The Gentle Genre

From Writer Unboxed:

The best choice for readers is what might be called “gentle books,” straightforward tales of ordinary people in mostly every-day, low-key situations.  No psychotics, no wrenching twists, no gore, no vampires or werewolves or demons.

Often comic, sometimes inspiring, these sorts of books were popular from the thirties right through WWII and into the sixties.  Gentle books – the work of Angela Thirkell, D. E. Stevenson, Elizabeth Cadell, and many others – offered readers well-written, character-driven stories that reminded them of their own lives.  Gentle books continued to thrive through the sixties and seventies with Miss Read, James Herriot, and others. Garrison Keillor and Alexander McCall Smith are among those who carry the tradition on today.

But don’t be fooled by the familiar settings and characters of these books. They are notoriously difficult to write well.  It’s just too easy to sink into either banality or saccharine gooeyness – what might be called Hallmark Holiday Special fiction.

One problem is that the sources of tension available to you are, by definition, gentle.  It’s easy to keep readers on the edge of their seats when your characters are trying to escape horrible deaths or fending off the destruction of the world. It’s a lot harder to keep readers interested over whether Bertie will be able to escape saxophone lessons or James Herriot will be the one who receives a cocoa tin full of goat droppings to analyze for parasites (considered an honor in Siegfried’s practice).  Yet readers need to care enough about such minor, everyday problems that they will want to keep reading and will feel satisfied with the conclusion.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

4 thoughts on “The Gentle Genre”

  1. “It’s just too easy to sink into either banality or saccharine gooeyness – what might be called Hallmark Holiday Special fiction. ”
    Obviously the OP hasn’t watched Hallmark enough to even begin to understand why it is the most watched video source on cable and online.

    They do cozy mysteries (an entire channel devoted to them) and romcoms (most of their primary) which nobody else bothers with.
    They do gentle fantasies, usually time travel, including a couple of Jack Finney jewels.
    Like this one:

    They also adapt a *lot* of romance books.

    They do family and court drama on their *third* channel.

    Unlike a lot of Hollywood and Broadway producers, they know what people want and aren’t too proud to give it to them instead of whatever edgy idea some industry insider thinks will be “new and fresh”. They know it’s formula but so are tough guy action stories, superhero flicks, and grossout “comedies”. It also happens their formulas are flexible, their writers witty enough, and their actors (they hire at least half of Canada, it seems) engaging and “inoffensively good looking” as they say about typical CW actors.

    They don’t run anything you’d be embarrassed to watch with your parents or grandparents.
    (My mother loves their stuff. The only thing she watches on cable.)
    And they’re successful enough NETFLIX has been copying them with some success.

    So yeah, there’s good money in gentle stories.
    The problem is, as usual, getting noticed.
    Which in their case is no problem since they’ve managed over the last 50 years to build up their brand into a rock solid trustworthiness.
    Counterprogramming Hollywood pays off.

    Now if only they’d follow up and do the “promised” sequel to THE TENTH KINGDOM.
    Or pick up the rights to the various Thorne Smith classics, like TOPPER or THE NIGHT LIFE OF THE GODS.

  2. One effect of the e-book revolution is that many of those – often long out of print – “gentle books” are once again available, and finding new audiences. If this is your kind of thing I can recommend D. E. Stevenson, Elizabeth Cadell, Mary Burchell and the like.

    As for Felix’s complaints about the OP traducing Hallmark movies, their channel had not been available in the UK and the films were mixed up with many others on broadcast and cable TV. From the limited number I’ve seen they do provide a superior quality product that stands out amidst the competition, though I’m already again already avoiding almost all Christmas movies. However, Hallmark has just appeared on Amazon Prime as a premium channel and I’ll probably celebrate a lockdown Christmas by binging on cozy mysteries using the 7 day free trial.

