival in the use of the term ‘molly’. I think it’s a nicer word.

What’s less well-known is that the collective noun for cats is a “clowder”, or alternatively a “glaring”, but I think the term “paradox” might be more appropriate.

It’s generally accepted that the term ‘pus’ or ‘pussy’, when applied to cats, derives from the name Bastet or Pashti, the Egyptian cat goddess. Oddly enough this term also applies to hares, but, other than superfecundity (the ability for females to bear young sired by more than one male in a single litter), it’s hard to see what the two animals have in common.

Or at least it’s hard to see what they have in common in terms of natural history. In terms of their position in human folklore, cats and hares have quite a lot in common. Essentially they are both considered to be strange and unaccountable creatures. (It’s  matter of fact that wherever we now find a rabbit in modern, sanitized versions of folklore –  eg the Easter Bunny, we would once have found a hare, this is because rabbits look cute and they’re relatively well understood, while hares seem wayward and enigmatic creatures even now.)

I should point out that there is a degree of exaggeration about the position of cats  in both Ancient Egypt and in Medieval Europe. Cats were certainly revered in Ancient Egypt, but so were a number of other animals and arguably some, notably cows, were held in higher esteem.

It’s also true that cats were reviled in Medieval Europe as being the familiars of witches, but once again, a number of other animals, weasels for example, were also seen in a similar light.

On the other hand, there’s no denying that cats do occupy a curious position in many cultures and it’s not just a simple matter of cats being valued in some societies and disliked on others. Traditions within any one culture also vary as to whether or not cats are benign or malign. The only thing that seems to be constant is that cats are never entirely neutral.

An instructive comparison here would be with the position of dogs.

I would never underestimate the bond between dogs and their owners, and dogs have often been vital collaborators in all manner of human activities, but no one seems to feel that it is either good or bad luck to have a black dog cross their path.

Don’t think I’m ignoring mythical creatures like the gytrash, the legendary canine who will doubtless be familiar to readers of Jayne Eyre and the Harry Potter series, but the gytrash is a specifically supernatural creature – who can also appear as a horse or a mule according to the traditions of Northern England, he is not a normal, everyday kind of dog and my point is that in folklore its common for all cats to have a preternatural aspect attributed to them.)

I think part of the reason for this contrast is that dogs and humans understand each other very well, incredibly well considering that they are completely different kinds of species, but this level of communication does not generally exist between cats and humans.

For example, everyone knows that if a cat walks into a room full of people, and there is one person in the room who dislikes cats, the cat will invariably approach that person.

To some this may seem like the natural perversity of the feline, but in fact it’s due to the difference between feline and human body language.

When a human looks at you it is generally an invitation to approach, but part of feline greeting protocol is to look away. So when a human looks away from a cat because he doesn’t want anything to do with it, the cat takes this as an invitation. (Some humans can be stunningly obtuse when it comes to communicating with their dogs, but this kind of generalised misunderstanding simply doesn’t happen.)

So the behaviour of cats can seem unaccountable because we don’t understand then as easily as we can understand dogs.

But even aside from this, cats also have a variety of odd habits, notably that of staring into empty space. And it’s not as though they’re simply gazing absent-mindedly into the middle distance, it’s more like they’re intently watching something incredibly important and fascinating that we can’t see. It’s not surprising that some people think they’re in touch with some kind of spirit world.

So even when you strip away the folklore and superstition, cats are still puzzling creatures. Elegant and comical, intelligent and ridiculous, aloof and affectionate, playful and lethal. Even the lowliest of moggies is a dialectic clothed in fur and whiskers.

Perhaps the simplest way to illustrate this dialectic is to hold a cat’s paw in your hand. (If it will let you).You will find that paw is soft and warm and covered in silky smooth fur. But within that paw there are wicked sharp claws that can slice effortlessly through your skin and what you will also find, if the cat wants its paw back, is that cats are surprisingly strong. (Pound for pound cats are the most powerful of mammals).

Incidently this is the reason why I consider the practice of declawing cats to be tantamount to blasphemy. Aside from cruelty (no vet in the UK will perform the procedure) there is also the fact that cats are climbers and predators and that’s why they have claws. If you want to share your home with a cat, or perhaps more precisely if you want to share a cat’s home, you should accept them as they are, claws and all. If you can’t do that, then get yourself a soft toy and play with that.

So there you have it. Some people can’t understand why anyone would want a cat in their life, others can’t understand how anyone could live without them. No animal loves its creature comforts more, and yet they can tolerate extremes of discomfort. (I have known a cat with a back leg hanging loose and useless due to a compound fracture jump five feet in order to reach a favoured sleeping place, then curl up and purr. After some treatment, he later made a full recovery.)

In conclusion, I would suggest that whether their toms or mollies, mogs or felines, whatever else you might want to call cats, I think the term ‘paradox’ has to apply somewhere and it’s certainly as good a collective noun as any.


Whenever There’s a Doubt (There’s No Doubt).

