A Comfort Read vs a Stale Read

Saturday, November 29, 2008

I was lurking on a message board when the topic turned to talks of authors who some reader felt had jumped the shark, or had fallen into a rut.

General consensus said these authors wrote one great book and then each book thereafter was just the same recycled story with only a change in character names/descriptions and setting, and with diminishing returns for the reader with each successive release.

Others piped up to say, some of those same authors were comfort reads *because* they could be counted on to deliver more of the same--the same being a favorite character type, theme.

I've been thinking what makes that difference between comfort and recycled? Is it voice? Character type or trope, etc? I don't think theme as much because I think that's a more (or can be) complex thing. But Alpha hero, virgin widows, secret babies, etc, these things can be done to death, or they could be like a glass of Coke, you can have one or two every day for the rest of your life with no problem, and still have as much enjoyment from the first as from the last.

But voice can eventually get on your nerves as certain writerly quirks begin to stand out. Tangentially related to this is timing/frequency. If you read too much of a favorite, will lead to burn out and that's when they jump from comfort to old.


1. A writer figures out what they're good at, what their strengths are, and that's what they focus on. It might make them comfort reads or stale, depending on the reader.

1a - Perhaps they're fine tuning what they do. Exploring things from different angles, adding new twists. Writing craft gets stronger, characterization deepens, plots become more layered, etc.

1b. They're not really growing, but they're doing their delivering what their core fan base want and there are yet new readers to discover them.

2. A writer tries to stretch their boundaries (either because they're bored with what they're writing, or it's not selling, etc). But it's not good. Not anywhere as good as what they were doing before. Or the elements that made them a favorite are now left behind (along with a fair percentage of their old readership).

3. Or it is good, and they now have a whole new set of writerly muscles to exercise and a larger, new, pool of readers to attract.


Lastly, another more disturbing thing came to mind-- the boundaries of natural abilities. You don't want to think they’re there, but they have to be, right? For some those boundaries are wider, and just how wide depends on how far they're push. But at the same time those boundaries may define the authors' strengths, and stretching the limits dilutes what makes that author unique.

Long ramble, sorry. I should answer my own question. Comfort vs. stale has a lot to do with voice/character/trope for me, and also timing. There types of books and certain authors I'll never tire of reading, they'll always end up on my keeper shelf. But I have to space out my reading of them, or it will steal some of the magic.
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11 comments:

Joely Skye said...

Interesting post, Vanessa. Yeah, I think there's a tension between riffing on your themes (and every author has them) without getting repetitive and moving too far out of your (or your readers') comfort zone, so that your writing/story-telling is suffering.

As an author, I think there's a problem if you're getting bored and it may show (though not necessarily, I suspect).

vanessa jaye said...

It's a hard balancing act, Joely. :-/

raine said...

You have an acute analytical ability, Ms. Jaye. ;)

It's a tough call. So many factors involved. Yes, the voice; subject; ability to draw the reader in, etc.
Maybe that author IS, as you said, exploring, and more interested in developing skills than repeating themselves. Who the author's writing for is important.
But I'm not sure there's a way to win in this situation. Keep the same basics, and someone will say you're writing the same story. Change too much, and someone will say you've deserted the winning formula.
There are books I've read over and over, and never tired of. I find something new everytime I read them (whether that's the author's skill or me relating to the inherent story I can't say).
But it's certainly possible to OD on even your favorite food. ;)

Good post.

vanessa jaye said...

There are books I've read over and over, and never tired of. I find something new everytime I read them (whether that's the author's skill or me relating to the inherent story I can't say).

Good point, Raine. These are the best reads! I hate when the opposite happens, you read a past favourite and it's so disappointing. You wonder what you ever saw in it.

Lynn Viehl said...

Raine wrote: Keep the same basics, and someone will say you're writing the same story. Change too much, and someone will say you've deserted the winning formula.

Damned if we do, damned if we don't. :)

There is nothing wrong career-wise with writing the cookie cutter novel (plenty of authors who have made a pile of money doing exactly this, especially in mystery and romance.) Publishers want us to repeat our successes, which is only good business sense, I suppose. I'm sure there is a lot to be said for safety in the writing routine of a story repeater, too. Obviously there are readers who prefer to know what they're getting before they open the cover.

It just makes me depressed thinking about it -- about how many writers could have done more with the work, and developed their talents, and broke all kinds of new ground -- if they just tossed out the cookie cutters from day one.

vanessa jaye said...

