Friday, March 15, 2013

In Which Sara Reads Some Books and Discovers She's a Humorless Prig

by Sara N.

Good fiction can teach us things about ourselves. We can explore our capacity for empathy. We can test the limits of our comfort zones. We can learn what situations make us laugh or weep. And thanks to a handful of books I recently read, I've learned something fairly important about myself: I am a humorless prig.

Maybe the problem is that one person's comedy gold is another person's crass nightmare, because all of the books I'm about to discuss have earned glowing Amazon and Goodreads reviews that praise their wit and humor. But people, I'm just not seeing it. To me, the characters in the books below come off as either crude or immature — and often both. But maybe that's just me clutching my pearls. Read on to decide for yourself.

The problem started with Happy Hour of the Damned by Mark Henry. The lead character, Amanda Feral, is horribly unlikable, and not only because she's a zombie who subsists on human flesh. She's a cruel, status-conscious fashionista whose disdain for pretty much everyone around her is toxic. She and her zombie chums regularly head to the local welfare office, where they round up the people in line with the promise of job interviews off site, then take them somewhere isolated, slaughter them all, and joke about it later. I think this book is supposed to be a satire of consumer culture and the invisible underclasses, but aren't satires supposed to be ... clever? This just comes off as shallow and mean-spirited. And the toilet humor. Oh, the toilet humor! You see, zombies can't digest food, which means if any of them eat anything solid, they have to wear adult diapers or position themselves over a convenient bucket. This scenario is described in loving detail more than once. It is as gross as it sounds.

Also, and there's no way I can say this without sounding prissy, but the dialogue is unrealistically crude and hard to stomach. Amanda frets about showing up for a date with "a bloody scalp and a pissy cooch." She then clarifies, "That's pissy cooch, not Prissy Koch. She's from Accounting and a real c---." (Full disclosure: I'm not super cool even using the c-word for example purposes, let alone dropping it in casual conversation or frequent internal monologues, the way Amanda and the rest of the characters I'm about to discuss do.)

Next came The Last Werewolf and Talulla Rising by Glen Duncan. Duncan can write passages that give you a little zing of joy at their cleverness, but at the same time, the author pens unappealing sex scenes in which the protagonists have such contempt for their partners that it's actually uncomfortable to read. (I almost didn't get past the description of the hero caressing the "moist crinkle" of a prostitute's anus early on in Werewolf.) In Talulla, the heroine reminisces about the jolt she gets in her burgeoning sexual feelings after tormenting a fellow high school girl who'd been nicknamed NODOR, for No Danger of Rape. This cold tone runs throughout both books, and Talulla, like Amanda Feral, drops the c-word with abandon. Talulla spends a great deal of time obsessing about jerking herself off and dealing with the massive libido that comes from being a werewolf. Plus, the description of pregnancy in the book is a curious mix of body horror and body shaming: "Stone breasts webbed with veins I'd never seen before. Belly as big as a cauldron ... It's disgusting ... She used to be pretty. Now she's just this fat, shambling cow."

(To be fair, both books in the Werewolf series rise above my concerns about the tone by the end; Duncan's writing is nimble, and Talulla's got a a series of killer action scenes that make slogging through the descriptions of her writhing around "ass in the air" in the grip of wolf's libido pretty much worthwhile.)

Finally came Snacks and Seduction by Tara Sivec. It's not a genre novel, but it was relatively high on the Goodreads list of humorous romance novels, many of which I'd already read and loved. Let me tell you, if I'd overheard any of the characters in Snacks screeching at one another while in line at the grocery store, I'd have quietly edged away. The book bills itself as a romance novel about a single mother with a foul-mouthed toddler, so I should've been warned from the beginning. Then in the first chapter when the heroine, Claire, crows about having a c-section rather than a vaginal birth, which means "no roast beefy beaver for this woman," well, I should've probably put the Kindle down for good. But I didn't. And then her 4-year-old son's babysitter lets him watch Fight Club, and nobody bothers to correct him when he runs around yelling "shit!" All. Of. The. Time. Then the heroine and her friends start bellowing "thunder c---" and "twat face" at one another in the middle of a crowded bar, and then they decide to open a sex toy store in a tiny Midwestern town. (I'm from a tiny Midwestern town, so believe me when I say that that's not going to work from an economic or a cultural standpoint.) Then one of the supporting characters shows up in t-shirts saying things like "My name is Mike Hunt" and "I pooped today," and neither Claire nor any of her shockingly foul-mouthed friends demand that he changes before they leave the house. Who are these people? Do they exist in the real world and, if so, where, so I know where never to vacation?

The book is exhausting in its juvenile sex and anatomy talk. All told, the word "vagina" is used 119 times in the book, which clocks in at 260 pages. That's basically one mention every other page. I'd bet there are OB-GYN textbooks with more lingual variety. Hell, even The Vagina Monologues probably contains fewer references. (If you're wondering about gender parity, "penis" logs a mere 74.)

