My favorite example of this kind of writing is (no surprise here) Anne of Green Gables and sequels, in which we basically get a window into the life of Anne Shirley and get to watch her grow up. She has victories and struggles, sadness and happiness, and a penchant for getting into scrapes, but there are no real antagonists or villains, no sweeping natural disasters, no explosions. There is the occasional gentle mystery, but that’s about it. I find reading these books to be profoundly restful.
Other examples include the Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace and much of Jane Austen’s oeuvre, Little Women and even Jane Eyre. I wonder if Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day could also fall in this category; indeed, perhaps that is part of the reason why I love it so much. Dramatic events happen but there’s plenty of time for the build-up to them and ample space to discuss social events, meals, and daily life.
These books are in stark contrast to the plot-driven fast-paced novel that is currently in vogue (at least in my part of the literary world). Cut cut cut, the advice for writers says. Every scene has to move the plot forward. Commercial fiction needs an antagonist, or maybe even a series of antagonists that lead up to the final Big Boss. I can read a screenwriting manual like Save the Cat! and find it completely relevant to novel-writing because so many novels feel at least somewhat like long-form movies, except instead of fancy cinematography they have ripples of beautifully garlanded prose. Meanwhile, these slow-paced books I’m talking about? They’re made into mini-series and too many versions of artsy costume films.
I want more of these books I love. I want to read books that have a plot but aren’t raising the stakes every five minutes. I want to read books that don’t have predictable plot twists because there aren’t so many plot twists to fit in, and that don’t have cliffhangers at each chapter ending because they are relying on enchantment rather than adrenaline to keep you reading. I want to read books that, while they don’t go off on hundred-page-long tangents like Hermann Melville is famous for doing, meander a little bit on their way to the ending. I want comfort food books in which nothing too awful happens, or at least, not too terribly often. I want more Agatha Christie novels in which, inevitably, justice is served in the end, and even in the face of brutal murders, characters carry on having dinner parties and taking care of their mustaches. I want more screwball comedies like To Say Nothing of the Dog in which the main character can’t remember what he is to do, takes a lazy trip down the Thames, returns a cat, and has to engage in some complicated matchmaking. Sure, the stakes are that the entire fabric of time could unravel, but did anyone feel really worried that such a thing would actually happen? I know I didn’t.
I don’t know if this desire makes me old-fashioned or out of touch. I’d like to think that somewhere out there is a cohort of readers who want the same things I want, who sometimes like to take a break from the page-turners and convoluted plot machinations, or the implausible series of misunderstandings and caricatured character flaws that so often characterize a less plot-driven novel. I’d like to think that this is why novels like Pride and Prejudice are still so popular.
But don’t mind me. I’ll just be curling up by the fire with A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold. Or maybe Among Others by Jo Walton, which is my new comfort book find of the year.
Have any comfort reading recommendations? Think I’m crazy to not always want the stakes raised? Please share.