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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113 comments

  1. Kayris says:

    I’ve always considered chick lit to be specifically geared towards women’s issues not just a light read. So books about motherhood or marriage or balancing work/family. “Beach book” would be a term I’d use to encompass all light reading.

    I like “cozies.” Light hearted mysteries without too much violence or gore. Donna Andrews (Meg Langslow series), MC Beaton (Agatha Raisin, Edwardian mysteries, Hamish Macbeth), or Leslie Meier (Lucy Stone series). One of my faves was always the Cat Who…series. Although the author died so there are no more.

    Sweet spot authors: Jojo Moyes (Me Before You totally SLAYED me), Liane Moriarty (I thought Three Wishes was better than Alice), and Deeanne Gist (historical fiction/romance).

      • Ana says:

        I find categorizing books somewhat arbitrary—I can’t tell if some of the authors I love are “chick lit” vs. “literary fiction”, and what is “chick lit” anyways? Books by women for women and about women? Is it about the “heaviness” of the topic? I found it interesting you but The Lost Husband as a non-chick-lit book—I found it awfully predictable and somewhat cheesy with the romance. Because it dealt with death? Someone above mentioned Jennifer Weiner who I always thought was “chick lit”. Emily Giffen, Jane Green—I think of them as chick lit, but some of the themes are heavier, so maybe not?
        In the vein of the types of books you mentioned, my favorite authors are Maeve Binchy, Marian Keyes and Lianne Moriarty. I don’t think of them as chick lit but they are written by chicks for chicks to read, so maybe some would put them in that category?
        Maybe I’ll try another Center book. And I’m going to snag Lizzy and Jane for 99 cents now.

        • Katie says:

          Ugh, I so agree with you about The Lost Husband! Everything about it felt very formulaic to me. I could predict exactly where the plot was going the whole time — especially the romantic storyline. And I kept waiting for her to delve deeper into the death aspect & the issues surrounding it, but she never really did. Felt like pretty standard chick lit to me.

        • Anne says:

          I think The Lost Husband is borderline. The romantic plot is completely and utterly predictable, but I love the way Center fleshes out emotional abstract concepts with her characters.

      • Pamela says:

        Heads up…I find Deanne Gist to be on the fluff side for sure. So, if we are talking finding the sweet spot between fluff and literary fiction, this would not fit the bill. I must lean towards literary fiction, because I haven’t read any of these recommended titles. How about memoirs as an option?? I just finished one of the Call the Midwife series by Jennifer Worth, and really enjoyed it!!

        I do have the Sweetness of Memory on my TBR list 🙂

        And thanks for all the great recommendations. I’m really enjoying your blog 🙂

        • Laura says:

          Just requested “Tales from a Midwife” by Jennifer Worth. I’ve been watching the BBC series, which I love. I’d forgotten that it was a book first. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Sara K. says:

    This is a perfect description of the type of book I enjoy most. I want to love literary fiction, but so often when I read them I get stuck, confused or overwhelmed with the language or style. I feel like I’m missing the point of the story while wading through the rest. I have nothing but respect for those who can truly read and enjoy literary fiction. I hope one day to be one of them! 🙂

    I have completely blanked on additional authors that fit in this category though 🙂

  3. Karen says:

    The “Sweet Spot” is quite large! Sometimes I want pure entertainment, but those are rarely the books that stick with me. Give me a realistic and/or historical fiction book that makes me question what I would do in any given situation. My latest favorite is Kristin Hannah’s “The Nightingale”. I am eagerly awaiting the release of Lisa Genova’s newest book. They deliver well-researched topics, strong and well-developed characters, and moral questions.

  4. Thanks for this post! I’m adding all of these to my Goodreads list now. One author whose books I’ve really enjoyed lately is Kate Morton. My favorite of hers is The Forgotten Garden, but so many of them are delightful. They are definitely on the heavier side of this genre, reminiscent of Gothic novels, but written in an approachable way with strong and fascinating female characters. Her gifts of storytelling and character development are outstanding.

    • Katia says:

      Kate Morton is great! My favourite by her is also The Forgotten Garden, followed by the Secret Keeper and The Lost Hours. The only novel by Morton that I didn’t enjoy was The House at Riverton. I felt as though the plot was pulled directly from Downton Abbey, or vice-versa, and I just wasn’t impressed with the story. It didn’t pull me in the way the other three novels did. I’m also looking forward to her new book that’s coming out soon.

  5. Hannah says:

    I’m still not totally sure what chick-lit is. I know it’s geared toward women, but what else does it mean? And what in the world is mommy-lit? P.S. I think good writing is good writing– across genre lines, though I don’t care if the writing is Man Booker Prize winning, if a plot involves Abraham Lincoln as a vampire, I’m out.

    • Anne says:

      “If a plot involves Abraham Lincoln as a vampire, I’m out.”