...about how many writers could have done more with the work, and developed their talents, and broke all kinds of new ground...

But do they want to? And/Or are they able to?

I mean this as no insult. Like you said, plenty of writers pay the bills just fine with what they're writing--and so are their editors, agents and readers--and they're happy to do it.

On the other hand, can they afford to break new ground, when all their agent/reader/editor wants from them is book type A. Or, perhaps, they have hit the wall creatively. *This* is the scope/width/depth of their skills/talents and it's more a matter of honing it than adding new.

Sorry, I'm in a bit of a weird mood. :-P Know there are some authors who hate being call comfort reads, and I can see why, even though it's never used as an derogatory term. And it's actually high praise. It says: you touch me emotionally, you lift me up when I'm down. I can count on your work always. Nothing bad about that, really.

On the other hand, it always sucks to see on messageboards peeps saying that such-n-such author keeps writing the same book. Sometimes it may be true, but sometimes it's really that the reader has moved on in tastes and needs.

Lynn Viehl said...

Vanessa wrote: But do they want to? And/Or are they able to?

As far as wanting to, I think you have to start out as you mean to go on. If you're going to let publishing tell you what to write, make your peace with it from day one.

But some writers are simply cookie cutter storytellers at heart. For whatever reason, they can't or won't get past that one story. Kind of like the whole editing Macarena thing. :)

On the other hand, can they afford to break new ground, when all their agent/reader/editor wants from them is book type A. Or, perhaps, they have hit the wall creatively. *This* is the scope/width/depth of their skills/talents and it's more a matter of honing it than adding new.

I honestly don't know. It's like the whole Book of Your Heart thing -- I never got that, either. I do know that for everything writers do, we generally have a reason that is important to us and usually sounds pretty good.

Know there are some authors who hate being call comfort reads, and I can see why, even though it's never used as an derogatory term. And it's actually high praise. It says: you touch me emotionally, you lift me up when I'm down. I can count on your work always. Nothing bad about that, really.

If that's what you want out of this gig, I agree. I'd just say make sure that's what you want versus settling for it out of fear of the unknown.

On the other hand, it always sucks to see on messageboards peeps saying that such-n-such author keeps writing the same book. Sometimes it may be true, but sometimes it's really that the reader has moved on in tastes and needs.

Also true. Sometimes you can burn out on an author or even a genre pretty fast. I stopped reading categories for a while because I was so sick of how interchangeable they'd become. After a few years I picked up one and, while it had the same song and dance as before, I felt more of a nostalgic fondness for the story.

raine said...

Ok, I don't mean to drag your post out too long, Jaq--lol!--but this interests me...

As an 'author', I can certainly see the point that the author may be doing their best with what they have to work with.
But honestly, if I put myself in the shoes of a 'reader', I don't think of an author as being limited in that way. I would think of creativity as an ongoing process of actively creating, not recycling (not saying that's what it is, but could be seen that way).

The movie industry, for example. If a film is a hit, there's usually a sequel, and it's usually pretty much the same movie, and that's what viewers EXPECT. Comforting at first, yeah, but they usually get stale after a while--but sometimes a change from the expected is exactly what's needed to revitalize the thing, while still keeping the basics (I'm thinking of "The Dark Knight", for example).

vanessa jaye said...

I want to comment further, but I've had a brutal day at work. Brain no think no more.

Will post tomorrow.

Great points, btw, ladies.

vanessa jaye said...

Arrrrgh! I wrote a long assed comment that blogger ate!!!

Then I had dinner. All better now. But now lazy. :-P

I did find a blog post by Tess Gerritsen that seems a bit related to all this. Re an author making a career decision that goes against 'conventional wisdom'.

http://murderati.typepad.com/murderati/2008/12/risk-versus-rest.html

Sometimes you can burn out on an author or even a genre pretty fast.

Lynn- One of the reasons I don't read more than 3 books by any author or in any (sub)genre back-to-back.

Raine- To a certain degree, I do see that some authors are limited to some degree. It's not necessarily a bad a thing, if they excel within those limits. ;)

Lynn Viehl said...

Vanessa wrote: One of the reasons I don't read more than 3 books by any author or in any (sub)genre back-to-back.

That's rather brilliant -- me, I just go sulking off to bury myself in nonfic until I feel better about fiction. I have to try your method with my TBR.

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