16 Mar

Every now and then I write something that I think is pretty good.

Sometimes, when I come back to something I wrote some time ago, I still think it’s pretty good.

I also have an interesting and varied collection of rejection letters from a selection of agents, publishers and magazines.

Having become a little discouraged with publishers and agents I indulged in a spot of self publication on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing a while ago.

The advantage of this kind of self publishing is that it costs nothing and you don’t have to slip past someone else’s hang ups to do it.

The disadvantage is that there’s an enormous amount of material out there and it’s no easy thing to get your work noticed by the people who might actually want to read it.

So in spite of a couple of encouraging comments from various people, I would have to admit that so far my career as an author could be described as a bit of a damp squib.

This is largely my own fault. I dislike self promotion and I’m not very imaginative or persistent about it. I also have a bad habit of writing things that are too long, too short or otherwise just not very commercially attractive.

But here I go again.

I’ve written two novels out of a trilogy (the third installment is in draft form but still in need of extensive revision). Having reread (and further revised) the first two I still think they’re pretty good.

So having come to the conclusion that someone else might also think they’re pretty good, I’m going to have another shot at getting them published.

Where to begin?

Well, the traditional place to start is The Writers and Artist’s Yearbook, so that’s where I’ve started. (Call me a traditionalist if you like).

I went through the UK agents section with a highlighter and market out the likely prospects. This gave me a list of 56 possible agents based on what they had to say about what they wanted (or more precisely what they said they wouldn’t consider).

My policy on who to select for submissions is reasonably straightforward. If the agent provides me with sufficient information to be sure that they won’t be interested in my work then I won’t waste my time or theirs. If they provide sufficient information for me to think that they may well be interested in the kind of work I do, then obviously I’ll send them a submission.

If, on the other hand they make it difficult for me to find enough information to make a decision, or if the information they provide is too vague (There is one agent who claims he will consider ‘anything with wit and intelligence’ and as far as I’m concerned he deserves everything he gets – including a submission from me) then I take the view that ‘whenever there’s a doubt, there’s no doubt’ and send them a submission anyway. (See Robert De Niro in Ronin) The agent concerned may be annoyed about this, but in my opinion it’s their own fault for not being specific enough in their submission guidelines.

As an aside, I’d have to say I get a little irritated with some agents (and some publishers and even a few published authors) because of their attitude to unpublished authors.

Essentially I am a little tired of hearing, or more often reading,  complaints about schizophrenics with hypergraphia, hopeless boobs with delusions of talent, people who can’t spell, who don’t understand the basics of grammar and punctuation and won’t do anything about it, people who send submissions in exotic fonts and garish colours or who simply don’t bother to do basic research into who is likely to accept what.

Part of this irritation stems from the fact that I fall into none of these categories, but essentially I get tired of hearing the same gripes over and over again from people who are actually in pretty good jobs and don’t seem to properly appreciate their good fortune.

My suggestion to such people is to try an 8 hour shift in a call centre. I suspect that after this experience their slush piles, or whatever else they’re bitching about, would all of a sudden start to look quite attractive.

Incidently, can anyone tell me what, exactly ‘literary’ fiction is?

I can understand what other genres are because the names are fairly descriptive, so if you’re looking for a western or a detective story, or science fiction, you can be pretty sure of what you’re going to get. The term literary fiction, on the other hand, tells you nothing at all about what the book is about, or what kind of book it is, it simply makes a claim about the quality of the work.

Maybe it would be more honest to call it ‘non-genre’ fiction.

As a matter of fact the only thing I really understand by the term ‘literary’ is that it means that the people who claim to handle it are liable to take a very long time to reply and probably not be very courteous when (and if) they ever do.

So, having had my little rant, I then took a massive trawl through the internet looking for further information on submission guidelines, likes and dislikes etc and this gave me a shorter list of 26 possibilities. (Incidently this represents progress of a sort 2-3 years ago hardly any of the agents listed in the Writers and Artists had websites although most publishing houses did). 

17 of these candidates were willing to accept email submissions (Some actually insist on them, this is more progress, as until recently email submissions were obviously far too hi tech for most agents). While 9 still insisted on postal submissions.

So 17 email submissions later, I have had one rejection (it arrived 2 days after the submission) and 2 acknowledgements. (In previous years I have waited months, sometimes nearly a year to get any response at all from agents). The stated turnaround time  for most of these agents seems to be 6 – 8 weeks (more progress, it’s not so long ago that they were talking in terms of months, one agent even suggested that if no reply had been received within a year, it might be worth making a polite enquiry).

The next step in the project is to print off hard copies of the submissions to the 9 possible candidates who want postal submissions and send them off.

I’ve always tried to ensure that my submissions were of a reasonably professional standard and that any correspondence was courteous (at least on my side). Now I’m trying to be a lot more systematic and even to operate on an industrial (albeit a cottage industry) basis.

I’m hoping that if I do it right this time, maybe I won’t have to do it again.