The sweet spot between Serious Literature and fluff

The sweet spot between Serious Literature and fluff

I love recommending books to fellow readers. (Which is handy, because I get asked for suggestions all the time.)

Most requests fall into now-familiar patterns. The most frequent one sounds something like this: Can you recommend a novel that’s entertaining, but not fluffy? Light, but not lightweight? Thought-provoking, but not depressing?

I hear what they’re saying: they don’t want chick lit. (I’m not crazy about this label, but it’s a million times better than “mommy lit.”) To speak in sweeping generalizations: these novels are funny, lighthearted, and amusing; plot-driven and light on character development. If you hear someone say a novel is like candy, it’s probably chick lit.

(I hardly ever read chick lit. Not that it doesn’t have a place.)

These readers want more substance than chick lit offers, but they don’t want literary fiction, either. They don’t care about “literary merit,” but they do want much of what literary fiction offers: a story that probes human nature, that’s honest about how people really are, and acknowledges their shortcomings. They want depth, something to discuss, something to make them think. These readers are looking for a good story, well told—but they’re not overly concerned with style.

(I read a lot of literary fiction.)

To these readers, I recommend books that hit the sweet spot between Serious Literature and fluff. These novels entertain and challenge: they’re thought-provoking, even if they’re done with a light touch. They’re insightful, but wouldn’t be called challenging.

Find the sweet spot between Serious Literature and total fluff. These thought-provoking novels entertain AND challenge.

These are a few of my favorite “sweet spot” authors. I alphabetized them because I couldn’t decide on an order!

Katherine Center. If Brené Brown wrote fiction, it would look like this. Her easy-reading style belies a surprising depth. Start with: The Lost Husband.

Kristin Harmel started as a chick lit author, but her writing took a more serious turn as she matured. Start with: The Sweetness of Forgetting.

Liane Moriarty. An Australian author with six best-selling novels to her name. Anne Lamott calls her work “smart, wise, and funny.” Start with: What Alice Forgot.

Jojo Moyes. Moyes bittersweet novels are intelligent and funny—but grab the Kleenex before you sit down. Start with: One Plus One.

Katherine Reay. Reay’s novels are inspired by classic literature, but her take is all modern. Start with: Lizzy & Jane.

What are YOUR favorite authors and titles in the sweet spot?

Find the sweet spot between Serious Literature and total fluff. These thought-provoking novels entertain AND challenge.

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  1. Kelli Robinson says:

    My favorite book read in January 2015 was Sarah Addison Allen’s Garden Spells which I believe would be enjoyed by those who enjoy the authors you list. Her follow just came out, First Frost, and is getting great reviews. I’ll be reading it soon. Great, timely post! I added The Sweetness of Forgetting to by TBR list.

  2. I was talking to my best friend on the phone yesterday. She is an English professor and I asked her if she’s read What Alice Forgot. When she said no, I called it not-quite-chick-lit and not-quite-literature. Guess we are on the same page! Ha! I kind of love this level of reading. I definitely think it’s my sweet spot.

  3. Anja says:

    I have read a lot of the authors mentioned here and another I think fits in perfectly with this category is Elin Hilderbrand. My mother reads her and passes them onto me and I’ve really enjoyed all I’ve read from her so far

  4. Andi says:

    I saw someone mention Kristin Hannah and Marissa de los Santos – I concur. I also recommend Sarah Addison Allen for this “sweet spot” reading.

  5. Lori says:

    Yes, Elizabeth Berg! I loved The Year of Pleasures. And Sarah Addison Allen – great magical realism books.

    I’ll also add my recommendation of Kristin Hannah’s The Winter Garden. A wonderful book that pulls you into the story. I also enjoyed Firefly Lane by her as well.

    And one of my favorite stories – Keeping the House by Ellen Baker.

    This was such a great topic for a post Anne!

  6. LoriM says:

    This might be an entirely different list, but Mary Stewart’s novels have held up over time, for me. I first read them as a teenager (maybe starting with Reader’s Digest condensed versions? Don’t remember for sure). They often involve an American or British girl placed somewhere in Europe – great locations and adventures and romance but well written.

    I remember when I figured out as a teen, who was the better writer of my two favorite authors – Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt (HOlt is more gothic and formulaic).

    I think Stewart’s Nine Coaches Waiting was one of the most romantic stories I’ve ever read and I remember reading the best bits over and over.

