What the Dickens? On Veganising Literary Classics

Get your Sharpies ready, folks: it’s time to deface your books. No more should you have to read Hamlet or Under Milk Wood; Shelley Harrison, writing for the Humane Party’s blog, suggests not only that we compose literary works free from speciesism (a good suggestion, in our view), but that we edit literary classics to remove traces of animal exploitation from them.

If we want readers and viewers to escape from speciesism, even just for a little while and even just in their imaginations, we can enable that escape by keeping speciesism and animal exploitation out of literature altogether.  This end can be achieved both (i) by writing new works that are, from the outset, free from anthropocentric and speciesist content and (ii) by editing existing works to meet that criterion.


This argument strikes us as analogous to PeTA’s various attempts to rename places such as Wool, Slaughter Beach, Nottingham (the organisation suggested Not-Eating-Ham), Fishkill, Turkey, Hamburg, but as we feel it’s more sincere and raises questions about literature more generally, we decided to address it at some length here.


Harrison gives three reasons for his suggestion of the creation of a vegan canon, all of which he insists apply to both new and redacted works. The first, sanctuary, is based on the idea that vegans need escapist literature in order to provide relief from speciesism. While we would certainly be in favour of new and well written fiction underpinned by an abolitionist vegan message, we also recognise that good literature is often disconcerting, uncomfortable, emotive; that it frequently depicts suffering, grief, loss of various sorts. And so, the claim that editing out speciesism would transform that literature into “a place of…non-violence” is to ignore the violent and oppressive attitudes that otherwise often permeate literary texts–especially those in the western “canon” (but that’s a Grumpy rant for another day).

More worrying, still, is the implication that vegans need to be aesthetically and ideologically sheltered from even the mention of animal exploitation. We believe that graphic imagery can be detrimental to both the advocate and advocacy.   But we don’t believe that an advocate who is educating others to reject a form of oppression that they do not experience serves the movement well by trying to avoid mentions of that form of oppression. On the contrary, advocates are better able to learn about the roots and mechanisms of oppression by critically examining the modes of discourse that uphold it.

The second reason Harrison gives for “veganizing” literature is visionary:

Spending time in such an environment gives the individual an opportunity to practice and rehearse seeing, living in, and relating to a world in which peace and respect for others is the norm rather than the exception, perhaps thereby making connections and gaining insights that would otherwise have been unavailable.

That’s a good justification for encouraging the compostion of speculative fiction that takes place in a post-speciesist world, but it doesn’t justify making alterations to literary works in order to excise from them any mentions of speciesism or animal exploitation.

Harrison’s claim for cultivation is closely linked:

When literature tacitly tolerates, legitimizes, and even embraces speciesism, anthropocentrism, cruelty, violence, and faunacide as “normal,” the readers and viewers of such literature can be expected, after repeated exposure, to become desensitized to, if not to participate in, the necrovory and bestiality that she or he witnesses.

It is not literature that fosters speciesism and that perpetuates nonveganism; as Gary Francione writes:

The ideology that supports animal exploitation is the ideology of animal welfare:

Works of literature are human-made artefacts, and they reflect the concerns and prejudices of their author and that author’s milieu. The perpetuation of speciesism through nonveganism and through welfarist approaches to animal issues is what fuels speciesist literature, not the other way around.

Harrison writes in favour of a rating system for works of literature so that the extent of their speciesism can be signalled clearly for the reader. Within the welfarist paradigm (which also informs the Humane Party‘s news blog through its focus on single issues and animal treatment), one can only wonder if acts of exploitation featuring particular species animals or specific uses will be rated as more distressing than others.


I suppose we should at least be thankful that Harrison encourages enthusiastic redactors to actually read the works they plan on “veganizing”:

The veganizer will actually have to read the work to be veganized, patiently and attentively, in order to find those passages that require veganizing.  The veganizer will have to read the book also so that she or he can, when necessary, replace speciesist content with content that remains true to the vocabulary, style, tone, voice, and subject matter of the original work […].

Harrison’s assertion that redactors remain true to vocabulary, style, tone, voice, and subject matter is perplexing: every detail of a literary text–its imagery, descriptions, words, figures–are carefully chosen by the author and are important for the work’s form, content, tone, themes, and meaning. They are part of the craft of the work, and to alter one is to produce an entirely different text.

The blog post presents a number of guidelines on redacting speciesist work, and also issues several cautions, particularly relating to substitutions. Those who set about veganizing Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, for exampleought not transform the beaten horse into a beaten rug. Similarly, the redactor of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol ought not merely replace the goose that Scrooge procures with tofu, because that would be anachronistic. Rather a pity, as we think that this passage reads quite well:

There never was such a block of tofu. Bob said he didn’t believe there ever was such a block of tofu cooked. Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration. Eked out by apple sauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family; indeed, as Mrs. Cratchit said with great delight (surveying one small atom of tofu crumb upon the dish), they hadn’t ate it all at last!

Harrison debunks his own argument when he makes the case that to remove forms of human discrimination from the text might strip those works of their essence and alter them completely:

[…] one reason to read the classics is to get a sense of what life was like then and thereby see how things have or haven’t changed.  Removing human-against-human forms of otherism would make such comparison impossible.

This assertion doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Oppression of, and violence towards, humans is as much of the present as it was of the past, as is speciesism. Both manifest themselves in literature, and both are worthy of critique through theoretical approaches that provide a framework for thinking about these things. Doesn’t it serve us and the text better to explore the construction of these forms of harm–to examine not only their roots but also the way they’re upheld through the creation, transmission, and reception of cultural artefacts?

While there may be strong arguments in favour of producing new editions of texts that contain slurs that reduplicate forms of oppression (and the subsequent trauma) experienced by readers, treating speciesism as though its impact on the reader is equivalent seems misguided. The readers of a speciesist text will never have personally experienced the force of speciesism, while they are likely, indeed, to have experienced at least one of the forms of discriminatory attitudes–disablism, classism, sexism, racism, heterosexism, and so on–in which many of our so-called literary classics are saturated.

Speciesism isn’t about us or our reading habits. And it can only be deconstructed through Abolitionist vegan education. If you’re not vegan, go vegan; if you are vegan, then acquaint yourself with the history of ideas concerning animals, and work to educate others.



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