The book trade is hearing dog whistles

The Baltimore Sun

Call him writer's best friend.

Since Homer's time (and we don't mean Simpson), dogs have served, quietly and dependably, as literary kibble.

There were dogs (with fairly meaty roles) in both The Iliad and The Odyssey. Dogs were mentioned 32 times (mostly negatively) in The Bible. There were dogs in the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare, Dickens and Dostoevsky.

And for the past 100 years or so - whether we were getting wild with Jack London's Buck, traveling with John Steinbeck's Charley, making house calls with James Herriot to creatures great and small or coming home with Eric Knight's Lassie - dog-themed books have stayed loyally at the reader's side.

But rarely if ever in literary history have publishers unleashed such a big, slobbery onslaught of dog books as in the past two years.

Among the glut, or bounty (depending on your point of view), of dog-centered offerings that have, or soon will, hit bookstores:

Merle's Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog, an outdoor writer's research-laden but often lively account of how he met, bonded with and learned from a Navajo mutt he found in the desert.

Marley: A Dog Like No Other and Bad Dog, Marley!, kid-friendly versions of the best-seller Marley and Me.

The New Yorkers, a novel by Cathleen Schine about residents on an Upper West Side block and the important role their dogs play in their lives.

Dog Days: Dispatches from Bedlam Farm, the sixth and latest book from prolific (and ironically named) dog writer Jon Katz.

Good Dog. Stay, Anna Quindlen's upcoming memoir of her Labrador retriever, Beau, whose impending demise was the topic of a Newsweek column she wrote in April.

Lost & Found, a novel by Jacqueline Sheehan about a widowed psychologist who becomes an animal control officer in Maine and meets a Labrador retriever that has been shot with a bow and arrow. Together, they heal.

Healing. Comfort. Loss. Bonding. Spirituality. And, of course, loyalty. Those are the most often-sounded themes in the latest additions to America's heaping and ever-growing pile of dog lit.

Dog memoirs are huge. The number of nonfiction releases - from advice on dog behavior to histories of the domestic dog - is growing. And dogs are jumping up more often and looming larger in fiction, as well - with plot lines revolving around them, sometimes as narrators, and often as central characters, almost always protagonists.

With the exception of Stephen King, evil dog books are few and far between - but then evil dogs, like the hound that haunted the Baskervilles in the classic Sherlock Holmes tale, don't usually make best-sellers.

Just about every other kind of dog, however, might - be it big or little, black or yellow, mutt or purebred, mannerly or ill-behaved, handicapped, homely or prone to passing gas (see Walter the Farting Dog, or any of that children's book's many flatulent sequels.)

Why the explosion in dog books?

Elementary, my dear Marley.

In large part, it's because of a first-time author's 2005 memoir of family life with his clumsy and troublesome Labrador retriever. Marley and Me has sold 3.2 million copies and spent 76 weeks on the best-seller list, 23 of those at the top.

And, as with Pavlov's dog, the very thought of repeating that success makes publishers drool.

In what may be even a larger part, though, the popularity of dogs and dog books is a reflection of the continuing transition in the dog-human relationship - one that started 15,000-plus years ago with the domestication of wolves but that only in the last decade has seen most dogs move inside the house. In the 21st century, the family dog has become a lot more family, and, some might argue, a little less dog.

More people own pets than ever, and they are bonding with them - physically, mentally and spiritually - more tightly than ever before. The result is an increased awareness, and a heightened curiosity.

Marley caught that wave and - since becoming the top-selling dog book of all time - has fed it as well.

It was in January 2004 that John Grogan, a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer who wrote about life in the suburbs, paid tribute to his deceased dog in print - a column that drew 800 responses from readers.

That encouraged him to proceed with an idea he'd been pondering a few years: a book about his family and the role Marley played in it.

"I had always figured a guy who has never written a book before and wanted to write a story about his dog would get laughed out of the office," Grogan said.

He was close to right. But one of the 12 agents to whom he sent queries took him on.

"When Marley hit as big as it did, it surprised the entire publishing world, including my own publisher," Grogan said. "Since then, there seems to be a steady stream of pet-themed memoirs and novels coming out - a lot of attempts now to find that same ... I don't know if 'magic' is the right word.

"The irony is that I didn't write Marley and Me to be a dog book," he added. "I just had this story bouncing around in my head that I wanted to tell. It was really, in my view, the story of a young couple starting out in life."

Grogan says he was never a big fan of dog books himself, and admits he doesn't fully comprehend the reasons dogs have such a powerful hold on some humans.