  7. Jill says:

    How about Ann Patchett? Maybe she leans literary with Bel Canto, but maybe a touch lighter with The Patron Saint of Liars. I’m afraid I abandoned State of Wonder though. Seemed like the magic was missing in that one.

  8. Jill says:

    Didn’t the “chic lit” label come about around the late 90’s? I think the popularity of Bridget Jones Diary (Helen Fielding) and The Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing (Melissa Bank) brought about a renewed interest in reading for fun among young women.

  9. Thanks for the recommendations. I have always called these kind of books my ‘gentle reads’… as mentioned by others Jan Karon ticks that box for me. Also Alexander McCall Smith, especially the Sunday Philosophy Club. My current sweet spot is the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear. Also love Anne Tyler… although she reads like a gentle read, her books are unsettling (in a good way)… maybe she is more of a bittersweet spot?!

  10. sarah k says:

    It’s interesting how fluid the definitions of categories can be! I was thinking that I don’t really enjoy books in this particular category, but then I thought of Alexander McCall Smith–whom I consider to be literary in his writing quality and in the meaningful themes addressed, but lighter in subject material. And gentle is a very good word for his style. So I guess I have that sweet spot too!

    I really appreciate, Anne, that when you recommend books, you specify whether they are “breezy,” “literary,” etc. That helps me know which ones I should try (for me, it’s the literary ones). Your blog is a daily inspiration to me to read more!

  11. Heather says:

    Here’s a shout out for some slightly heavier titles. War and Peace. Am I the only one who considers this a good read? Don’t want to commit to the length? Try God Is An Englishman by R.F. Delderfield. How about anything by Dorothy Sayers. Her Peter Wimsey series is terrific. And let’s not forget Moby Dick. Classic. “Reality outran apprehension. Captain Ahab stood upon the quarter deck.” Chills my spine, I tell you.
    Anne, I would love to know if you read some of the weightier stuff. I like light-but-not-fluffy, yet still need the ballast of the more literary books.

  12. Katie says:

    Completely not the point, I guess, but I think genre fiction does the Sweet Spot really well. Speculative fiction (think fantasy, sci fi, etc.) tends to be really character and plot driven (so, an easy read) but often (not always!) grapples with Themes. The ethics of artificial intelligence, great power means great responsibility type themes, lots and lots of Confronting the Other, etc etc. Think Asimov’s /I, Robot/ grappling with what it means to be human, or Card’s /Ender’s Game/ dealing with war and childhood and genocide, or McKinley’s fairy tale retellings confronting the darker side of the tales.

    Those are completely different from the sorts of books you mention here, but arguably just as much in the Sweet Spot. 🙂

  13. Polly says:

    I just finished a novel called Lydia’s Party by Margaret Hawkins. It’s about friendship, life, careers, regrets. I liked it, not loved it, but it is very similar to what you are talking about here.

  14. Dana says:

    Thanks so much for this great list! I’ve been wanting to read Liane Moriarty, after hearing so much about her, but didn’t know where to start. Now I do 🙂

  15. kelli says:

    I think of chick-lit like a season in life. I definitely read lighter and easier to read books when my kids are under 2… Books that are easier to pick up and put down while nursing and cleaning cheerios off the couch, and give me a greater sense of accomplishment because I haven’t had to read the same paragraph six times to figure out it was a description of mud. For me, this is Life after Life (Atkinson), 84 Charing Cross Road (Hanff), Astonish Me (Shipstead), etc. I love a strong story that I read in bits. By the way, I love the comments in this thread… truly lovely!

  16. Reshma K Kannan says:

    This post and the discussions have been so helpful. I have added hordes to my TBR list. I loved Elizabeth Berg’s The last time I saw you. And I am a great fan of Kate Morton after reading The Secret Keeper and The Forgotten Garden.

  17. Lindsey Back says:

    I have discovered a series of ‘murder mysteries’ by author Rebecca Tope. They are not quite Louise Penny but they do provide a look at human nature through main character Thea Osbourne who is struggling after loosing her husband suddenly. She takes up house sitting in the Cotswolds and murders abound. The series sometimes sees the situation through another persons eyes which gives further insight into Thea and her personality. I love Louise Penny (thanks to you I might add)and enjoy most of your suggestions so thank you for expanding my reading 100%

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