Ten Things I Don’t Want to Read About

Here’s the thing about having been a reader for over fifty years, one sees a lot of patterns. It’s tough to take me by surprise any more. And that’s okay. Some patterns are pleasurable. I see them, and that sparks anticipation.  But there are some patterns, or tropes, that have done their duty, and I pass them by.

This is NOT to say “these things are bad.” Or that readers who like them are knuckle-dragging cromuloids. For purposes of discussion only, here are ten things that don’t get me to pick up a book. If you agree, great, and if you don’t, I am always open to suggestions that will convince me to make another try.

1. Monsters. I just don’t care about monsters. Never have. Giant apes? Yawn. I never saw Jurassic Park, and never will. Monsters bore me right out of the room. They are probably smelly, definitely ugly, and they have no social grace, or they wouldn’t be monsters. I skim all monster fighting scenes, figuring in most stories Our Heroes come out fine, and if a redshirt croaks, okay, I didn’t need the details anyway, because monsters never munch with grace.

2. Serial Killers. Maybe this should be part of monsters, except that these ones wear clothes and talk. I don’t get the current thing for serial killers. Are they a result of consumers’ wish for even more, better, nastier shock and gore? Serial killers bore me because they aren’t about anything else but serial killing. You know what they’re going to do. In a really gross story, you know what they’re going to eat. All I want out of a serial killer story is the last page, when the killer is dead. I don’t want to read anything before it, especially (as happens way too often) their victims are helpless females. Even less do I want to watch TV about them: I loved Heroes until the end of the first season, when they didn’t get rid of that boring serial killer. I would watch Criminal Minds if the storyline was about those clever, driven people NOT talking about serial killers.

3. Destiny. Especially as a motivation for heroes. A title that has Destiny or Fate in it is kind of like a spoiler, because doesn’t “destiny” not only supersede any normal human emotion, it gives away the ending? Of course you can have a villain who feels it’s their destiny to conquer the world, and there are some other twists on the whole destiny trope, but most of the time it seems a convenient excuse to get quest tales going. I suspect that quest tales are mainly for the young, as they are so visceral a metaphor for venturing out into the world to make one’s place. I certainly loved quest tales when I was young, but these days, about the only one I still reread is Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and that’s because I keep finding hidden pockets of wisdom in the corners alongside the quest.

4. Elder gods. Immortal elder gods cause me to skim when they pretty much act like humans, with human interests, views of time and love and hate and fashion. They have all those powers that they use in unimaginative, essentially human ways. Especially if one of them is a lurky, mean, sneering jerk for no particular reason who everyone gangs together to lock in a closet for a few thousand years, so when he pops out in the Prologue he’s really, really pissed and bent on single-minded vengeance. By then his secret name is Toast–it’ll just take 600 pages apiece in three volumes to crisp him–and I am not his reader. However, there are some elder gods whose depictions do catch and hold my interest, like those in Megan Whalen Turner’s Attolia series.

5. One-channel magic. So magic exists in this world, but what does it do after all those years of study? Throw fireballs at the enemy, and maybe pop up some monsters if you’re an Evil Mage. That’s it? Oh yes, withering fire, maybe a tsunami that drowns the enemy army. That’s it? After years of study? Does it fix the roof? No. Does it get shoes for all those peasants in their picturesque hovels just below the Mage Tower? No. How about a reddi-meal, even a crappy one that at least keeps you and horsey going? No? A spell to ease your gut if you eat too many pickled eels? No, you say, fireballs only? Next channel, please.

6. Kings who don’t king. I like kings and queens. They’re decorative and interesting. They’re supposed to be decorative and interesting, isn’t that part of kingship? But the other part is actually being king. That means if they aren’t putting in some serious king-time, I want to know who’s holding up the throne. Kings who languish around all day moping after their sweeties aren’t really kings, they’re figureheads. Show me who’s ruling, because that’s probably where the story really lies.

