The greening of literature: Perspectives of a vegan publisher

If you were to walk into a bookstore and ask for the “vegan literature” section, you would probably be met with a blank expression, or, after some degree of confusion, directed to the vegan cookbooks. That doesn’t mean that vegan literature doesn’t exist, just that it’s not easy to find. This is a challenge not only for those who write vegan literature but for the publishers who produce such books for bookstore sections that don’t yet exist. As co-founder of Ashland Creek Press, I’ve learned a lot over the past ten years about the emerging field of vegan literature, and what I’ve learned gives me a lot of hope for the greening of literature in the future.

Create what you want to see in the world

In 2008, I wrote a novel, The Tourist Trail, which tells the story of a vegan penguin researcher and her love affair with an anti-whaling activist (also vegan) who is on the run from the law. I found an agent to pitch the book to mainstream publishers, yet she was ultimately unable to find a home for the book. While the animal rights themes in the book made it a challenging sell, the larger challenge was one of categorization, or lack thereof. The feedback we received was, essentially, “We don’t know how to market this.” 

Publishers typically acquire books that fall within clearly defined categories, such as literary fiction, women’s fiction, romance, thriller, mystery. While climate-change fiction, or cli-fi, is beginning to appear, there is no “vegan fiction” category—and this lack of category, to large publishers, often implies a lack of a built-in audience. 

My partner Midge Raymond and I both spent many years working in publishing, so we decided to publish The Tourist Trail. By the end of the process we realized there might be other authors out there who have similarly struggled to find homes for their work, and we founded Ashland Creek Press in 2011 with the goal of seeking out these manuscripts. We have since published more than thirty titles, and we now focus even more on animal protection and vegan-themed books.

Environmental literature is evolving

Environmental writing of the past often features those who fished and hunted the land, even while doing their best to help protect it. And this belief system, wherein writers “get close” to nature by extracting from it or by doing battle with it, remains largely intact today. While a hundred years ago, hunting and fishing were generally undertaken as a matter of survival, today, there are too many alternatives to justify these acts. A growing chorus of writers believe that animals have suffered long enough and that all animals deserve equal protection. And these are the writers who are helping to redefine environmental writing. We meet these writers not only in the works we publish but in our Writing for Animals program, which helps writers with the nuances of writing empathetically and authentically about animals.

And there is room for myriad genres as animal writing evolves. The romantic comedy The Green and the Red, written by French author Armand Chauvel and translated by American Elisabeth Lyman, tells the story of a French meat company executive who is on a mission to shut down the local vegetarian restaurant in order to take it over for a pork museum—and the antics, love story, and conclusion show that writers can have fun while making serious points about where our food comes from. In her satirical novel My Days of Dark Green Euphoria, A.E. Copenhaver uses our collective climate anxiety as a force driving her narrator from a pure life of eco-consciousness to a liquor-soaked environmental free-for-all—until she finds the right balance. 

The Tourist Trail is an eco-thriller; Cher Fischer’s Falling Into Green is an eco-mystery; Blair Richmond’s Lithia Trilogy (Out of Breath, The Ghost Runner, and The Last Mile) are paranormal romances featuring vegan vampires. There is no limit to the ways in which we can write—and read—vegan-themed literature.

“Accidentally vegan” literature

Just as we have “accidentally vegan” foods, like Oreo cookies, we also have literature that appeals to vegans while not being authored by or written specifically for vegans. The novel Love and Ordinary Creatures by Gwyn Hyman Rubio tells the story of a captured cockatoo who has fallen in love with his owner (a common behaviour pattern among the species). Readers spend the entire novel inside the head of this bird and, by the end of the book, they understand the tragedy of the life of a caged bird and, by extension, all wild animals that must endure lives imprisoned. Likewise, Mindy Mejia’s The Dragon Keeper raises similar issues about zoos and Komodo dragons. In this way, “accidental” vegan literature can be just as enlightening as purposefully written “veg-lit,” in that it even more subtly opens readers’ hearts and minds. 

E. B. White, a man who raised and slaughtered pigs, likely didn’t set out to urge his readers to give up pork when he wrote Charlotte’s Web — and yet this book has subtly and powerfully inspired countless readers to rethink their relationships with animals. Likewise, readers consider animal testing and experimentation after reading Robert C. O’Brien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH or Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.

Today’s niche is tomorrow’s mainstream

Back when we founded Ashland Creek Press, environmental literature was decidedly a niche. Now, it is becoming far more popular among mainstream publishers. And because of this, we are turning more toward animal-focused, vegan literature—because in this area, we still have a long way to go.

Yet we see great hope. Midge’s novel My Last Continent has not one but two major vegan characters and was published through a major publisher (Scribner). And Deb Olin Unferth’s novel Barn 8, about a chicken rescue, was published by the independent but relatively large publisher Graywolf Press. 

I believe this new era of writing is only just beginning, and that even though “vegan literature” sections may not yet exist in most bookstores or on virtual bookshelves, the more we write, publish, and read, the more visible these books will be. 

John Yunker is a writer of plays, short stories, and novels focused on human/animal relationships. He is the author of the novels The Tourist Trail and the sequel Where Oceans Hide Their Dead and editor of the anthologies Writing for Animals and the Among Animals series. His plays have been staged at myriad theatres in the United States, from Oregon to New York, and he is co-founder of Ashland Creek Press, a publisher devoted to environmental and animal rights literature. This essay is adapted from John’s essay in The Vegan Studies Project, edited by Laura Wright.

Feature photo credit: Ashland Creek Press

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