Learn from the Stories You Hate

Monica Valentinelli is an author who lurks in the dark. She has over a dozen short stories out in the wild, two novellas, and more on the way. Recent releases include “Don’t Ignore Your Dead,” which debuted in the anthology Don’t Read This Book and Redwing’s Gambit a science fiction adventure novella.

I don’t like every story I read and I’m guessing you don’t either. In fact, I’m quite certain there are some very popular books that make your blood boil as soon as you hear about them. Maybe it’s a story about a vampire who glitters or a tale where the relationship is based on bondage. Maybe it’s a tome about a teenager hunting down other teens or a zombie apocalypse series.

There are a few well-known stories that have caused me no uncertain amounts of angst over the years. To make my peace with them, I critiqued the work and tried to understand why it was so popular.

For the purposes of this article, the popularity of a book isn’t just about book sales. It’s also about word-of-mouth advertising. Imagine readers who are so blown away by a story they have to share it with someone else in their life. Commenters who hate a book so much they have to talk about it. (Both are forms of publicity, by the way, especially online where the value of publicity is the volume, not the quality, of the chatter.)

So what makes people talk about a story? Well, to understand that, we have to go back to why you or I would get upset about a tale in the first place. The answer is really very simple because it circles back to the books we love. It all boils down to that emotional connection with the reader. Powerful stories invoke strong emotions. The more potent the feeling, the greater the chance we’ll need to express what we think or feel about it.

Knee-jerk reactions occur even if we haven’t read a story – especially in cases where the contents of that book are so bizarre or are outside our personal tastes. I am not a fan of Twilight for many reasons, but I don’t begrudge Meyer her success. (Good for her!) Since I have been embroiled in the vampire genre ever since I can remember, I am hyper-sensitive to changes in the vampire mythos. This simply means I am not the audience for her books.

Being that engrossed in a genre or subject matter isn’t always a good thing, because to reach that general consciousness, to achieve mass market popularity, the story needs to have a broader, less-specific, appeal. To do that, sometimes old techniques like tired genre tropes work really well. Other times, it’s about taking a universally-recognized concept like religion or forbidden love and twisting it in such a way that it touches many readers. Can that be done intentionally? Well, the only real evidence we have originates after-the-fact. If everyone knew how to write a wildly popular book (or which ones to publish) I’m pretty sure we’d all be millionaires.

Regardless, the point here that I’m trying to make is that it doesn’t matter what makes a best-selling book popular. That’s just one example of something I took away from a series I can’t stand. So what does? Well, maybe (just maybe) it is possible that the books we hate are learning tools that can help us craft a better story. I feel that statement applies to every author, regardless of experience, because the more we continue to write, the more our work evolves. I also believe that there is a lot we can get from stretching outside of our natural parameters and reading books we would never write (but a lot of other people love).

It’s easier to think critically of a book (or genre) we normally wouldn’t read because we have some emotional distance from it. Mind you, negative emotions color our perspective significantly, so if you are diving in to a work you don’t appreciate, I’d recommend reading it a few times or discussing it in a book club. Then, ask yourself this question: “What’s so great about this book that so many other readers need to buy it, talk about it, and share it? What am I missing?”

The answer may surprise you.

So what the hell is Urban Fantasy, anyway?

Here’s a confession: I usually have to be told what my books are.

Well, not what they are. I know that they’re squarish piles of paper with writing on them that have been bound together in a great big factory somewhere. But I still remember the day when I was told that my second novel, The Company Man, was not, in fact, science fiction, but was instead “dieselpunk,” a subgenre I was totally ignorant of. And just the other day, I happened to mention to someone that my third novel, The Troupe, was Urban Fantasy. And the response I got was a cringe, a slow shake of the head, and: “Nnnnnnoooot really.”

I’ll be honest: Urban Fantasy has always confounded me a little, and I think this is mostly because I’ve always chosen to define it quite broadly:

Urban Fantasy: a speculative fiction story with fantastical elements in an urban setting of what is very recognizably the real world.

I asked about this on Twitter the other day, assuming my definition was more or less correct.