7. Evial Red Priests. I get it that a lot of writers hate organized religion. But I’ve gotten it for forty years. It’s not news, nor is it shocking or edgy. There are far too many books in which the entire purpose of the church is oppression and nothing else–no liturgy, poetry, music, art, plays, debate, no social services, however rudimentary. No sense that there are good or indifferent priests, creative ones, visionary ones,  savvy ones, conflicted ones–they all seem to be child-molesting, racist, sexist, narrow-minded nasties.  And our heroes are heroes because they are postmodern determinists. I particularly dislike that trope in historical novels: the heroes are all enlightened postmoderns, and the villains believe in that particular era’s paradigm.

8. Primitive Utopias. I am totally behind environmental awareness. I completely agree that consumerism as an end in itself is a crazed lifestyle not conducive to happiness. But. When I read books wherein the young heroine (it’s usually women) find a totem animal and become a shamaness in a primitive village, and the story is imbued with how equal everyone is, how simple and perfect and wise this world is just because everyone is in tune with nature, I wonder who hasn’t been out of the easy chair in months, maybe years? Primitive life isn’t comfortable, it’s maybe a step above basic survival. Primitive life means it’s hard to keep clean, hard to keep warm, hard to stay fed without something really nasty getting in your innards, and then you really wish the facilities weren’t primitive. A realistic primitive life story might gain more of my respect–but not my interest. I have to admit my interests lie with art and with evolving civilization.

9. Elves. It’s a rare book whose elves cam make me forget the elves in Tolkien, Warner, Pratchett, and Elizabeth Marie Pope, the latter of whose elves seem to have inspired a lot of the current urban fantasy elves one and two generations back. The lack of interest also goes for the Sidhe, if all they are is pretty but petty. I saw enough of that in high school.

10. Special Animal Companions. I loved these stories when I was a kid, but when I realized that despite their wisdom, powers, kindness, compassion, and overall goodness these Companions never actually got to have lives, I lost interest. When their every waking moment is devoted to the emotional as well as physical welfare of their human mate, isn’t that a working definition of slavery?


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50 Responses to Ten Things I Don’t Want to Read About

  1. Las?t?ja says:

    Try Kaaron Warren’s ‘Slights’ for a different look on both a serial killer and destiny. It’s a very sad, even desperate, and powerful story.

  2. Las?t?ja: Thank you for the recommendation–can you tell me a little more how it’s different? Because in the ordinary way of things, “serial killers” and “sad” are not two motivators for me to read something.

  3. You’ve left me wordless. That about covers all the areas that I don’t want to read, watch or write about.

    Oh, you left out werewolves and vampires – I’m pretty bored of most of them these days as well. Or are they covered under ‘monsters’?

    Wonderful piece.

  4. pilgrimsoul says:

    Alienation.
    Oh wait. That’s all of Modern Lit. Ditto on all your other DNRs.

  5. Martha: thanks! I can take or leave vampires–and there are some books with either or both that I loved, like Naomi Clark’s recent Silver Kiss. I loved her werewolf pack in that, and the way she evoked the canine while blending it with the human. I loved Sunshine by Robin McKinley, and Steven Brust’s Agyar, and Vivan Vande Veld’s Companions of the Night, just to name a few vampire novels.

    In thinking about why these appeal, it’s that the vamps and the werewolves are not merely human-chomping monsters, they are more like aliens, with their own cultures, strengths, weaknesses, which makes their interactions with the humans of more interest to me.

  6. Pilgrimsoul: Except for such superlative writers as Marilynne Robinson, whose Gilead is one of my top faves in modern novels. Also, though it may play a touch more fast and loose with the Gospels than you might like, there’s Elizabeth Cunningham’s The Passion of Mary Magdalen. I just loved her joyful, wise, funny, compassionate look at history and our interactions with the supernatural.

  7. pilgrimsoul says:

    A truly superlative writer touches everything with gold so, yes, I believe you.

