Is This A New Thing?

Years ago, I was mentoring someone (I’ve mentioned it here before) who thought “Novel” was a length.

Before you go “but novel is a length.” Sure, it is, but it is also a unit of plot of action and hopefully character experience and growth.

If you sat down and wrote 80k words of your character going for walks, having school days, having meals with friends, it wouldn’t be a novel, unless there’s a theme and some sort of …. sequence working itself through it.

Otherwise what you have are a bunch of completely disconnected vignettes, most of them lacking all action.

Here’s the thing: men and women not only write differently, they read differently.

Sure, a lot of us like some of the women here do like tension in their reading. The really weird thing is I need more tension when writing than when reading, to stay engaged. But I know I’m an outlier.

Most women, particularly when stressed, like slow, lazy rules. Maybe sexy, but not particularly heart wrenching.

Of course, the low end or high end of this is fanfic. Particularly things like Jane Austen fanfic. You know the couple will get together. You know everyone, and it’s like a lazy ride through the book.

In fact, many books advertise “low angst.”

I’m not going to throw any stones, since when I’m stressed out of my mind, I only read Austen fanfic. Like, you know, when I didn’t sleep well for the last three weeks.

And a lot of the fanfic sets out to erase all the issues that Austen gave her characters, and smoothing their path. And better/worse they get them married and then…. the novel goes on and on and on, with everyday life only better. the characters go from triumph to triumph, and everything is wonderful and perfect and beautiful. And we never know when the novel will end, and sometimes suspect that they’ll follow the couple to heaven to revel in their eternal joy.

I will confess I have very little patience for those, and find myself skimming around page twenty, then reading the ending and rolling my eyes.


Imagine my horror when I found this creeping into other, mostly intensely feminine subgenres, like cozy mysteries, where we never doubt who the murderer is, and the detective is never at risk, and does all sorts of fun things, before the perp falls into her lap.

Or what I’d call cozy fantasy — which can be romance, mystery or a sort of happy myth type of thing — same thing. There’s never any real doubt and the triumph is never in doubt.

My first reaction was to roll my eyes.

My second reaction was: is this a new thing?

It’s not something I enjoy, but let’s face it, all these books are doing really well, and they serve the needs of very stressed women, which is a lot of us these days.

So, is this a new thing? Or did I stumble, through serendipity of choices, onto the appearance of a trend where there is none?

40 thoughts on “Is This A New Thing?

  1. Periodically someone will point out very popular authors of long ago, best sellers equal to or even more successful than compatriots that remain classics today, but that no one in modern times has heard of. And therein lies the difference, they dealt with then current events that caught the attention of readers of their time. The ones that still stand tall as classics today managed to touch on some overweening elements of the human condition that carry through to modern day.

  2. The pastoral and the idyll have a long history.

    Note that when people knew something about farming, it was shepherds and shepherdesses. That is, people who did have to sit about a lot. Ah, leisure

  3. I think a lot of new authors start out that way, just doing pure escapism about good things happening to fictional people that they like. It may be enhanced by the fact between the Millennials and the Zoomers, we are now two generations from the general public (not talking about people who have to struggle with health problems, etc) in America having any exposure to hardship. They cannot conceive of things going badly in a materialistic sense, because it generally hasn’t for them and they generally haven’t been taught about how rough past generations had it. The “curated lifestyle” influencers also promote a narrative of floating effortlessly through life.

    I’m guilty of going easy on my characters a bit in places in the Jaiya books, and the second Ancestors of Jaiya book (Saving a Queen), I think. In my case, it was a combination of not being in the mood for drama-llama, common-sense-impaired heroes or heroines, and trying to write books that weren’t too dark for what I understood the sweet/clean romance market to be. (Come to find out the sweet/clean fantasy romance market is YA/NA characters with generic fantasy trappings, so 25+ yr-old women paired with men 7-10 yrs older in a secondary world with India-influenced elements was a no-go).

    Result: the good guys in those books are fairly affable people who get to liking each other quickly, they make (what seemed to me at the time like) sensible decisions about the dangers they run across, people who are bad in those books are generally also stupid; and the real enemies are eldritch abominations whose agendas are recognizable to some extent but who are not easy to empathize with.

    1. > It may be enhanced by the fact between the Millennials and the Zoomers, we are now two generations from the general public (not talking about people who have to struggle with health problems, etc) in America having any exposure to hardship. They cannot conceive of things going badly in a materialistic sense, because it generally hasn’t for them

      I guess all those people who’s family’s finances crashed and burned in 2008 didn’t actually exist. And none of the rampant abusive situations in the schools existed either….

