Comfort reads do not have to lack emotional stakes

A post at Comfort, Connection, and Community in Martha Wells’ Books of the Raksura

The author of the post, Kali Wallace, writes:

I certainly don’t believe that there’s anything at all wrong with seeking pure escapism in your reading and other media. (Example: When the world gets especially rough, I sometimes pass an evening helping a friend search for Korok seeds in Breath of the Wild, an activity which requires no effort and has absolutely no stakes.) But there is value in considering why certain stories comfort us during times of fear and uncertainty. 

Lonely heroes in search of connection and understanding are all over all literature, especially science fiction and fantasy, and there’s a good reason for that. There are quite a lot of good reasons, in fact, including the reality that it’s just plain fun to stick a loner into a variety of situations that require them to connect with, trust, and maybe even kinda sorta like other people. It works in everything from Artemis Fowl to Mad Max: Fury Road. We want the ragtag group of outcasts to find each other. We want the shy wallflower to make friends. We want the tragic warrior to reveal a bit of themselves to an unlikely ally. We want the samurai space bounty hunter to adopt the tiny baby alien.

My immediate response: Ooh, yes, by all means let’s have the samurai space bounty hunter adopt the tiny baby alien!

However, I really wonder about the idea that a comfort read should have, or often has, “absolutely no stakes.” I mean, seriously?

a) the Raksura are absolutely comfort reads for me. I don’t know how many times I’ve read the original trilogy. I mean, I’ve actually lost count. I’ve read the second duology twice.

b) Kali Wallace is quite right about the basic reasons Moon is such an appealing character in The Cloud Roads.

c) In my opinion, a comfort read should “feel like” it has a guaranteed happilyeveryafter ending, even the first time you read it. Lots of books do! A book may have that feel because it’s a romance, like LMB’s Sharing Knife series or Sharon Shinn’s Elemental Blessings series; or it may intrinsically have that feeling, like Andrea K Host’s Touchstone trilogy or (imo) the Raksura series; or it may have that feeling only because you’ve learned to trust that the author won’t do anything terrible to you.

d) In my opinion, a comfort read should not wind the emotional tension up too high during the course of the book, even if you expect and trust that the ending will be okay. In other words, Sarah Rees Brennan’s Demon’s Lexicon series is not a contender for “comfort read” for me, even though I love it and have read it twice.

It also should not put the characters through a grindingly horrible extended experience at any point in the book. Tough situations, sure. Tough situations where the protagonist is dragged through unrelieved awfulness for 300 pages, no. That is, Moon’s experience when he is hauled off to face his birth court in the third Raksura novel is fine. The reader sees what Moon doesn’t: that there is absolutely no way Jade and Stone will abandon him, period. Plus, intense as it is, this part of the story does not last that long. Plus Moon’s relationship with his mother is fraught for them, but surely the reader is pretty confident that they’ll begin to work out the tension between them before the end of the story. Malachite is such a fantastic character, let me add.

But feeling like the story will have a HEA ending and avoiding extended awfulness through the majority of the middle does not mean “no stakes,” or even “low stakes.”

Personally, I don’t find no-stakes stories work as comfort reads. Add too much fluff and avoid anything but the most trivial emotional stakes and I don’t care about the story. That’s why I don’t like “cutesy” mysteries, although I do like cozy mysteries.

How about you all? Do you find the emotional stakes must be low throughout the story for you to consider it a comfort read?

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3 thoughts on “Comfort reads do not have to lack emotional stakes”

  1. Mary, that’s interesting. I understand that, I think, but personally, if I trust the author to not do anything too awful to the characters and to provide a nice ending, I can absolutely have a book be a comfort read the very first time I read it.

  2. Kathryn McConaughy

    I agree – knowing that there will be a happy ending is important. I will put up with a lot during the book if I know that happiness will eventually rain down.

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