The inappropriate cannot be beautiful

An appropriate background for paranormal romance?

(The title quote is from Frank Lloyd Wright.)

Recently I’ve read two books that put me in a surprising critical and moral quandary. Both were well-written, clever novels in the “urban fantasy/paranormal romance” genre. Both featured assorted supernatural creatures (vampires, werewolves, ghosts, etc.) with which the female protagonist was emotionally and physically involved. Both involved the triumph of good over evil in order to save the world, or at least part of it.

But here’s the thing: both were set against the background of some of history’s worst events: the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, and the events leading up to the Holocaust.

I’m a slow thinker, so it took a while for me to puzzle out what nagged at me about these books. Eventually I came to two conclusions.  One was that each story was done very well, and would’ve worked just as well against a fictional background, or even a fictionalized version of the real events. The other was that the use of these real-life settings produced a crucial thematic disconnect between the events of the novel, and its chosen frame of reference. To me there’s something uncomfortable about putting standard supernatural tropes (especially the watered-down* ones found in this genre) in these settings. I hesitate to use such harsh terms, but it does seem fundamentally disrespectful. Whole populations were wiped out or displaced, the dark side of our species was exposed for all to see, and we’re expected to accept this as nothing more than background? The equivalent of Paris, or the Wild West?

Then again, it’s not the first time this has happened.  Probably the definitive example of inappropriate use would be the TV series Hogan’s Heroes, which imagined life in a Nazi POW camp in which the commandant was a buffoon and the so-called “prisoners” secretly ran the show. TV Guide has named it the fifth worst TV series of all time, but it was quite successful for a generation of TV watchers who could still remember the war. So what does that say?

(Okay, that’s not true. The definitive example is The Day the Clown Cried. Don’t believe me? Read the synopsis.)

I don’t know if this says anything about the world at large, or just me.  I only know that it makes me uncomfortable to read about, say, vampire clans agreeing to help send Jews to the concentration camps.  Other readers may not have the same issues.  But I’m curious to hear your opinions in the comments.

*This is a personal bias, and I acknowledge it as such.  The vampires, werewolves, and so forth found in most paranormal romance/urban fantasy novels are thinly-disguised versions of the “bad boys” of traditional romance, and as such, they no longer carry the symbolic or metaphorical weight of their former status as monsters. IMO.

8 Comments on “The inappropriate cannot be beautiful”

  1. It’s a tricky one, isn’t it? I have similar problems – the show ‘Allo ‘Allo in the UK, where the German SS were bumbling idiots and the French Resistance were farcical figures – that always jarred with me.
    Whereas I was FINE with M*A*S*H because of the nature of the humour and the sense it wasn’t belittling or sending up the people involved. I think it depends on WHY someone uses a real-life backdrop and while I haven’t read the books you mention, I do think if you want to step out of reality, then dragging in real life disasters just to give your fiction a new twist, isn’t a strong enough reason, given the distress those events caused…

  2. I have no problems with people setting books and using those types of events as the sort of ‘backdrop’, even if the primary tale isn’t about them. What DOES make me raise an eyebrow however, is when people do it for the sake of it. If a story could have worked just as well in a ‘regular’ environment, and the backdrop was used without having any impact on the story, then I honestly believe it’s fluff/bad editing.

    I think it was F. O’Connor who said that in short stories, every sentence must count. I’d go one further and say in fiction generally, everything must count.

  3. Well, as someone who probably wrote one of those “inappropriate” books, let me pose another possibility. If one lived through an event such as Hurricane Katrina, and one wants to honor the determination and love of a people and city that survived it. AND one’s genre is urban fantasy…is it really inappropriate? Should writers of speculative fiction be limited to inane topics or avoid the uncomfortable because someone might deem it inappropriate? My book about Hurricane Katrina is, ultimately, my love letter to my hometown that I love and almost lost.

  4. What has begun to bother me is the increasingly watered down mythos of creatures that once were to be feared. Vampires that don’t drink blood? Werewolves that are cuddly puppies? And all wrapped around a girl with a messiah complex. A Mary Sue with pert little… Um, nose…

    The as you mentioned, Alex, cut and pasted on top of a historical event for a tad more artificial drama. They become blah fests.

  5. I think the larger issue here isn’t about the theme itself, so much as how each individual uses that theme.

    For example. If you intend to use the Holocaust in a story, you have to realize the weight it has. These were real people. Living, breathing human beings. They did horrible things, terrible things.

    Hitler is especially misused in fiction. People often try to make him some sort of inhuman evil, an otherworldly type of monster. To me, it invalidates the true horror of his crimes.

    Adding speculative fiction to a setting can be dangerous. If someone says the Nazi’s were all possessed by demons, that, in some part, absolves them from their wrong-doing. And that’s wrong.

    I don’t agree with the general assessment that the inappropriate cannot be beautiful, but seeing as I’m at a loss for an immediate example, I’m going to have to admit it’s probably very difficult.

    The criteria for me, would be that the original source material is not degraded or eroded by the addition. If you can keep Nazi’s evil without leaving reality, then you can use them in a story.

  6. I think that using the actual events as a back drop is just plain tacky. But as far as whether or not its wrong, I think that if the authors are, for example, putting the vampires in a good light and trying to justify them sending the Jews away (like some type of necessary evil), that is just barbaric. I don’t know if the author is doing that, I haven’t read it. As far as the question you raise with Hogan’s Heroes… I think in life humans do two things with catastrophic events: 1. They try to, or at least seek to, explain them. 2. they try to humorize them. To many this is done in bad taste. But sometimes when you are apart of the group (like a kid in homeless shelter, or a person who grew up during the war, or fought in the way) its how you cope. Those are just my thoughts though.

  7. I read and really liked “Royal Street” which uses post-Katrina New Orleans as its setting. I think the author quite deliberately set her story there and then. The background isn’t just background, it’s a way to process the horror of the devastation of the city she knows and loves by telling a story. In her story, that devastation unleashes imaginary dark forces of evil, including some pretty non-standard ghosts (I don’t remember vampires, but there might have been) that were a metaphor for the very real evil that people inflicted. Writers have used fantasy and metaphor for years as a way to illustrate these themes — Tolkein’s LOTR is a thinly veiled account of WWII and the industrialization of Britain, and if I had more than 2 seconds, I could come up with other examples.

    But I do understand your point, after all — these are events in which thousands, if not millions of people died. When is it okay to use something like a Katrina, the Holocaust, or 9/11 as a story backdrop? Is it just a matter of your own personal taste? Is it just the old “if you don’t like it, don’t buy it” argument? Because I liked “Royal Street,” but probably wouldn’t buy a book that used the Holocaust as a setting or focal point. But then again, it depends on how it is done. Is it exploitative, or is it adding to the body of knowledge, however painfully? Is it The Reader (the former) or Schindler’s List (the latter)?

  8. Capitalizing on a historic tragedy for sake of drama and pathos is one thing, but writing about an event the author lived through, like Hurricane Katrina, is something completely different. I find it hard to believe that anyone who weathered that storm in New Orleans and suffered the aftermath alongside hundreds of thousands whose lives were forever-changed by those events could EVER by disrespectful of it.

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