  8. Kathi says:

    That covers just about everything. It does leave us with some holes in our reading — some of the most popular current writers do nothing but serial killers, so I haven’t read their work. But once you have sussed out the sad, scary nature of these monsters in human clothing, the story is identical — only the stage dressing changes. They are monsters under the bed or in the closet or whatever.

    I don’t learn how to defeat them — if they set themselves against you single-mindedly, you’d better hope a friend with a shotgun shoes up, because otherwise they will win — and I don’t enjoy reading about them. So — that covers why I read.

    Right now I’m looking at a book I’ve been compiling info, characters and bits and pieces of for a-HEM years. I thought it was a quest story, but no…I think it’s a coming of age story for an entire race of people. So maybe I can make it interesting to more than new readers….

  9. mastadge says:

    Not a book, but since you mentioned Jurassic Park as a film I’ll throw out a monster film worth checking out: Joon-ho Bong’s THE HOST. Although it features a monster (a somewhat graceful monster, to be sure), it’s a darkly funny tragic family drama at heart, and the family does not get away from the monster unscarred — even those not wearing red shirts.

  10. You certainly hit on a lot of my pet hates. Here’s another one of mine: villains who think of themselves as evil. I suspect that most of the people who actually do great harm in the world think they’re in the right, or at least think they have to do what they’re doing for some good (to them) reason. I mean, I may think the people who run BP are evil, but I bet they don’t think they are.

    I also can’t stand violence without consequences and stories in which vast amounts of “collateral” death happens while the hero is beating the villain, but the hero doesn’t seem to care.

  11. Attackfish says:

    Don’t have any “to read” suggestions for you, but maybe a to watch? Ever seen the animated cartoon Avatar: the Last Airbender? It’s definitely one channel magic that takes years of training, and there’s a very minor character who’s a king who does nothing (he’s decorative, and naive, and sweet, and his chief adviser is an evil dictator who runs the secret police. Apparently this has been going on for generations.) Well, it’s not entirely one channel magic, waterbenders can build at the poles, and firebenders can light candles, and earthbenders can do whatever they want, and airbenders can fly, but… And the whole thing is a feast of awesome.

  12. Kathi: Sounds promising!

    Mastage: thank you for that recommendation.

    Nancy Jane: ohhhhh yes, double and triple.

  13. I can think of one or two characters who come to think of themselves as Evil who work (Richard III or Iago, maybe–they pretty much say “I’m just feeling like doing the really bad stuff, dude.” And do). But one of the smartest things I ever heard from a teacher was, No one thinks of themselves as evil. If they are doing things they know are bad, they have a reason why these things must be done. So there.

    I’m not particularly intrigued by revenge unless it’s wrapped up in something with the brilliance of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd (not the Tim Burton version. Ick.) And I hate what I suppose is Mary Suism–the character who does everything right. Weirdly, Thomas Harris succumbed to this with Hannibal Lecter, who has perfect taste in wine and clothes and art (perfect for the value of the most obvious “high class” choices, of course) and hates bad manners. The hating bad manners thing was a nice detail in the character–the rest was simply dim, and not only dim but insistently dim.

    I do like some serial killer books (mostly because I am constantly fascinated by the why of it–not the mayhem done, but what the mayhem means to the perpetrator. I’m currently reading Devil in the White City, a nonfiction book about a serial killer who haunted the 1892 Chicago World’s Fair, and one of its weaknesses thus far is that, while the author goes in heavily for foreshadowing and omniscient pronouncements, there’s no sense of why the bad guy is doing what he’s doing except that he’s, well…bad.

    Sherwood, if you haven’t read Suzy McKee Charnas’s The Vampire Tapestry, you might like it. It’s a very smart, beautifully written book and utterly unsensational.

    Can I just say that chick-lit not only leaves me cold, but makes me just a little cranky?

