Readers who use a critical lens often use words as pejoratives that more casual readers would use as compliments. Some of those that come to mind are: fun, easy to read, great pace, etc. Another one might be comfortable or, as I prefer, cozy. It’s a loaded word in literary circles because it implies a minimum of effort from both reader and writer in a host of ways. It says that writing something recognizable and familiar, regardless of what it accomplishes as a piece of fiction is somehow less because it lacks an element of experimentation. This seems like a patently false assumption riddled with notions of elitism.
This topic came to mind when I read a passage from Strange Horizon’s review of Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind. It’s a novel I very much enjoyed and felt, despite my cynicism toward its sequel Wise Man’s Fear, arrived at some interesting places within the fantasy spectrum. The author of that Strange Horizon’s review, Adam Roberts, said,
. . .it’s a smooth-rolling reading experience that passes the time, is fairly entertaining, and has a few moments of excitement. But here’s the thing: it’s a fundamentally cosy book. It flatters the reader. It winks at her, promising her the real thing rather than some sanitised storybook version, at the same time sanitising anything that might genuinely unsettle, or unnerve, or wrongfoot her readerly expectations. It, like many works of contemporary fantasy, panders to a sort of imaginative tourism, a safe entry into an escapist imaginative space defined by its reassuring familiarity. Cosiness is a good quality in sweaters. It is not a merit in books.
Roberts is correct in saying coziness cannot (or should not) be the defining quality of a novel. However, his statement ignores at best and downright condemns at worst the notion that an author can use cozy elements to communicate something to the reader. He seems to be saying that the communication of ideas is not the writer’s foremost concern, but secondary to a nebulous notion of “challenging the reader.” I want to agree.
As a fairly advanced reader, hoping not to sound like a prick, my tolerance for opacity is high. Newness is incredibly important to me. I yearn for narrative tricks and structural surprise. But, not all readers are equally equipped in that regard. Capability for peeling layers is something developed over time, through years of reading and interpreting. For someone new or uninterested in such things, is it inherently problematic for them to be attracted to warm and fuzzy? Like Roberts, I want to say yes. I want to argue that fiction as art must push boundaries and stretch the walls of my perception. Interrogating that assumption requires I look at fiction’s purpose.
Trying to condense such a difficult thing as a communication medium purpose is a silly endeavor, but I think Ursula K. LeGuin made a nice effort. She said,
The artist deals in what cannot be said in words. The artist whose medium is fiction does this in words. The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words.
In that passage, LeGuin hints that fiction, and particularly novels, have something beneath them. There’s an inseparable layer beyond the story itself that illuminates or illustrates some deeper meaning. Edgar Rice Burroughs said something else,
There is one thing that I would constantly impress upon the young writer—and possibly with greater reason upon the established writer—that he should not take either himself or his work too seriously. Except for purposes of entertainment, I consider fiction, like drama an absolute unessential. I would not look to any fiction writer, living or dead, for guidance upon any subject, and, therefore, if he does not entertain, he is a total loss.
For me, LeGuin hits closer to the mark. Fiction has many purposes. It can transport. It can be didactic. It can invite introspection. Burroughs argues that if fiction does not entertain it fails. It’s a statement that can be read at face value or we can tweak it and assume he means that fiction must engage. If it fails to connect with the reader at some base level it’s not successful. While “uncomfortable” fiction can accomplish that connection, it does so with more effort. More effort from the writer trying to be unique and more effort from the reader to see through the author’s opacity. Under these circumstances, can’t we see a reason for making readers sit down, put their feet up, and stay a bit?
This discussion reminds me of the farm boy trope in epic fantasy. It’s pervasive in the genre because it makes readers comfortable immediately in a setting that is by definition uncomfortable. The trope allows the reader to ease into grossly unfamiliar territory along with the character whose humble beginnings preclude the scope of things to come. When Steven Erikson in Gardens of the Moon goes another direction, tossing his readers into the deep end of the pool in the middle of a war, many find themselves frustrated and confused. They bounce, forever missing out on the things Erikson lays out in the millions of words to come.
For my money, Erikson’s ten-book series, filled with difficult passages and opaque references, is the finest work of epic fantasy to date. But, I would be lying through my teeth if I didn’t admit it’s a much more difficult work to dialogue with compared to Peter V. Brett’s Demon Cycle or Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker Trilogy. Should we, as critics, penalize those authors for taking the path of least resistance to accomplish their goals? Is a cozy novel inherently weaker than one that precludes comfort?
I guess it all comes down to where an individual believes fiction’s purpose begins and ends. If fiction is primarily a means to communicate and exchange ideas, the use of tropes and other cozy mediums provides a common ground from which to begin. If fiction exists to change ideas, to move the reader to a new kind of thinking, the art must be more challenging. Perhaps it needs to be a burr under the proverbial saddle. Clearly, there’s room for both of these positions to exist simultaneously, but is Roberts right? Is comfort inherently problematic for fiction?
My answer remains unclear. What’s yours?