I then received, at last count, 132 responses.

Some of them were part of an ongoing conversation I was just copied on. But the opinions about exactly what the hell Urban Fantasy is varied so wildly that I started taking notes, like I was caught in a storm of butterflies with especially outrageous colors.

For starts, some define Urban Fantasy as having a definite style, akin, I think, to noir. Justin Landon of “Staffer’s Musings” made this point, saying Urban Fantasy must have a “thriller” structure to it, and Kristin of “My Bookish Ways” supported it by saying that in Urban Fantasy, the singular city itself – Chicago, New York, San Francisco – must have a very distinct character of its own. All very much like a noir novel with fantasy elements.

This crossed over a bit to the repeated assertion that Urban Fantasy must take place in modern times – a fantasy story set in 1870’s Chicago was not Urban Fantasy. If Urban Fantasy is a cross of Fantasy with another genre – noir, thriller, and so on – Historical Fiction is not an ingredient in that cocktail.

So far, it sounded an awful lot like modern noir with magic. Which is a lot more specific than my definition.

Stina Leicht, however, made the point that Urban Fantasy has elements of the punk music scene, and contains much of the same underground, gritty, artistic style, specifically referencing Charles de Lint and Emma Bull. She also very clearly said that Urban Fantasy is not Paranormal Romance, and many agreed that these two often get confused, when they’re actually quite distinct.

I can’t possibly go over the full conversation here (and I thank everyone who contributed), but I started to feel a little confused about some of the definitions I was hearing. Because nearly everyone had a very, very specific idea of what Urban Fantasy was, and had books and stories to reference and back up that idea. And when I checked them out, those books and stories claimed to be Urban Fantasy, even if this put them in loud disagreement with one another.

The feeling I got from all of this was that a specific appeal is now more commonly found, and more prized, than a broad one. Urban Fantasy is itself a subgenre, but within that broad definition there are hundreds of little mini-sub-genres, Balkanized little genre city-states that are, to some degree, quietly at war with one another, each claiming to be different from the next – even though, to the uninitiated, they all look more or less the same. A reader unfamiliar with SFF will simply look at it, and say, “Oh, there’s magic in it? Then it’s fantasy.” Though this might incur a long expository argument from the initiated.

Our entertainment is now created with a set of very specific reference points in mind, and our love of that entertainment is increasingly impenetrable to outsiders. In today’s time of constant information flow, we expect our fiction to be informed by that same amount of information. You must know the background of several pop culture and literary touchstones in order to begin to understand the work.

So, we don’t want a broad following – we want a cult following, an intimate, intense, historied relationship with the work. And for some, you can’t just love a book : you have to create a whole new category for it, and a history of that category, and you must compare and contrast it against the others. It’s like literary criticism on methamphetamines, only now you aren’t comparing literary movements that take place over decades, but genre trends that emerge and dissipate within months.

Book awareness is now viral – but don’t forget that viruses tend to exhaust themselves fairly quickly.

Is this a bad thing? I’m not sure. I definitely think that the internet, whose feed is so huge that people will find themselves restricted to narrow avenues of information, is going to increasingly Balkanize nearly every form of entertainment. We’re going to start a lot more conversations with, “Oh, you don’t know about _______? Really?” Soon, we’ll all be the record store clerks from High Fidelity on some subject or another.

While this does build a close bond with your entertainment, it’s obstructive to nearly everyone else. A work’s following will grow much more slowly, if it grows at all. And it’s going to get increasingly hard to figure out the lasting power of a work: do you think that audiences in twenty years will be able to look back and decipher the reasons why we laud the work we do today, untangling the history and genre qualifications that make us categorize it as we do? Is a work that is considered great within the genre system capable of lasting outside of that system? I find myself doubting it.

And writers, who probably don’t fashion a story with a specific subgenre in mind – and how could you, since they’re often so narrow, and change so much – will flounder more and more when it comes to the question of, “What genre is it?”

Whatever answer a writer might have to that question, I think they’ll be told more frequently that it is the wrong one.