Accentuate the Positive

From time to time we’ve discussed the types of “cookies” readers expect in various genres, but today I want to talk about some reader cookies that are – for me, at least – universal across genres.

It all started with the current selection for my book club, Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals. It’s not badly written, but it consists of chapter after chapter after chapter about some “great man” who was a jerk in his personal life. I think his thesis was that an attitude of “I’m an intellectual and therefore all of society should behave the way I think,” is correlated with a total lack of empathy in real life. But we’re all, I think, tired of reading yet another example of a horrible person.

Which caused me to reflect that, by contrast, I like reading about good people making difficult decisions, and it doesn’t always have to be a decision to go forth and save the world. It can be as small as a decision not to snap at the annoying in-law, or to donate some time to mentoring a young person.

I also like reading about competence in action. That can be tied to an immediate plot problem, as a character walks into what seems like an intractably tangled situation and straightens things out one step at a time. It can also mean seeing a character create something good and lasting over time, as in A Town Like Alice. (It’s no coincidence that I have Nevil Shute’s complete works on my shelves.)

I like seeing a character applying supposedly irrelevant expertise, gained in some manner totally unrelated to the current problem. Peter O’Donnell’s “Madeleine Brent” books were almost all based on a heroine with an extremely nonstandard upbringing encountering Victorian England.

I read way too much fiction, but the books that I come back to again and again usually have some of these characteristics. Even after I know exactly what happens I will reread the book just because I like spending time with these characters, or in this world.

And now – speaking of good characters making good decisions – Pam Uphoff’s latest Alliance book is out today, and I’m going to put my feet up and enjoy some more time watching decent people deal with a horribly flawed world. After that, maybe I’ll reread Trustee from the Toolroom.

What are your universal cookies?

22 thoughts on “Accentuate the Positive

  1. Characters that I enjoy spending time with.
    An interesting plot.
    Stakes I might conceivably give a damn about.

    (Paraphrased from a rant about why I would *not* like to watch another episode of a “Real Housewives” tv show.)

  2. I’m with you on Nevil Shute. I love seeing good people making their best decisions, undeterred by obstacles. Alice, Trustee — terrific books. He’s the fellow I think of when I use “low-key” to describe some modern SciFi/Fantasy leads.

    I don’t usually consider that for Romance, but (come to think of it) some of Heyer’s leads are “low key” in the same way, until they come into their own and make that a better-recognized virtue. In her vocabulary, the antithesis to “low-key” would be “lively” (at least for the female protags — for the males, I suppose “daring” would have to do. But think of the low-key male protags — there are more than you might think.).

    Expensively, you’ve made me seek out the Madeleine Brent’s — (curses). I now have an account at Thriftbooks. (Cheaper in bulk re: shipping than if you got there via Amazon.)

  3. One trend I absolutely loathe about a lot of modern TV series — the plots are all about conflict, rather than growth. They go straight to the conflict rather than the process of building resilient and confident characters. You’re supposed to think that all strength is inborn — and while the disposition may be inborn, it takes real effort to mold a full personality from it, an admirable character.

    It’s action heroes all the way down in SpecFic/Thrillers, and bicker-bicker-bicker-scheme for everything else on screen today. Corrosive stuff.

    Even the gusher of wish-fulfillment dreck coming out in print these days eschews the concept of choosing to improve — it’s all victims or built-in advantages as character traits.

    1. I think the “no growth” approach in stories (TV/Thrillers/etc) reflects a currently common approach to life: I’m a great person, so I’m going to change the world – by changing other people (AKA The System), but I don’t need to change at all! (And in Silicon Valley, get rich by changing the world!)

      Which is the opposite of trying to improve a situation by changing yourself first. (I think these approaches match certain groups in the current culture wars, but will stop there since MGC needs to stay a politics-free zone).

      1. Another corollary is that it’s hard to write about personal growth unless you’ve experienced it. Which is why we see a lot of static characters, “all you lack is confidence” (closest thing to an arc Rey has in Star Wars sequels), and characters who are meant to experience growth but whose baseline is set too far down to be likable (Princess Leia being an unnecessary whiny bish every step of the way in Empire Strikes Back, Galadriel considered as a standalone character in Rings of Power) or plausible (Galadriel considered as a component of the Golden House of Finarfin in Rings of Power).