"For some reason, dogs touch our hearts, and when people write about dogs - if they do it in a way that is honest and sincere and not overly manipulative or saccharine - people relate to it. Why? I don't know, other than dogs are so loyal and devoted that it's hard not to return that loyalty and feel a deep bond."

Grogan, 50, who left his newspaper job this year to focus exclusively on book-writing, is now working on a memoir about his mother and says he doesn't want to be typecast as a "dog writer."

Plenty of other writers would love to replicate his success, and are doggedly trying to produce the "the next Marley."

More than a few of them have been in touch with Grogan's literary agent, Laurie Abkemeier, of DeFiore and Company.

"I wished I had kept track of all the queries - 'I have 23 dogs' ... 'told in the point of view of my dog' ... 'my guinea pig' ... 'my parrot.' A lot of people think they can take wacky stories of their cockapoo and put them on the page and have the same kind of success. But I don't think you're going to see that kind of reaction to a book for a long time."

While successful dog books and cat books are nothing new, she said, the sales Marley enjoyed were unprecedented.

"It brought a lot of attention to a category that was already very successful. But naturally, when you have a huge success -- A DaVinci Code or Bridges of Madison County - it's going to lead to more interest."

In that way, the publishing industry is not too different than those that make television shows, movies, or breakfast cereal.

"If something works, we overdo it," said Amy Gash, an editor for Algonquin Books. Some publishers may be rushing to sign up another dog book, and plenty are hitting the market.

"But," she added, "even if there does become a 'glut' of dog books, if another book about a dog comes along, and it's wonderful, I believe there's always room for a really good book to find an audience."

There was room this summer, for instance, for Harcourt to publish Merle's Door by Ted Kerasote - and room at the top of a full-page ad in The New York Times last month to quote from a People magazine review calling it "this summer's Marley."

"USA Today has categorized Merle's Door as within the 'Marley mold,' a Harcourt news release trumpets.

Actually, Merle - despite the similarity in name - seems of another mold entirely. Part memoir, part treatise, it flies in the face of much traditional dog-training wisdom to argue that humans should share leadership with their dogs, not dominate them, and that failing to do so can stunt the animal's development.

While the bond between man and his dog is a tried-and-true theme, that between woman and dog is a newer and faster-growing one.

The last two years saw the release of Emily Yoffe's What the Dog Did, about a cat-lover's venture into urban dog ownership; Just Gus, about a rescued dog and how he comforted a woman dying of breast cancer; Woman's Best Friend, an assortment of dog essays by women; and Dreaming in Libro, Louise Bernikow's sequel to Bark If You Love Me, about how her boxer helped her cope with cancer.

A woman, too, is behind a cat book that is being spoken of as having Marley-esque potential.

It's the story of a cat named Dewey, who was adopted by a small-town Iowa library after he was dropped into the book return slot.

Dewey - whose full name is Dewey Readmore Books - was cared for by the Spencer Public Library (with the city council's approval) from 1988 until his death in 2006.

Grand Central Publishing paid about $1.25 million for the yet-to-be-written book, currently titled Dewey: A Small Town, a Library and the World's Most Beloved Cat.

Said Karen Kosztolnyik, senior editor at Grand Central, "You can't underestimate the market out there for people who love animals."

john.woestendiek@baltsun.com

SOME HOT DOHG STORIES

Here is a sampling ofrom the recent avalanche of dog literature

Merle's Door: Lessons from a Freethinking dog, by Ted Kerasote. This story of the relationship between man and dog is informed by the author's grasp of animal resarch and his attachment to Merle, a stray is adopted.

The New Yorkers, by Cathleen Schine. This book captures humans joys and sorrows. comedy and drama. beginnings and endings, as the dogs on an Upper West Side street compel their owners to live outside themselves

Dog Years, by Mark Doty. The author recounts how the love of two dogs, Arlean and Beau, sustained him during times of his most grievous losses, and how he, in turn, acame to nurse them through their inevitable years of failing health.

Marley: A Dog Like No Other, by John Grogan. A kids version of Grogan's best seller, Marley and Me. Marley, a lovable Labrador retriever, is always getting himself into trouble. Some may say he is the world's worst dog.

Dog Days: Dispatches from Bedlam Farm, by Jon Katz. Life on an upstate New York farm featuring an array of dogs, including workaholic Rose, the border collie, who can be relied on in all instances for all kinds of work; the new border collie, Izzy, who comes from a troubled past; and the Labradors; Clem, who loves everyone but neewds one special person, and gentle Pearl, who knows instinctively what everyone needs

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