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What Does it Mean to Read for Comfort?

After my post on the HEA and HFN, I got to thinking about “comfort reading.” We talk a lot about comfort reading in Romance, even though I suspect we don’t share a universal definition for the term. For example, a recent blog post by Alison Flood in The Guardian, suggested that comfort reading is “easy and already familiar,” largely comprised of “rereading” and is therefore unchallenging to the intellect. Flood pointed to a report on children’s reading that indicated a “marked downturn in difficulty of books at secondary transfer,” which others have suggested may be due to a turn to earlier-read books as a way of coping with the transition to a much larger and more difficult school environment.

For children, of course, there’s not a lot to return to, in terms of reading levels, but as adults, we re-read for myriad reasons, as a recent BBC article noted:

Scientists have weighed in, too, citing the mental health benefits of re-reading. Research conducted with readers in the US and New Zealand found that on our first reading, we are preoccupied by the ‘what?’ and the ‘why?’. Second time round, we’re able to better savour the emotions that the plot continues to ignite. As researcher Cristel Russell of the American University explained of re-readers in an article published in the Journal of Consumer Research, returning to a book “brings new or renewed appreciation of both the object of consumption and their self.”

Comfort reading can, of course, relate to familiarity and the safety of knowing what’s going to happen. In Romance, this safety and familiarity can be multiplied by the promise of a happy ending. The formulaic nature of genre fiction (and I don’t mean this in a bad way, but in terms of its relied upon core formal elements) often means that we can experience a new book as “comfort reading,” because the reader can reasonably count on certain tropes, devices, storylines, character types, and emotional conflicts.

However, comfort reading doest have to be about the easy. A story with which a reader has formed a strong emotional, intellectual and/or psychological bond can allow for different experiences, and a deepening of experience, upon multiple rereads. Further, as the reader changes, so may her experience of and with the same text. Even if the desire in rereading is to return to something (a “simpler time,” a familiar feeling, a previous moment), that does not mean that the experience of rereading is not progressively enriching in other ways.

Moreover, not all comfort reading is the literary equivalent of hot cocoa, fluffy bunnies, and content sighs. As author Kameron Hurley explains in “Tragedy as Comfort Fiction: On Death, Drama, Disaster & Saving the World,” that in the face of a life-threatening illness, dark books were her comfort reads:

Reading tragedies, I realized, connecting with characters who persevered in the face of grim odds, and certain ends – were actually comfort reading for me. They put me into high-stress situations with no personal stakes, so I could actually feel the fear and discomfort and rage and horror without having any skin in the game.

Dark fiction didn’t depress me – it invigorated me. So when folks talked to me about my work, or the books I read, and said they were downers, there was always a big disconnect. I understood why they would like upbeat endings, all neat and tidy, because real life wasn’t like that, and they wanted something more hopeful.

But I felt plenty of hope all the time. It was the hope that kept me going.

I read because I needed to feel the other things without losing my shit and giving up.

This may seem counterintuitive, but it comports with Aristotle’s notion of catharsis, which is connected to “purification,” or the sense of being rid of certain negative emotions through the vicarious experience of a tragic journey.  Catharsis is not the same thing as happiness, but it can leave the reader/audience with a sense of an emotional clean slate, a base for emotional renewal and regeneration, as well as a hope that emerges from the purging of – in Aristotle’s version, at least – fear and pity.

Although I do not share Hurley’s personal near-death experience, or her particular health challenges, I immediately recognized in her essay an emotional kinship on the value of dark stories as comforting. In the months since my mom died, for example, I have been turning to Romances that are both familiar and that push a lot of my own buttons. These are books that were challenging to me the first time around, and have not gotten less so upon rereading. And as for the new books I’ve been undertaking, I’ve wanted to be similarly challenged and pushed to extremes and even triggered, in a way. Whether in Romance or in other genres, I’ve found the most comfort as a reader in stories that are not necessarily comfortable. This has been true throughout my life, in fact, especially when I am facing a more extreme challenge in life.