  14. Oh: and one other thing I don’t like, somewhat related to your “Kings who don’t King…” I hate characters who don’t seem to work. They have job descriptions, but it’s sort of…teflon work. Seems to have no effect on them. Perhaps because the author considers work to be an icky necessity she doesn’t want to talk about?

  15. Madeleine: I will. I went for the longest time thinking that it was by another three name author who I constantly mixed up with her, and her vampire series that is not my cuppa.

    Yes: work. My theory is that some writers have never actually had real jobs, so they have no idea what it means when someone else owns your time.

  16. Against my will, I watched several seasons of Dexter, which is about a serial killer. For a while, it worked for me, but only because he attempted to go the vigilante route for his escapades. As soon as he crossed that line, I was done. I skip scenes written from the vp of villains, so there’s no way I’m watching a show or reading a book devoted to one.

    I would add:

    1. Mob/gang/thug stories. It’s always the same: paranoia, betrayal, and revenge. Snoozerama.

    2. Despicable heroes. Flawed heroes are okay, even preferable, but stories where the protagonist is a rapist? Forget it.

  17. Jennifer: Oh yes, I’m with you on the mob, or “sympathetic” rapists. Eccch.

  18. Sherwood
    Thank you for those reading suggestions. I will look for them.

  19. Attackfish: Absolutely loved the show–watched it with my kids (one grown, one Aang’s age at the time) and continued to love it until the last twenty minutes, which we all thought dropped the ball most painfully and thoroughly.

  20. PJ says:

    The best use of an animal companion—who did get a kind of reward—are the Damiano books by R. A. MacAvoy. One of my all time favorite fantasy reads on so many levels.

  21. Laird says:

    Get off my lawn! Get off my lawn!

  22. Livia Llewellyn says:

    After having read your list, I’ve come to the conclusion that you will never – NEVER – read anything I ever get published. Oh well… :P

    Livia “Elder God/Monster/Serial Killer Loving” Llewellyn

  23. Mary says:

    Declaring you are Evil is adolescent melodramatics. You just have to find a way to make a melodramatic adolescent a credible threat.

  24. Mary says:

    Then my peeves differ somewhat:

    1. politics! Perhaps because it mostly features my second peeve.

    2. both sides are equally good — and not very. This ranges from a height of “I think that it matters to no one but your piggish little selves who wins” to “What can’t you both lose?” (Both side good works and is in fact a way to rackett up the anguish, but you seldom get that.)

  25. Livia: I am always willing to be convinced to change my mind!

    And if not, hey, there’s something for everyone, that’s the great thing about so many books to choose from.

  26. Oh, thank you so so so very much for #7 (“Evial Red Priests”) in particular. We are as one on that point especially, though I agree with all your others, except that there actually IS one monster book, or rather series, that I find fascinating and wonderful and unexpected (and also some of the most truly brilliant worldbuilding I’ve read in years). It’s D.M. Cornish’s MONSTER BLOOD TATTOO series, recently rebranded as THE FOUNDLING TRILOGY, and the books are FOUNDLING, LAMPLIGHTER and the forthcoming FACTOTUM. Yes, they deal (in part) with monster hunting. Yes, the monsters are big and scary. But the hero is the sweetest young boy you ever will meet, and there is an Unexpected Twist that involves both with him and with the monsters…

    If you haven’t read these, I highly recommend them. They’re epic secondary world fantasies with a Dickensian, Gormenghastish flavour.

  27. Hmmmm . . . one problem with this kind of list is that it grows and grows until there’s apparently nothing good left to read!

  28. Kirsten says:

    Secon Cornish’s “Monster Blood Tattoo” series. One of the particular delights of the series is the entirely mutable line between “monstruous” and “human” (and the ethical and social complications that necessarily ensue) while still having scary monsters to fight.

    That and the world-building is to die for.

  29. It’s true–Cornish’s series is one of those delightful exceptions.

    Steven: oh no, what I am finding are all these exceptions, which is great!