  4. I don’t know if its a thing or not, or even new, but its what I’m doing. An excellent adventure where nobody dies and nothing that bad happens? Yep. That’s how things are turning out, here at Chez Phantom.

    Those are the books I want to read. I don’t really have room in my over-stressed brain for anything more emotionally challenging than that.

    1. I feel that way too, but I’m trying to give my WIP a bit more angst and trouble than I really want to deal with right now.

      There’s a reason why fluffy musicals and screwball comedies were popular in the 1930s.

  5. I think it’s a mixture of things, a combination of writers that have never had to deal with any kind of real threats or issues (and don’t know how to write them) and that escapist feel to them. Considering how my life has been the last few months, having the entire world run on perfect rails is so very tempting…

  6. I don’t think it’s a new thing in cozy mysteries. Certainly in long-running cozies, at a certain point in the series, it becomes about checking in with the characters and the setting that we love so much, and the mystery is treated as an afterthought at best, an annoying distraction at worst. The author is essentially writing fluffy fanfiction of her own series.

    (A classic example would be the “Cat Who…” mystery where the sheriff finds a body behind Qwill’s cabin in Chapter 2, and Qwill then proceeds to ignore it in favor of important things like Yum Yum playing with her thimble, until the last chapter where the killer randomly confesses to him. But I’ve already ranted about that, so I’ll try not to do any more of that except to say it’s what I’m talking about here.)

    What might be new is cozies that start that way. I noticed way back in the 90s that there was a subset of mysteries that seemed to want to be literary fiction or historical fiction, but they weren’t selling that way, so the author tossed a murder on top and tried to market it as a mystery. I wonder if some of what you’re seeing is that same phenomena, except that “fluffy fanfiction” is the underlying genre.

  7. I’m pretty hard on my heroes (any gender). They do start out as good guys by temperament, but life is no picnic for them — those good intentions are sorely tried. It takes work and determination to survive and flourish, and to be willing to put everything on the line for good reasons, or even “just because”. Things may work out, but not without significant cost.

    I haven’t killed a primary hero (yet), but I do get the occasional comment from a reader about being too hard on one (and that not being something they wanted to read about). But what’s the point of a hero who’s willing to grit his/her teeth and get on with it, if there’s nothing to grit teeth about? Rewards are for heroes, not just for the lucky (or the villain), though the hero may have trouble seeing justice in quotidian life from his limited POV.

  8. Female reader here (not writer at all) and old enough to have children and grandchildren. I’m not particularly fussy about what fiction I read for pleasure these days–it needs point, counterpoint, and resolution, done so that the resolution is at least within shouting distance of rationality, along with as little as possible of handwavium. The thing is, as society gets crazier the more I look for fluff. Right now I skip right on by anything labeled ‘dystopia’ and read blurbs and samples very carefully to make sure I’m not reading “overly” realistic for pleasure. I started reading science fiction/fantasy in the mid sixties, and I haven’t re-read even such as Three Hearts Three Lions recently.

    There may indeed be a trend as described but it might be market driven rather than writer driven. The trend may go too far (SOMETHING has to happen that needs resolution!) but readers right now may want the the low angst happy ever after, rather than authors not knowing how to write otherwise.

  9. Years ago I tried a Nora Roberts book to see what all the fuss was about. I got about three chapters in before I gave up on waiting for something to happen. It was about a woman in a small town, so maybe I just didn’t appreciate the ultimate cozy?

    1. There’s a very big difference between Nora Roberts from 2013 and earlier and her later stuff. It can be hard to find the original copyright dates, but look for them. Several of her later ones are worthwhile.

      Her J. D. Robb alias series (mid 21st century police procedurals are pretty good, too.)

        1. I believe it has to do with a wave of reissues from Harlequin et alia that hit shore around then, before or around the time she was launching her own empire where she could control her story lines and lengths.

          Understanding that Romance is very much an individual thing, I’ll take the risk of mentioning my favorites: The Witness; High Noon; The Search; The Inn Boonsboro trilogy; Bride Quartet; The Liar; The Obsession

          I actively enjoy all the “In Death” series (J. D. Robb).

            1. Not exactly — remember, she’s written dozens and dozens. Your sort was probably standard for her trad published period, and that would be the majority. She has plenty of old stinkers, but that’s partly the time/requirement, not just her.

  10. I hope it’s not a thing. If I need a comfort book I’ll do a reread. Thus I’ll know if the ending is happy or not but at least it will still have the dynamics of the novel. The Scarlet Pimpernel will get the girl but he’ll have to go through the steps.