      2. I’d guess that it is also partly generational. The self-esteem “I’m great just the way I am!” stuff I barely escaped in the 1980s-early 90s. So all characters are perfect just they way they start out, like the writers are.

  4. ACC-sentuate the positive!
    E-liminate the negative!
    Latch on to the affirmative!
    Don’t settle for Mr. In-between.

  5. Universal personal cookies: the tropes that fanficcers call hurt/comfort and whomp; but that go back to at least Victorian times. The figure with villain or anti-hero stylings who turns out to be a pretty good guy (Strider in LOTR, Colonel Mortimer in Few Dollars More, the Master of Blacktower by Barbara Michaels). The seemingly weak or unimpressive character who shows a hidden strength or resourcefulness. The villain who preys on people’s kindness. Romance that starts after marriage.

  6. I like seeing a character applying supposedly irrelevant expertise, gained in some manner totally unrelated to the current problem. Peter O’Donnell’s “Madeleine Brent” books were almost all based on a heroine with an extremely nonstandard upbringing encountering Victorian England.

    Miss Marple!

    Also Father Brown, from Chesterton.

    All doing “small” wisdom, applied far out…. while not being cool.

    1. A wide variety of experience can be very handy in the real world, too. I’m not sure how often my variety of experiences has helped solve unrelated problems, but I do love having a job where I get to do a wide range of activities (but sometimes I have to remind my boss of my limitations).

      Thinking about this some more, parenting is another activity involving a huge variety of tasks.

      Modern “elite” culture’s denigration of that variety of real world experiences is a major weakness.

      1. A very simple example, at one point it was me (hobbit) and three over-six-foot-tall guys in the shop.

        We ran out of toilet paper.
        ….I had to explain “use a broom stick to knock it down” because the guys who had always been talk hadn’t learned how to *do* that stuff.

        I am still boggled by the idea that “get a stick and knock it down” was outside of their experience.

  7. Is this Peter O’Donnell the same one who wrote Modesty Blaise? It’s been a really long time since I read those. Now I need to read Shute, too. Thanks for the suggestions.

    My cookies? I want competent good people, too. Goergette Heyer’s men and Heinlein’s have more in common than one might think, never mind the stylistic differences.

    I’ve been on a Mary Stewart kick, and I really like her approach of having a good, ordinary person be confronted with some outlandish situation and rising to the occasion.

    1. Yes, Peter O’Donnell wrote both Modesty Blaise and Madelaine Brent (under that pen name originally) according his Amazon page.

  8. I’ve been trying for hours to remember who the “competence” trope was reminding me of. Dick Francis wrote a book called Proof, about a wine merchant instead of his more common jockeys. When the wine merchant saves the day at the end because of his specialized knowledge it’s just great.

      1. His research for some of those books could have been better. He wrote one about computers that was so bad it became the basis for comic readings at the place I worked then. And the one about glass displayed a… um… idiosyncratic understanding of thermal shock.

        I was able to read Proof because I don’t know anything about wine.

        1. Pretty sure the one about glass was his son. It was incredibly different from his others.

          1. I’m obsessive so I went and checked. The glass blowing book came out the year his wife died and he said it would be his last. He did write more later with his son and i don’t like any of them that I tried. He also evidently tried to fix the computer book which was originally projected into the future. When the future got there it did make the book silly!

  9. Mysteries are my favorite comfort reading. I don’t expect personal growth in mysteries, but I do like interesting suspects (Christie is the best here, e.g. The Hollow), engaging detectives (e.g. the interplay between Wolfe and Goodwin, or Holmes and Watson), fair play, and a plot that doesn’t revolve around working out complicated alibis.

    For fantasy, SF, and other novels, in general I do like to see challenges and growth, but there are exceptions (see Wodehouse, P.G.).

    1. On the flip side, there’s a place for books without cookies. Johnson wrote Intellectuals to relentlessly make his argument that we shouldn’t follow Intellectuals; if he’d written Intellectuals and Men of Letters it wouldn’t have made his point as strongly, AND would’ve clocked in at 900 pages, give or take a few (Modern Times is 880 pages in paperback).

      I’m glad I’ve read all of the The Gulag Archipelago, but there are parts I’ve yet to re-read, such as The White Kitten, because although I remember it as excellent, it was too sad and depressing. Same thing for re-reading the Silmarillion straight through – I can re-read bits and pieces, but reading it straight is just too depressing.

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