Monday, April 29, 2013

The Gentle Life

I walk into Barnes and Noble and my eyes briefly scan the center tables loaded with colorful books. Some are hardbacks with embossed covers. Others are paper-bound and adorned with a bright foil seal that marks them as something special.

My chest tightens as it always does when I see the titles:

Fifty Shades of Grey

The Hunger Games

Harry Potter

A Game of Thrones

Whiskey Beach


I hurry past all these books till I reach the aisles that embrace me like the old friends they truly are. Josh Groban's voice comes softly over the speakers that I happen to be standing directly beneath, and my nerves settle. Then the c.d. changes and Anne Hathaway dreams a dream while I flip through the books on the classics shelf or the titles in the youth section. Once in a while I venture into the christian romance aisles and realize over and again how much Beverly Lewis just isn't my thing, though I'm sure she's a wonderful writer. 

Then the questions start. "What the blazes am I doing trying to be a writer?"

I cast a quizzical eye toward the next aisle over and am assaulted by books on how to make your love-life "better", right alongside another obnoxious book adorned with a lady in a skimpy bikini.
"Oh Lord, what the heck am I doing?" I mutter. "That is what the world wants. Where do I fit in?"
I think of Fly Away Home, sitting in the inbox of an agent, hoping to be read. I think of the trouble I've had trying to find comparative titles for this witty, pretty little story. It's almost an impossible task because let's face it...there aren't many books like mine written these days.

Like mine. What are mine like?

I puzzle over the question and put The Story Girl back on the shelf, or close the covers of Persuasion. I am tempted to think my books had their heyday in the 1800's when people actually agreed with Jane Austen: 
"Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everyone not greatly at fault themselves to tolerable comfort."
See, as cheesy and outdated as it sounds, I write from my heart. I'm an optimist, and there just isn't dark fantasy or apocalyptic ideas to be found in my brain. I don't contemplate the end of the world so I don't write about the end of the world. I've had no experience with drugs and alcohol and murder so I don't write drugs, alcohol, or murder. I don't write writhing pain and lurid depression. I wouldn't want to. There's too much of it in real life for there to be any need for people to read whole novels circling around the idea. At least that's my opinion; the way my taste runs. 
But is there anyone who shares my desire for witty, cheerful, optimistic literature that deals with real life but in a way that doesn't leave you thinking you'd better build a bomb-shelter in your backyard just in case? I've read books that leave me scrambling frantically for pepper-spray, karate lessons, and antidepressant pills. Am I alone (and are my books alone) in our cheerful corner of the world's literary appetite? I shrug, mentally stick my tongue out at the writing books that preach "Death! Destruction! Depression!" and wander toward the check-out line with a YA novel under my arm. I'll try this one and see if it's any better than the last I read about a dreary, depressed eleven year-old.

Then I pass an end-cap with the Downton Abbey cookbook. Oh....Julian Fellowes is a bit more plucky than most others. I forgot about him. The rumbling wit of the Dowager Countess, and the boyish 'hail-fellow-well-met' cheer of Matthew Crawley. Sure, it's a TV show and he kills off every character you like, but it's not murderous or suicidal. One for the Cheerful score!

I'm feeling a little better when I pass another end-cap with Winnie-the-Pooh books loaded on top with their lovely bumble-bee-spangled covers. Oh, yes. Entirely different category than Downton, but these books have never gone out of popularity in their hundred-year reign. Score Two!

But the third endcap is what sends a satisfied smile to my face: down the next aisle I see a Mitford book. Jan Karon! I'd entirely forgotten about her. She's modern. She's successful....she's.....cheerful! And then my mind flings back to a conversation I had with a blogging friend related to my additional trouble of trying to peg what genre most of my books fall in. Though I eventually decided on pegging Fly Away Home as "historical romance", it could also fall under the oft-overlooked category of "gentle fiction", as defined by the all-knowing Wikipedia:
With charm and humor, these novels explore the everyday joys, frustrations, and sorrows of lives quietly led. They typically revolve around the activities of a small community of people, such as a small town, a church, or a gathering of friends. The realities of sex, violence, and other passions are downplayed and are never presented in a graphic manner. Although the genre was once largely dominated by British authors, American authors in the vein of Jan Karon are now extremely popular
And there you have it. Me and Jan Karon in a nutshell. Having that comparison, my smile sticks.

There is a place for me and my books.

There's a place for Mitford, and Cynthia and Father Tim.

There's a place for Penelope Wilcock's Hawk & Dove trilogy and other books of the kind that bring to mind firesides or sunny porches with a glass of ice-tea sweating close-by. My plan is simple: I only have to find a gentle agent who will confer with a gentle publisher who will then spread some goodwill to the gentle readers like you. It's only a matter of patience and perseverance, and ceaseless optimism. Maybe that is an optimistic point of view...but maybe, just maybe, the world needs a little cheering-up after all. 


Anonymous said...

Have you ever heard the song "Somewhere" from West Side Story? ;) I feel like singing that alongside you & our novels, both, my dear.
^THIS^, ALL of it...was beautifully, poetically & sentimentally put, Rachel. I smiled, I grew teary-eyed...but mostly, hopeful.
And I can't agree with you enough on all points made.
I personally cannot wait to see Fly Away Home in *my* Barnes & Noble someday soon, & have no doubt that I will.

Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

I hear you. I've experienced the same kind of frustration. I often feel very much like my books have more in common with those of a hundred years ago or so; I've had several readers tell me or mention in reviews that the writing reminded them of older books—they meant it (and I took it) as a compliment! I think it's kind of sad that books have to be pigeon-holed and sorted under labels this way, because I do think there are readers who would enjoy them if they gave them half a chance, but might not think of turning into an aisle labeled "gentle fiction."

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Good on you. Write your own way. You need only to find your readers, not their readers. There's room for everybody.

Miss Dashwood said...

I can't tell you how big of a chord this struck with me. (Awkward sentence...) I mean, I could have taken Rachel out of the Barnes and Noble and substituted Amy and it all would have been exactly the same, right down to not thinking much of Beverly Lewis. :D

But ah, Jan Karon. Such a breath of fresh air. I want to write like her someday... not exactly like her, of course, but I want my stories to give readers the same cozy at-home feeling she evokes.

And I must look into this Hawk and Dove trilogy, if they're along the same lines...

Miss Dashwood said...

Oh, and your B&N plays Les Mis???? How swellissimus!

Rachel Heffington said...

Well thank you all! I am so glad I am not the only one who finds herself in a similar predicament, because that means that you also must love gentle fiction, and that my books (and subsequently, yours) will someday find an audience.
And Miss Dashwood, you certainly *must* read The Hawk and Dove trilogy. It's nothing (plotwise) like Mitford, but it has made me cry on several occasions. A darned good series if you ask me.

Rachel Rossano said...

There is definitely a place for gentle literature. I know the world clamors for more violence, action, and raunchy content, but there are many out there who do not yell loudly. They appreciate the quieter and subtler things of life. They still appreciate goodness and things of true value. There is an audience out there for your stories. don't give up.

Colleen Elizabeth said...

Thank you for this Rachel! It's been playing over in my head all day. I never knew that such a category existed today, and after four years of slugging against being belittled with the term "old fashioned" (ha! As if that were an insult to me) at a big university, was feeling quite wholly alone in my admiration for beautiful, wholesome writing. But once again you remind me that there are other creators out there pursuing this. And I wonder if, after all the "realities" of graphic violence and passion are burned away, there is perhaps more truth in the everyday joys we write about.
Thanks again!