This is also how the Dowager Countess would react, isn't it?
To be clear: I'm not anti-vagina. I think we should say it and own it in our homes, classrooms and workplaces. But ... once every other page? Are we 12 years old? Also to clarify: I'm cool with swearing in my entertainment. In real life, people have to throw down a "fuck" every now and then, and it usually sounds artificial when characters twist themselves into knots to avoid any cursing. (Think about Dean Winchester shouting, "Bullcrap!" It's sad, really.) But daaaaang, authors. The people who can't make it through a single sentence without cursing are the same ones getting glares in the restaurant because the rest of us are just trying to enjoy our dinners. Another note: Sex in my fiction? Good. Verrrrry good. But lavish descriptions of a character's anus during a sexual encounter with someone you consider inferior? No. No, no, no.

In the case of Cocktail Hour and Werewolf/Talulla, I chalked up some of the problems I had with the dialogue and the coarse tone to the fact that both were written by men. I thought maybe they just didn't have an innate ear for the language that women use to speak to one another or the world at large. I did feel sexist in pinning the problem to the gender of the author because I'd be up in arms if someone suggested that women can't pen dialogue for men, but I know of no women who regularly refer to their vaginas as cooches or twats or c---s or roast beef. That feels like a male affectation to me, and a demeaning one at that. Yet Snacks was written by a woman, and it's the worst offender of the bunch. No matter the gender of the author, Claire, Amanda and Talulla are all clearly putting out the message that they're one of the very few cool chicks, and not at all like those other women, who are sad and needy and meant to be mocked. I mean, bitches, amirite?

I then have to ask: Is it just me? Am I a pearl-clutching prig with no sense of humor? Snacks has a 4.6 star rating on Amazon after 800-plus reviews, Amanda Feral appears in a trio of books, and Duncan's been hailed in the mainstream media as a savior of quality genre fiction. When I read the reviewers who swoon over how hilarious and witty these books are, I start to question my taste and my sanity, particularly Henry's and Savic's. (Or perhaps I should approach this topic next week from a different angle: Pants on Fire, or Why You Should Never Trust the Internet for It Is Full of Lies.)

To summarize: Thanks to these books, I've learned that I'm not cool with zombie bucket diarrhea, welfare slaughter, foul-mouthed 4-year-olds, awkward wolf libido, pregnant body shaming, crass t-shirts, sex toy shops in small conservative towns, and using the c-word/twat/cooch/etc. conversationally.

You tell me, readers. Am I a humorless prig? Have you come across literature that horrified you while the rest of the world laughed and clapped along? Or should I admit defeat and just buy myself this shirt?

Available from The Misfit Penguin
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  1. No, you're not a humorless prig. I wouldn't enjoy those books either. Cursing is a real part of the culture, but when overused in a book, it's like a classless neon sign--it distracts and isn't funny. It's like searching road signs for your turnoff and seeing nothing but "Stop and see the THING!!!" "What is the mysterious THING?" "Gifts! Rattlesnake charms!"

    As for "shock value" descriptions and words...well, it might work for some people, but it's just another distraction so far as I'm concerned. The protags don't have to be strictly likeable, but I'm not going to spend much time with them if they are gross and classless.

    1. Thank you! And good point about the likable characters. There has to be something there for readers to root for, even when the characters are selfish or shallow or unkind. That's interesting fodder for another post someday. :)

  2. I think it's funny that we both hated the same books for the same reasons - but drew different conclusions. Rather than wondering what was wrong with me, I just thought all those books were inexcusably bad.

    Happy Hour of the Damned was dreadful on all fronts - too long, too stupid, too "zomg, I'm clever." The Glen Duncan stuff was written by someone who didn't even read the genre but was reinventing it To Save Us From Genre. Basically, fuck that guy. (Sacre Bleu! Ze 'F' word!)

    I didn't get as far as Snacks and Seduction, because Romance, but it sounds like I dodged the bullet.

    Also, please DO buy that shirt because it's totally awesome.

    1. I think we can all agree that Glen Duncan can fuck right off. God, that man is so smug about his literature rising above *sniff* genre conventions. Like I wrote, he does have some clever turns of phrase, but it all boils down to the basic vamp vs. wolf issues.

  3. Never, ever look up the comic Tarot: Witch of the Black Rose. To mix my metaphores, it makes Nic Cage look like Kristen Stewart.

  4. I haven't read any of these [thanking my lucky stars here] but they sound like garbage. I don't think you are a humorless prig, I think the two male authors were going for funny male oriented erotica and couldn't find their way out of the tiny box they put themselves in. As for the other one, gah, it doesn't sound in the least appealing. I peruse the humorous romance lists on GR all the time and I am so happy that you found it first and I am now warned.

  5. Bwahahahahahahaha...another awesome post!I needed the laugh after the conclusion of Spring Break, and you delivered :-D

  6. Thank you! I am not a fan of crude rumor and rotten language in literature (or life in general) either. I never find anything redeeming or relatable about one-dimensional "shock value" characters. Great article, thanks for taking one for the team and reading those books so we don't have to.