  30. Lasitaja says:

    Re: Slights.
    OK, I usually get my serial killers on TV, instead of books, so who knows if this one is so different, but it works as fiction. It’s not so much a horror story as a psychological novel. There is not much actual violence and killing is not glorified. The protagonist tells her story how she grew up and became lonelier and lonelier, and dug up family secrets, and felt that she had no choice. Mind you, she was not a nice person at all, but I felt for her and was relieved that this isn’t my story.

  31. Lasitaja: that sounds very different from the increasingly glorified serial killers of now on TV.

  32. coneycat says:

    Re: serial killers. I read a lot of crikme fiction and avoid these assiduously. But a few years ago I accidentally started one called Forty Words For Sorrow, in which the serial killers are self-centred and kind of stupid and suffer from fatal selfishness and lack of empathy. The author reserves his sympathy for the victims, their families, and the police trying to catch the guy.

    At the time I liked it a lot because it completely avoided romanticizing the serial killers. It rightly presented them as scum-sucking bottom feeders, preying on the most vulnerable.

  33. Coneycat: I feel about this about the way I feel about realistic stories featuring primitive life–while I laud the effort, I have no desire to read it!

  34. Hallie says:

    Fraid I got way too much amusement out of your list to even think about suggesting exceptions! Instead, a question: how do you feel about Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos books? I don’t think I’ve read Agyar, but started a reread of the others, and it’s definitely a bit disconcerting starting at the beginning again, with Vlad less — developed, maybe. (Also, I never much liked Cawti, for possibly very bad reasons!) With both animal companions and a protagonist who could be considered a serial killer, the books could be seriously on your not-reading list!

  35. Hallie: I know it shows how lamentable my taste is, but I’ve tried and bounced off the Vlad Taltos books for years. However, I adored the Phoenix Guards books (which kind of intersect these, but the Dumas influence shows a little more) and his stand-alones I think are terrific.

  36. Rabia says:

    Yes, yes, yes and yes! I threw my hands up in disgust and gave up on Heroes at the end of season one, too, when it became clear that the serial killer dude had slithered off into the sewers instead of being properly dead.

    I also do not get any thrills from werewolves, vampires and *shudder* zombies. The only exception to the vampire rule is Robin McKinley’s SUNSHINE, which is just a wonder to read. I’m not into snarky heroines, either.

    And thank you for pointing out the ubiquitous oppressive priesthood. My husband and I were commenting on how rare it is to find fantasy protagonists who are actual devout followers of any of their world’s religions. Most of those protagonists view religion with the same lens as contemporary secular Westerners.

    Really liked this post. :)

  37. I have the feeling that the HEROES producers intended to kill Sylar at the end of first season, but the character turned out to be popular, so they let him escape. I hated that ending because it was so unsatisfying.

  38. Rabia says:

    Oh, also wanted to mention that I am with you on disliking the idealized depictions of primitive life. If I were a woman living in that sort of situation, I’d be spending my days beating laundry on the rocks, grinding corn and weaving blankets, instead of writing stories, experimenting with art and reading books to my kids. I’ll take my labor-saving devices any day, thanks. :D

  39. Rabia: With you on Sunshine, which I adore.

    Steven: I had a feeling that was the case. Ah, well.

  40. Hallie says:

    Heh – I had exactly the opposite reaction. Found the “Honour demands I must kill you, for you looked at me sideways” of the Phoenix Guards (first book only one I read) much harder to take than Vlad. If Vlad had stayed just an assassin, I wouldn’t have liked the books though.

  41. Will says:

    My addition to the list: Futuristic fiction with characters who are thinly disguised people in our own time. I once bought a used book to check out a series of novels. 1 of the villains was obviously Congresswoman Pat Schroeder of Colorado. This guy was obviously trying to write 1 for the ages…

  42. Will: to that I will add futuristic stories with slang and fashions that are distinctive for the time the book was written.