      ME TOO. 🙂

      I agree, good writing is good writing. Some say that genres only apply to marketing anyway. I think they’re useful for discussion, but even that gets tricky because the lines are so blurry.

  6. Alissa says:

    Some of my favorite author’s write what I call “smart chick lit.” And I always try to steer readers there. They are: Laura Dave (whose new book 800 Grapes comes out this spring and is wonderful), Marissa de Los Santos and Jennifer Weiner. I also really like Lisa Genova. Louise Shaffer is good too. I’m glad to see Katherine Center on your list as I wish she’d get more love from readers. I also think Christina Baker Kline and some of Adrianna Trigiani could fall into this category. I also have several one of titles that I could recommend but I’ll stop since this comment is getting quite long!

  7. JoLyn says:

    One of my favorite authos is Maeve Binchy–Evening Class and Scarlet Feather are delightful. She has such a great voice and her character development is superb.

    • Katia says:

      Maeve Binchy is the one I would recommend. However, my preference is for her earlier books. The ones she wrote later in her life left me feeling as though there’s something lacking. My favourites by her are Circle of Friends, The Evening Class, Scarlet Feather, and Quentins.

      • liz n. says:

        Agreed; her later books feel as if she was phoning it in a bit, but her earlier work is wonderful! (I think Agatha Christies’ later work also suffered from the “this is to easy, I can write it in my sleep” syndrome.)

  8. Thanks for this! What Alice Forgot was good (like you said, you think about it for weeks after) and my MOPS book club is now taking it on (after The Nesting Place!). I’m working on my 2015 reading list-my first time making a list. So far there is some Susan Wise Bauer and Shauna Niequist. I’ll add some of these titles, for sure. I’m going for 52 books this year. I can’t decide at this point between reading the classics like Little House now (to myself), or wait a year or so and read aloud with my toddler.

  9. Great topic! Meg Waite Clayton and Debra Dean come to mind. Maybe Patti Callahan Henry (veering more toward women’s lit) and Sue Monk Kidd (some say literary but I think she’s more in the sweet spot in between).

    • Kim S. says:

      Lizzy and Jane was fantastic! I was lucky enough to win in and devoured it. It also marked an important personal milestone. I’m a cancer survivor and this was the first thing I’d been able to get through (ex I stopped watching Parenthood after the Cancer diagnosis storyline) since I entered remission. Putting it in Pride and Prejudice terms made it “safe”.

      I love what they call “women’s fiction” – whatever that is. Books about friendships between people, or generations of families. All of Jennifer Worth’s stuff is great. If you like her, try Donna Douglas’ “Nightingale” set. Same concept and timeline. I also recommend Jennifer Chiaverini’s Elm Creek Quilt set. Although I know nothing of quilting, I’ve found the character relationships fascinating.

  10. Sarah R says:

    I just finished “Big Little Lies” by Liane Moriarty and I loved it! I have Jojo Moyes “The Girl You Left Behind” and Katherine Reay “Dear Mr. Knightley” on my Kindle now but haven’t started either yet.

  11. Dorothy K. says:

    Jane Kirkpatrick is hands-down my favorite woman author. She has taken the genre of historical fiction to an amazing level. She has accurate settings without going into tedious detail, multi-dimensional characters who are believable and plot lines without cliche endings. When I crave excellent and uplifting writing, she is my go-to author. Two favorite titles: “A Sweetness to the Soul” and “Love to Water my Soul”. Enjoy!

    • Beth says:

      Based off of the description of her books, she sounds like she writes a similar genre to one of my favorite authors, Lynn Austin! Thanks for the recommendation.

    • Becca says:

      My very favorite Jan Karon is “In the Company of Others.” Slightly different than the Mitford series. I reread whenever I’m sick in bed. She’s wise and profound and funny all at the same time.

  12. LoriM says:

    Love Maeve Binchy. And Rosamund Pilcher. Jan Karon (wince? some may say too fluffy??) I also think Emily Giffin’s books are great – are they really chick lit?

  13. Tory says:

    My problem with literary fiction is that so many writers seem to think horrible things are mandatory for a work to be “serious”. I can’t handle stories where bad things happen to children, or any kind of sexual violence, and so often that stuff sneaks up on me! If it is a main plot point I can tell from the book jacket to avoid it, but that’s not always the case. Also I feel like I’m missing out on some good books because of it – In The Woods and The Book Thief are both currently on my “want to read but know I probably shouldn’t ” list.

  14. Jeannie says:

    I’m loving your topics lately! A few sweet-spot authors that come immediately to mind are Elizabeth Berg (I think of her as Anne Tyler lite), Laura Moriarty (no relation to Liane!), and Chris Cleave.

    • Dawn says:

      Yes! Elizabeth Berg is a fantastic writer. My favorite of hers is Home Safe. She is similar to Maggie Shipstead, in that she can tell her story well in fewer pages. (I’ve read too many books that are about 100-200 pages too long lately, so I’m seeking out authors who err on quality over quantity!)

