Throughout the history of western literature, and now more than ever, vegetarians, vegetarianism, and their correlates – animal rights, human health, the meat industry, and climate change – have informed the gamut of literary genres. Philosophers explore the ethics of eating meat; muck-raking journalists expose slaughterhouse hell; satirists amuse us with leaf-eating kooks; forward-thinking writers of utopian, dystopian and apocalyptic fiction remind us that we are what we eat; and in literary fiction, the diet can complicate characterisation – adding heartbreaking arrogance, say, or misanthropic compassion.
In Genesis, the Judeo-Christian God declares: “I have given you every seed-bearing plant and every tree that has fruit bearing seed. Yours they will be for food.” Plums, berries, almonds – but not giraffes! – is the way the protagonist/antagonist of my novel Rabbits for Food might have put it, except she’s a rationalist. Evolution, she would say, gave us the same flat-edged teeth as the great apes and our two dinky fangs are designed for cracking walnuts.
But Bunny’s being a vegetarian is unrelated to a healthy lifestyle. She smokes cigarettes, she’s never been to a gym, and she has no tolerance for people such as her sister, who wears what Bunny refers to as shoes made from tree bark. Bunny doesn’t eat meat because she cares deeply about cows, pigs, chickens, octopuses and the environment. Acerbic, caustic, judgmental, and funny; her honesty is the sort that makes people uncomfortable. But there’s no basking in moral superiority; rather, she is deep in clinical depression. Bunny is not an easy person to like. The second part of the story takes place in the psych ward where a slab of meat is the centrepiece of every meal and Bunny subsists on peanut butter sandwiches and tinned fruit.
Below is a list of 10 great books about vegetarians. I could, by the way, have included Han Kang’s stellar novel The Vegetarian, but it’s so prominently esteemed that it seemed unnecessary.
1. Elizabeth Costello by JM Coetzee
Coetzee’s eponymous character is a brilliant writer, a highly opinionated literary celebrity, a complicated woman and an avowed vegetarian. The novel is structured around a series of formal lectures, some of which are on animal rights. A person of focused concerns, she doesn’t always have room for sensitivities beyond that sphere. At one lecture, Elizabeth compares the treatment of cattle to Nazi atrocities. Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t go over well with the audience, or with her son – who implores her to quit making a spectacle of herself.
2. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
The classic film version featuring Boris Karloff as the murderous monster all too often eclipses Mary Shelley’s Creature. Despite evil Dr Frankenstein’s corruption of the natural order, the Creature was “born” innocent. He was gentle. He was a vegetarian. (“My food is not that of man; I do not destroy the lamb and the kid to glut my appetite.”) All he wanted was love and companionship. His inherent sweetness, destroyed by human cruelty and rejection, turned him into the monster. After his killing spree, his diet is no longer mentioned. Can we assume his menu has changed?
3. Ethical Vegetarianism edited by Kerry S Walters and Lisa Portmess
The subtitle – From Pythagoras to Peter Singer – speaks for itself, but even for avowed carnivores, the huge spectrum of analytical, scientific, and theological arguments make this collection an absorbing read. It’s also great fodder for student debates.
4. Collected Stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer
After living very briefly too near to an abattoir, Singer swore off meat. In these stories, set in both old-world Poland and mid-century New York, there’s always at least one character who unassumingly follows suit. That the restaurants they frequent are vegetarian is mentioned only in passing, and it’s without comment that at the markets they buy only mushrooms, beets and potatoes. But Singer doesn’t always let us off so easily. The Slaughterer, for instance, chronicles the abject inhumanity of routine butchery. Neither details nor entrails are spared. This is no job for a sensitive man, and drives him to the brink.
5. Charlotte’s Web by EB White
As a rule spiders weave webs to catch flies for food, but Charlotte is not like other spiders. She uses her web to weave the words: “Some Pig.” Charlotte’s humanitarian mission to rescue Wilbur the pig from slaughter surely implies that pigs not lucky enough to be saved by literate spiders are doomed to become pork chops and bacon.
6. Animals: a Novel by Don LePan
In this satirical landscape set in a not too distant future, we humans have eaten all the animals, but have not lost our taste for meat. Cannibalism is the reasonable solution. If we ate animals because we were superior to them, their logic goes, then why not eat the physically and mentally challenged? And why not keep a deaf boy as a pet?
7. A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor
Life trumps love is the harsh truth behind Taylor’s novel, but that comes later. Harriet and Vesey first meet as teenagers. Vesey is staying with his aunt, who is Harriet’s mother’s dear friend. Both families are devout vegetarians. In a hilarious and revealing scene, Harriet and Vesey take his young cousins to lunch, where he seduces them into eating a chop. Doubling down on the corruption, he attempts to convince them to lie to their mother about it, but they’re unwilling to prevaricate. However, they grasp his distinction between lying, omission and evasion. All they need to say is there was macaroni cheese on the menu.
8. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
This novel of immigrants working in a Chicago slaughterhouse exposes the hideous exploitation of the desperate employees and the revulsion of the meat processing industry, which resulted in the American Clean Food and Drug Act. No longer, supposedly, would human fingers wind up in the sausages. The novel also brought about a rise in vegetarianism.
9. We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast by Jonathan Safran Foer
To those of us who don’t believe that climate change is a natural event as inexorable as dinosaur extinction, Foer asks how can we profess concern for the environment but refuse to give up our meat. Industrial farming not only inflicts sadistic horrors on the animals, but i it’s responsible for a significant percentage of deforestation and greenhouse gas emission. The answer is not easy.
10. The Time Machine by HG Wells
When the Time Traveller lands hundreds of thousands of years into the future, he finds the Eloi, a gentle, fun-loving group, who seem to be the only humans left on a utopian Earth. Their diet consists of scrumptious fruit, which they happily share. But underground dwells another tribe. The Morlocks kill animals for sport; for food they consume the Eloi fattened up on all that juicy fruit.
• Rabbits for Food by Binnie Kirshenbaum is published by Serpent’s Tail. To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on orders over £15.
Source: The Guardian