  11. It’s a thing. It’s always been a thing in fanfic; I suspect it’s become more widespread with indie.

    …I personally don’t care for it, but that’s because life without any significant obstacles doesn’t ring true to me. It itches my back teeth, because it’s falsely perfect and shallow, and I distrust what’s beneath the facade.

    I like obstacles overcome, not lack of them entirely.

    Then again, this is probably no surprise to anyone who reads what I write…

    1. …that said, I’ve run into it a fair bit because I’m not a fan of angst or whining. So the “low-angst” or “no-angst” tag keeps making me go “Oh, maybe this’ll be good!”

  12. To get on my own personal hobbyhorse and take it on a spin around the yard, I wonder if it’s connected to the insistence that all novels must be part of a series, or at least written so that they could be part of a series.

    There’s no real sense of danger when the reader knows that Max Hero, Plucky McSidekick, and Babalicious Loveinterest all have to get through the story unscathed so they can be around for the next book.

    And the goalpost for success–at least in the minds of many if not most writers–has shifted from “writing a best seller” to “writing a best selling series”, so there’s always this nagging little voice in the back of the writer’s mind that if this book gets popular then they have to be able to write a sequel, and then another, and so on.

    Consequently, it’s rare to find real, lasting consequences in modern fiction. Books have to be able to “tile”–the situation at the end of any given book has to be comparable to the situation at the beginning of any other one.

      1. Okay, so series sell better. That’s still an incentive to write a series, which is what I am talking about. Whatever the cause, the mindset of leaving the story open for the next book leads authors to shy away from any significant changes in the fortunes of the characters.

        1. Um…. Not actually. Have you read Pratchett’s Vimes series?
          All my series, except the ones deliberately episodic are like that. You grow the character and you give a bigger challenge. Deliberately episodic: the mystery series. And even those….
          A lot of my series are conceived of as having a beginning and an end. They just don’t fit in a single book.

          1. So you don’t think that the desire to expand a novel into a series limits the possible outcomes of a particular book? A writer who is thinking of their current project as “Book One Of…” doesn’t avoid certain endings because they would mean the end of those characters’ adventures?

            1. To a point. And the main point is “Will the reader buy another book from me?” A writer who is regularly making you love a character, and then kills him or her . . . may lose a lot of readers, whether or not it’s a series.

            2. I actually don’t KNOW. I’ve never HEARD of a writer doing that.
              Myself, and friends to whose series I’ve been privy, the dang thing just appears as this massive story, with side books.
              At any rate, Misha, what I was talking about was not the lack of “big dangers” in the book. it was more or less literally nothing happening, beyond going shopping, to nice restaurants, and talking a lot. (Not literally int he regency it will be dinners and parties.) When I say almsot no plot, I MEAN it.

              1. Sarah is not making this up. It is even a problem in mainstream comics, where issue after issue is nothing but nothing happening.

                Not slice of life, not character insights, not worldbuilding. Nothing.

                And when a plot point is introduced, there is deliberate avoidance of drama. The character that used to be dating your main character for years gets dumped? No problem. He/she is not just okay with it, but enthusiastic about the new SO. But not in a way that creates any further plot, either. Everything is stasis, except when something happens for no reason — and then that also gets smothered in nothingness.

          2. Pratchett was the God of Picking Up Tiny Side Stories in Later Novels.

            I’m currently rereading his entire Discworld series in order. And in all those books, nothing and no one is ever wasted.

            In the series I’m revising now, I’m aiming toward that — one story started and finished in any given novel, and a handful of others hinted at… and those stories will get their own novels.

            As for writing Low Threat Happy-Happy — no. Couldn’t read them. Wouldn’t write them if they were the only books selling.

            But I didn’t ever think life was safe. Or easy.

            I’ve seen up close just how horrible human existence can be, first as an atheist missionaries’ kid living in a Central American war zone (I was the atheist, my idiot parents were the missionaries)… and then as a registered nurse working mostly ER… and then when things that went downhill from there.

    1. If the stories in the series are too similar, it gets boring.

      “Max Hero, Plucky McSidekick, and Babalicious Loveinterest” Now that made me laugh.

      Sometimes Plucky needs to go off to college, and Babalicious gets sick and tired of being kidnapped by villains and runs off and marries a veternarian and helps with all the fuffy puppies.

  13. I described this to the oldest, and he says “Oh, nichijou comes to America!”

    Spelling uncertain, he had to sound it out. The ‘ou’ at the end is a dipthong.

  14. I’ve been reading a lot of fanfic the last few years. Too much probably since reading one type of book is like eating only one type of food. Popcorn is good but I need more than just popcorn.

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