      My book club is reading Gold by Cleave (later this year) on the basis of your recommendation, Jeannie! 🙂

  15. liz n. says:

    Kathryn Stockett, Maeve Binchey, Alan Bennett, Elizabeth Berg, and John Scalzi are probably my favorite writers in this category.

  16. Katia says:

    I really enjoyed Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay. I believe she would be a good author to add to this category. Sarah’s Key is difficult to read for a HSP and the grandchild of a holocaust survivor, but I took deep breaths through the tough parts and was glad I did take the time to read it. The story and the writing are excellent. I also read A Secret Kept and The House I Loved by de Rosnay, but I wasn’t impressed with those.

  17. amanda june says:

    Interesting. I love literary fiction but don’t want it to be so dry that it can’t keep my interest long enough to get me hooked on the story/characters…know what I mean? I enjoy Liane Moriarty’s books but to me they’re fluff — “chick lit,” so I usually want something a bit further down the spectrum. I’m not familiar with any of the other authors on your list. Would you say they’re all about on par with Moriarty?

    • Anne says:

      (Have you read Big Little Lies?? I think it’s breezy but not fluffy.) In that case I’d bump you up a notch to The Language of Flowers, The Thirteenth Tale, etc.

  18. Michele says:

    I read and fell in love with Heather Burch’s “One Lavender Ribbon” last year. It is about the power of love letters and how that power spans several generations.

  19. Morgan says:

    I gravitate toward classics, gritty historical fiction, mysteries and gothic literature (just finished “Rebecca” per your recommendation; oh my stars, was it good!) but there is definitely a time and place for lighter stuff! Francine Rivers’ Mark of the Lion series and Lineage of Grace series hit the sweet spot for me. Also Roberta Rich’s Midwife of Venice and The Harem Midwife are utterly captivating.

  20. 'Becca says:

    Did you ever read any Anne Tyler? I remember you said you hadn’t but were thinking about it, back when I reviewed Saint Maybe.

    Best Friends Forever by Jennifer Weiner is one of my favorite “I thought this would be fluff, but it was great!” books. Excellent characters.

    • Anne says:

      I haven’t read anything by Anne Tyler. I’m glad to know where to start. And I’ve only read one Jennifer Weiner book and it wasn’t great. I’m glad to hear your favorite!

  21. cori says:

    I adore all of Marian Keyes! She is one of my favorite authors who deals with a lot of serious issues with humor and grace. Most of her books follow the sisters in the same family so start with Watermelon. I saw Rosamunde Pilcher mentioned, and she is a classic. Start with Shell Seekers. Last but not least, Elizabeth Noble. Start with the Reading Group.

  22. Laura says:

    Love this post, and there are SO many good comments and suggestions. It just made my “To Read” list that much longer. I enjoy Maeve Binchy and Adriana Trigiani. I also like “Language of Flowers” by Diffenbaugh. I think that’s the only book she’s written though. Thanks for the heads up on Lizzy and Jane…love a good deal! 🙂

  23. Dana says:

    Kate Morton My fave is The Forgotten Garden

    Anne Tyler Love her quirky characters. Her earlier novels are better than more recent. The Accidental Tourist, Breathing Lessons, Searching for Caleb, Celestial Navigation.

    Jan Karon !st 2 books in the Mitford Series are my favorites.

    Marisa De Los Santos Love Walked In.

    Jeanne Ray Step-Ball Change was a delight!

    Stephanie Kallos She has written 2 books: Sing Them Home and Broken For You. They are 2 of my all time favorite books. They are so filled with humanity and hope and magic.

  24. Shauna says:

    I’d recommend Barbara Kingsolver, Sue Monk Kidd, and Wally Lamb. I’ve only read one Wally Lamb book, though (I Know This Much is True), but it was life-changing. And I have really enjoyed the many spiritual memoirs I have read in the past year-too many to list! They are obviously not fiction, though. 🙂

  25. Jane says:

    Totally not on topic – but I just wanted to say that I love how all your posts generate such great discussions! You seriously have the best commenters!

  26. Sally says:

    Everyone is right about Kristin Hannah. I think her books are similar to Jo Jo Moyes. In the past, KH has posted on FB about how much she likes Jo Jo Moyes books. I recommend reading theses books by KH- Winter Garden, Night Road, & Firefly Lane. Also, KH is active on Facebook and she encourages readers to give book reviews. She gave my entire book club, Night Road, to read and review.

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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

  30. 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.

  31. 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!

  32. 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.

  33. 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.

  34. 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.

  35. 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?!

  36. 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!

  37. 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.

  38. 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. 🙂

  39. 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.

  40. 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 🙂

  41. 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!

  42. 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.

  43. 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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