  43. Brenda says:

    This is particularly easy to spot if you read either futuristic or historical fiction that was written many years ago. I had occasion to read Mika Waltari’s THE EGYPTIAN some time ago — it is set in the Egypt of Ramses II but was written in the 50s. And it -feels- like a ’50s novel; you can see easily through the Egyptian veneer.

  44. Monsters – my hero faces a few in book 1, but they are obstacles mostly, and sometimes thrown in for fun. In book 2 I don’t rally have any.

    Serial Killers – Nope. I write fantasy
    Destiny – No.
    Elder Gods – I have Major Deities, but the role of gods in my books is very different.

    Magic – the hero has magic thrust upon him, which has different effects depending on what he wants it to do. He doesn’t use magic much, mostly for small useful things.

    Kings – no kings
    Priests – priests are people just like everyone else. check my latest post on this subject at http://authorguy.wordpress.com

    Utopia – good for idealism, not much else. The hero leaves and realizes he can’t go back.
    Elves – no elves. I did use elves in one short story I did, but the were homicidal maniacs.
    Animals – my hero has an animal he travels with, one of the nastiest creatures ever made. Not wise or spiritual in any way.

    I just wrote a werewolf novel, but my interest is in the people who become werewolves and what they do about it, rather than the werewolves. Not very dramatically interesting, werewolves.

  45. Marc: sounds like some cool stuff that you are working on. I liked your blog post on religion.

  46. Thank you. I have read so many books over the years where the priests are always the sworn enemies of magic-users and there’s always an inquisition going on. The Yurt books by C. Dale Brittain are such a breath of fresh air in that respect, a well as many others.
    I once concluded, in a philosophical paper I wrote, that monsters could only be humans in some form. I used this in one of my novels, A Warrior Made. So I would class serial killers, and even worse, those who prey on children, as monsters, but animalish beasties are simply creatures.

    Marc Vun Kannon
    http://www.marcvunkannon.com

  47. Rasa says:

    I’m with you on almost all of this — I hate destiny, because basically it says that your characters are impotent, that their choices and actions count for nothing because big ol’ DESTINY is going to wipe their faces and tie their shoes for them and make sure they get their grand victory. What the hell is the point of free will if you’re going to have destiny stomp all over it?

    I do like monsters, but not in the 2-d sense that they’re often employed — I like monsters as love interests, sympathetic but not sanitized, and staying unmistakably NOT HUMAN. If the monster is just like, RAWR I am evil monster who is evil because I am evil! …yeah, yawn.

    Good point about religion too. That’s something I find really interesting in both reading and writing secondary-world fantasy — how rare and how hard it is to write a character with faith. It seems like the only religions you see in fantasy are the dogmatic, monolithic Christianity-knockoffs, that you have to wonder why anyone would ever join because they include all the worst aspects of Christianity but leave out the parts that attract people, or moon-worshiping Wicca-knockoffs. Which, as pointed out above, have a damnable tendency to overly romanticize the primitive. Moreover, when a religion is that recognizable, it feels like really heavy-handed author endorsement of Christianity/Wicca/whatever if the character actively lives in accordance with their religious beliefs.

    For an example of religion in fantasy done VERY well, I recommend Guy Gavriel Kay’s “Sailing to Sarantium” and its sequel, “Lord of Emperors.” At one point the main character has a… well, religious experience through a work of art, a scene that moved me very deeply even though I’m not the least bit religious myself.

    • Religious faith and experience is rarely done well these days. Some writers try to depict a person with faith, but almost inevitably something bad happens, and boom, it’s gone, ephemeral as a bubble. I want to send those writers a copy of Boethius.

      • Megan says:

        You may be somewhat interested in Brent Week’s Night Angel trilogy then. One of the things that impressed me most was the religious angle, as one of the secondary characters (and this would not have worked half so well if it had been the main character) has a lot of Really Bad Stuff happen to him, but maintains his faith throughout.

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