    • Do bear in mind that while Hallmark XMAS movies are their biggest (read: enormous) draw, their RomComs and cozies aren’t far behind. For Example, HBO licensed Charlaine Harris’ SOUTHERN VAMP urban fantasies for TRUE BLOOD, HALLMARK instead licensed her AURORA TEAGARDEN mysteries for a series of movies starring Candace Cameron Bure. (Who must be a stockholded, considering how often they feature her. 😉 )

      Hallmark has a standalone streaming service, called Hallmark movies now. It features exclusive content ahead of the cable channels plus an archive of their broadcast catalog. Also on most of the cable TV-equivalent live video streaming services like Youtube TV and Hulu Live TV.
      That may be what is showing up on PRIME.

      They also have a cable companion app that allows streaming of the live channels and a selection of on-demand movies for subscribers to the LiveTV versions.
      They are (usually) an extra cost option on most US (and presumably Canada) cable services and part of an add-on bundle on SLING Live TV streaming.

      The most interesting streaming option is FRNDLY TV a very lean (15 channel) LiveTV streaming service that is strictly PG and very cheap, at US$6-8 a month. They offer a free 7 day trial. (BTW, they also feature CURIOSITY STREAM which by itself is worth maybe half the fee.)

      Not sure which if any of those options travel across the pond without a VPN spoofing your address but the free trial only requires an email address.

      If they don’t, individual Hallmark movies have been long available on Netflix, Prime, and Hulu. (Search for “Hallmark movie”)
      A specific example of the tone of (an entire string of “royal romance) Hallmark RomComs can be found in the Netflix exclusive THE PRINCESS SWITCH 1&2 and THE CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES 1&2 of the family comedies.

      Or look up the vintage EVERWOOD TV series on the various streaming services (Hulu, Netflix, Prime, etc). It is a great example of “Hallmark-ian” drama. It also launched the empire of Greg Berlanti.

      What makes Hallmark’s PG empire the butt of a lot of snottiness is its strong appeal to pre-millenial generations, especially in “flyover country”, its earnest embrace of old-fashioned American values, and its critical look at big city culture.

      One can easily proclaim their entire slate of movies and TV series as fantasies because the world they present doesn’t really exist. It is a world with ocassional appearances by angels, Santa Claus, and even rarer, self-effacing and kind millionares. In other words, a world most viewers would rather live in than the grimy gritty world of most Hollywood shows.

      And before I forget, Gutenberg Australia (lucky blokes) has most of the Thorne Smith fantasies in etext form. A good way to sample his whimsical, slightly bawdy (1930’s standards) romps. He is best known by TOPPER but I found TURNABOUT and NIGHT LIFE OF THE GODS better reads.

      Any sarcasm and cynism in them is aimed at snotty elite types rather than society as a whole.

      Sadly there is a shortage of that breed in recent times.
      After all, one would hardly expect the corporate tradpubbers to enjoy that kibd of skewering.
      Hopefully Indie inc can fix that.

  3. I think the OP confuses some of the Hallmark stuff with what Felix outlined, as it is not generally all gentle fiction. Under the heading of the challenge in doing it well, one of the hallmarks of a lot of current short-fiction in various publications is that, outside of clear resolutions required for mysteries, many of them are mere “slice of life” storylines.

    It’s interesting, the characters are nice enough, you can read about how the kids knocked over Mom’s favorite planter and the pot broke and they spend their time figuring out how to glue it back together only for Mom to realize and tell them it doesn’t matter…and the reader often agrees. None of it matters. It’s gentle because it doesn’t DO anything…no development, no real resolution, and often, no reason to care if Mom likes the new pot, the repaired pot, or doesn’t even notice. It’s like a story told to you by your mother about something that happened to your sister’s roommate’s brother’s cat.

    I’ve read a few of the authors mentioned in the OP, and I find it really hard in many of them to care what happens to anyone. Well-written, nothing egregious, but no tension or desire for more either. A friend likes to think of them as palate cleansers between real books. 🙂

    But I understand why comfort books might be, well, comforting at this time…

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