This Slate article by Rosecrans Baldwin is both the funniest and the most intriguing thing I’ve read in a while. He starts off by observing that “Novelists can’t resist including a dog barking in the distance,” and hits you with enough examples, from all levels of literature, that you accept the phenomenon as valid. But what does it mean? He says:
Trains whistle, breezes blow, dogs bark. You’re thinking, “So what if novels are full of barking dogs? The world is full of them, too.” But I don’t find it curious when actual dogs turn up in novels. Dogs that authors bother to describe, or turn into characters, don’t pull me out of my reading trance. The thing is, these so-called dogs are nameless and faceless, and frankly I doubt them; it’s the curious incident when one actually does come into view. Really, are there so many out-of-sight, noisy dogs in the world? Listen: My bet is you’ll hear a highway, an A/C unit, or another human before a dog starts yelping.
Most authors, however, employ the trope as a narrative rest stop, an innocuous way to fill space and time; since the bark is hollow, a reader can read anything into it, or nothing at all. Charlaine Harris, queen of the vampire authors, in Dead as a Doornail: “The entire parking lot was empty, except for Jan’s car. The glare of the security lights made the shadows deeper. I heard a dog bark way off in the distance.” The chief of Scandinavian crime writers, Henning Mankell: “She begins to tell him. The curtain in the kitchen window flutters gently, and a dog barks in the distance” (The Eye of the Leopard). And “genre” books aren’t the only guilty category. Take 2666, Robert Bolaño’s magnum opus: “The window looked out over the garden, which was still lit. A scent of flowers and wet grass drifted into the room. In the distance he heard a dog bark.” For all we know, these dogs are off-camera sound machines set to woof.
Martin Amis says, “All writing is a campaign against cliché.” Well, what if these dogs aren’t just cliché, but something more? What if they’re a meme? Perhaps distant dogs are a way for novelists to wink at one another, at their extraordinary luck for being allowed into the publishing club. When an author incorporates a faceless barking dog into his novel, he’s like an amateur at Harlem’s Apollo Theater rubbing the Tree of Hope—he does it because so many others have done it before him, and it might just bring him some luck.
The ending is hilarious; I won’t spoil it for you, but I hope you will visit the link and read it for yourself. (Hat tip to Dave Wilton at Wordorigins.org.)
Addendum. A nice addition to the corpus (thanks, Rick!): “Nayland Smith walked to a window, and looked out across the sloping lawn to where the shadows of the shrubbery lay. A dog was howling dismally somewhere.” (The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu, Ch. 7)