Picture the scene: it’s the end of a long day. You’re tired, you’re cold, you need to curl up with a cup of tea and something comforting to read. But wait! You also love animals. What better, then, than a copy of A Pug Like Percy, Fiona Harrison’s tale of a cute canine who has been dumped in an animal shelter, but who brings a “little miracle” to Gail and her unhappy family? Or Daisy Bell’s The Christmas Guest, a “heart-warming tale of a homeless puppy with a huge heart”? Or Jacqueline Sheehan’s A Dog Like Lloyd (“Roxanne Pellegrino’s … new life of solitude is interrupted when she meets Lloyd – a stray black labrador with an equally unhappy past”). You get the idea.
The genre – let’s go ahead and call it “pet lit” – is booming. Melissa Daley’s Molly and the Cat Cafe has sold more than 20,000 copies, according to book sales monitor Nielsen BookScan. A Pug Like Percy has shifted 10,000; Lynne Barrett-Lee’s Able Seacat Simon (“the fictional reimagining of Able Seacat Simon’s adventures and heroics in dangerous wartime seas”) almost as many. Sheila Jeffries’ Timba Comes Home (“two black kittens against the world is the pact they make when they are abandoned in a ditch”) is padding towards similar popularity, with 8,000 copies finding a home.
All feature adorable images of puppies or kittens on their covers. Most are narrated by the animals themselves, as with Pug Like Percy: “Filled with despair, I slumped back on to my bed, flung my paws over my eyes and tried to understand why Javier had left me here to rot like so many other good dogs before me.” Or, in Sheila Norton’s Oliver, the Cat Who Saved Christmas: “The worst night of my entire nine lives started with some leftover fish.” Sophie Pembroke’s Claude’s Christmas Adventure delivers similarly gritty realism: “I snuffled around the base of the kitchen table, wiggling my rear against the tiled floor, my tiny tail moving with it.” Claude is a French bulldog.
“There’s a lot of it about, and it’s hard sometimes to differentiate between them, although there are a few more dog books this year – people are perhaps trying to move on from the cat phenomenon,” said Waterstones fiction buyer Chris White. “The general idea is that a small animal comes into a family’s life, and transforms it for the better, and there’s a strong core market for it … They’re impulse buys, when you want a comforting, not too challenging read, and you see a nice picture of a cat. We do love our pets.”
At HarperCollins, which publishes Harrison, Lisa Milton believes that “essentially, pet fiction is feelgood. Everyone loves kittens and puppies, cats and dogs. But mostly … we all need to escape every now and then. We had such success with Percy Pug in hardback last year that we’re publishing A Puppy called Hugo this year.”
Harrison herself says: “I think the world is not much fun right now with Brexit, North Korea and good old Trump … As the old expression goes, the world’s going to hell in a handcart and if there’s a book out there to raise a smile and make you feel good, then I’ll grab it with both hands.”
The books, she says, are “the best fun in the world” to write. “Seriously, who wouldn’t want to spend their days imagining stories from the perspective of a faithful pooch? I have a stack of ideas for more but, as ever, it comes down to the mood of the Great British Public. But I would love to get back to Percy’s world as quickly as possible. It’s much safer than the real world.”
Daley was inspired by her own pet, writing a spoof celebrity memoir in the voice of her cat Nancy: Sex and the Kitty. “We got Nancy as a kitten and soon discovered she was too friendly for her own good. She used to follow people home, sneak into their cars, hang out at the local pubs … she used to go missing all the time, so I created a Facebook page for her to keep track of where she was,” says Daley. “It began to snowball and she picked up followers from all around the world, not just in Harpenden.” After an appearance on US TV show Must Love Cat, Daley “began to wonder whether there might be a market for a memoir, or ‘meowmoir’, written by a celebrity cat. It turned out there was.”
Nancy still has a Facebook page, giving Daley a insight into who reads her books. “Obviously they’re all cat lovers, largely – but not exclusively – women, lots based in the US,” she says. “Some of my readers are people who love cats but for one reason or another can’t have one of their own, so I think reading allows them to experience the owner-cat relationship vicariously.”
Like Harrison, she finds them very enjoyable to write. “I love trying to create feline characters that have enough ‘human’ characteristics and emotional depth to engage the reader, while at the same time still being convincingly cat-like. It’s really lovely to write about a cat’s relationship with its owner from the cat’s point of view,” she says. “I think anyone who has ever owned one has probably wondered what their cat gets up to when it disappears out through the cat flap at dusk.”
White traces the genre’s popularity back to James Bowen’s A Street Cat Named Bob (Bowen’s total sales topped 1m), and Marley and Me, which sold more than 750,000 copies. There is also a more literary strand: Takashi Hiraide’s The Guest Cat, an award-winning novel about a cat that brings joy to a lonely couple, has sold nearly 100,000 copies, while his countryman Haruki Murakami is known for his talking cats. The forthcoming The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa, is set to be along the same lines.
Like pet sales, the genre “has a particular bump” during the festive season, says White. Perhaps the pressure to celebrate boosts the appetite for comfort reads? But “cat fiction is for life, not just for Christmas,” he warns.