Dear Author

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?