Not that I don’t also want the hot cocoa and the fluffy bunnies and the content sighs; I just don’t associate those exclusively with comfort reading. Sometimes it’s more comforting for me to be put through the emotional ringer — to cry and rage and feel terrified and pushed by a book – and to know that I can come out the other side fine. Sometimes I need to purge an excess of worry, anxiety, anger, or fear, and at the same time, I need the kind of emotional reassurance that only Romance delivers. And during those times I may want a book that doesn’t make it easy, either on me or the characters.

Although I already knew this about myself, I never really understood it clearly until I read Hurley’s essay. In fact, her essay made me think about all the definitions that are probably floating around out there for “comfort reading” amongst the huge diversity of readers, including Romance readers.

So tell me, what do you look for in a “comfort read”? Do you agree with the blog post in The Guardian that characterizes comfort reading as regressive, or are you more in Hurley’s camp? And does a comfort read have to be a familiar experience, even a reread book, or can it be something entirely new, as long as it connects on certain emotional, intellectual, or psychological registers?

Tuesday News: Book Talk Nation bungles diversity, reflections on The Thorn Birds, kids and comfort reading, interview with Teju Cole

Tuesday News: Book Talk Nation bungles diversity, reflections on The Thorn...

Kristan Higgins Tackles the Lack of Diversity in Romance - Although this was originally a Book Talk Nation link, after some Twitter feedback, BTN (wisely) pulled the post. If you want to see a screen cap, you can find one here. Another white author is credited for “diversifying” the Romance genre. Suleikha Snyder’s most excellent comment pretty much sums up why this is wrong and bad.

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For A Sheltered Teen, ‘Thorn Birds’ Was A Much-Needed Eye-Opener – Therese Walsh’s essay about how The Thorn Birds had a lasting influence on her. Although she was initially attracted to the book for the sex (and a comment from her former English teacher takes on a bitter irony), that’s not what kept her reading. An interesting, thoughtful piece about the unexpected, unpredictable, and important ways in which books matter.

I felt the book like I’d felt no other book before it, and I still have in my possession the paper I presented for that class. The themes of commitment and obligation as they related to love, family and even religion resonated keenly with me. I wrote about all the ironies, like the way Ralph’s commitment to God waned and perhaps morphed into obligation when he fell in love with Meggie, or the way Meggie remained committed to Ralph despite her marriage to another — a marriage that, soon after the honeymoon, seemed reduced to obligation.–NPR

It’s not only adults who need comfort reading – According to a study focused on what English children are reading, by the time they reach year seven, they are reading at a level that is a year below their age. While many things in this article deserve closer consideration (not the least of which is that comfort reading is regressive), not everyone is convinced this study heralds a crisis in British literacy:

According to the report’s author, Professor Keith Topping, this is a “matter for alarm”. According to Philip Pullman, speaking on Radio 4 on Wednesday, there’s not much need for panic. “Isn’t it only the natural thing to do? You go from being a big child in a small school to a very small child in a very big school. There’s all sorts of new anxieties, new people to meet, thousands of new things to do – so isn’t it natural you turn back to the things you felt safe with when you were younger? I remember doing that myself,” said Pullman. “I am a bit puzzled why there’s all this anxiety, that they’re not reading for pleasure, that they’re reading the wrong books. Well, no, it’s not the wrong book. If the child is enjoying it, it’s the right book.” –Guardian

Teju Cole: By the Book – I enjoy these “by the book” interviews and think this one is definitely worth passing on to the Dear Author readership. Teju Cole, art historian, writer, and photographer, talks about poetry, writers he loves, and his belief that the novel is “overrated.” Although I disagree with that last assertion, I loved his answer about what books he hasn’t read and found his comments about Twitter provocatively compelling:.

You’ve got an active Twitter account going. Does it influence your thinking or writing process?

I suppose it must. It’s such a combative place at times that it makes me less worried about putting ideas out into the world. You realize that anything you have to say is going to annoy some stranger, so you might as well speak your mind. But being active on Twitter also means that the literary part of my brain — the part that tries to make good sentences — is engaged all the time. My memory is worse than it was a few years ago, but I hope that my ability to write a good sentence has improved. –NYTimes