This particular rant got set off by my reading of Lord of Misrule, by Jaimy Gordon. It’s won some literary prizes, is highly acclaimed and…it pissed me off so much when I read it that I’ve spent some time this afternoon composing this particular little rant in my head.
The problem with Lord of Misrule for anyone who has grown up reading any standard juvenile and later on adult horse fiction is that it hits damn near every. single. solitary. cliche in the hardbitten adult horse novel subcategory. Broken-down racehorses at a bush league track, so of course you have corrupt trainers and grooms, fun and games with claiming races, doping, Magical Negro grooms, at least one gruesome horse death, a girl determined to save a broken-down horse, and, and….yeah. Except, of course, it’s all done in a particularly artsy literary style where there are no marks to delineate dialogue (no dashes, no colons, no quotation marks), no character whether human or horse is redeemable, and it attempts to replicate the writer’s perception of racetracker dialogue. And, dear God, the particularly gloomy portrayal it has of horses and humans involved with horses would send a sane person screaming away from any sort of involvement with the equestrian world. There’s damn little joy in the relationship between human and horse, much less love between human and horse or the ongoing nonverbal communication that exists in a good horse/human relationship.
Not that this book is a singular offender. With few exceptions, primarily in genre, when horses show up in adult novels, they’re either poorly written, part of a Spiritual Experience, are unrealistic adult versions of juvenile horse novels or are gritty hardbitten looks at the dark side of commercial equestrian industry. The horses don’t get to show up as horses, complete with equine humor and varying temperaments. Good grief, dogs and cats get better representation than horses in adult fiction. You’ve got to pick up Rita Mae Brown, Natalie Keller Reinert, or perhaps even Jane Smiley to get a more balanced look at the horse world in non-genre fiction, and Brown is more crime fiction, ergo, genre, than mainstream when it comes to her horse lit. And don’t get me started on The Horse Whisperer. That was another book I wanted to throw across the room (but was saved by it being a library book). Yes, you can find good horse fiction in genre–fantasy and romance in particular (though I’m not much of a romance reader).
So why aren’t there more good horse novels for adults? I’ve tried. I picked up one Western-themed romantic suspense novel that was part of a series and ended up wanting to chuck the book across the room because of the inaccuracies in it. Currently my top favorite adult horse book is actually two books, Rider at the Gate and Cloud’s Rider, a short science fiction series by C. J. Cherryh. The nighthorses in these books are carnivorous (and have a love for bacon that any horseperson who’s seen an equine reaction to peppermints will recognize). They’re a telepathic protection for humans in a world where telepathic wildlife would drive humans insane–and the nighthorses associated with humans due to their own curiosity about human minds. The nighthorses are fascinated by human minds–and Cherryh’s nighthorses are a heckva lot closer to horses I’ve known than many non-genre horses I’ve read. Judith Tarr also writes some dang good horses, especially in A Wind in Cairo.
Is it because there are only so many plots that can be told about horses and humans? Somehow, I don’t think so.
What I find myself missing are the stories where the horses are there as companions for their people. Not Companions as in supernatural beings in horse form, but horses as the opinionated, quirky, humorous beings they are. Horses that are well-treated, that have jobs they enjoy doing (yes, there are horses who like to work and be ridden), and empower their humans to succeed in everyday, regular ways. Stories that show the ordinary part of horse world where you spend more of your time mucking, grooming, and schooling than in cutthroat competition. Where the drama of human life that drives fiction is not dependent upon something awful happening to the horse.
I mean…today on Facebook I watched a video clip of a horse kicking butt on an alligator in Florida. Horse saw gator lurking near its herd in a park, and…aggressive horse stomping ensued, with gator slinking away. How likely are you to see this scene happen in a story about horses? Or a story with horses in it?
So, you may ask, why aren’t you writing these stories, Joyce?
Answer: I am, just mostly in genre. And I break my own rules because I’ve done horrible things to my horses in fiction–but the horses are performing heroically before the Awful Thing happens, rather than being forced to perform and getting hurt because of human frailties. They are in partnership with their humans. They’re joined with their humans in battle. Missy in Alien Savvy is not taking any guff off of those aliens, by golly, because she can herd them like she can cows. Mira in Pledges of Honor is fighting right alongside her bonded human Katerin. Narasin in Beyond Honor provides emotional and magical support for her human. Sox in my as yet unpublished ghost story “Lost Loves” confirms for Joni B that what she is seeing is real. Drinker of Wind and Sleipnir in “Tricksters, Horses, and Beer” have an agenda of their own, and who’s to say is manipulating whom…the horses or their Trickster owners?
I don’t know. What I do know is that I’m sick to death of depressing and poorly researched adult horse books, and there ain’t enough of the other stuff around unless I dip into my stash of horse juveniles. Or racing stories from the 1930s. Somehow along the way, the horse stopped becoming what it is–a quirky, opinionated being with an interesting sense of humor–and became an item to exploit in literature. Instead of being a generous companion, it became a shadowy icon representing the baser nature of humanity.
Somehow I think our literature is poorer for this lack.