Feelgood Fiction

Feelgood balloonChristina here. I recently attended a writers'/readers' conference in Sweden called the FEELGOOD FESTIVAL. 200 readers congregated in the very picturesque town of Sigtuna (founded by Vikings in the 10th century and full of runestones so paradise for me!) to hear a day-long series of chats/discussions about various aspects of feelgood fiction. To me that term means romance, but as I listened to the authors being interviewed it quickly became clear that to Swedes it has a much broader meaning.

Sigtuna townRomance as a genre is severely under-represented in Sweden, where the largest sections of the book stores are devoted to crime/thrillers/Scandi Noir and more literary oeuvres. The upswing in popularity of what they call feelgood books is a recent (and to readers like me a very welcome) development that seems to be growing in strength every day. And yet, when I visited the biggest book store in Stockholm afterwards, they didn’t have a dedicated section for such stories – not even a table with recommendations. Not good!

Rune stoneUnder the feelgood umbrella, the festival classed among other things cosy crime, hen lit, women finding themselves, and older women going on adventures, etc. Thirty authors took part in the panels, among them my UK friend/colleague Liz Fenwick who writes beautiful stories set in Cornwall. There was even an interview with an aging pop star who had written an autobiography. As I hadn’t read his book I don’t know whether it would make me ‘feel good’ but perhaps he was there to add hero material? (He’s a good-looking man).

Feelgood oneEach segment of the programme asked a specific question or had a special topic. First, three authors were asked whether “glamour” is dead, because the type of people depicted in fiction seems to have changed. Twenty years ago, heroines lived in large, luxurious apartments and were mega-rich or famous (or aspired to be), whereas nowadays we’re more likely to read about ordinary people. The panel said they believed the message in stories now was that there is hope of happiness even in a humdrum, difficult life, especially because of recent depressing happenings like Covid. What used to be chick lit has been transformed into books about the freedom to do what you want, and with characters you can actually relate to. They could be your best friend or next-door neighbour and on the surface there is nothing special about them. They still matter.

Ceiling

The amazing ceiling at the venue

A popular trend is for special settings, like islands, little coastal towns or isolated rural villages. Islands where you go on holiday, but which are more or less shut down during the winter, are numerous in Sweden. There is the Stockholm archipelago, for instance, and lots of islands outside of Gothenburg. On an island you are vulnerable – dependent on others, and the community pulling together to help each other. It creates special bonds, but the draw-back is that everyone knows everything about each other so it can be a bit claustrophobic. Can be fun to read about but perhaps not live through? It does make for great stories though.

Historical novels have made a come-back in Sweden, but they seem darker to me than their English/US counterparts. The authors who chatted about these emphasised the fact that human emotions and feelings have not changed over the years. However, the role of women has, significantly so, and they all agreed we should be grateful to those who helped to provoke change.

JuniStrong women were definitely a theme in modern stories too. Those who have gone through a lot and make the reader feel they are owed some happiness and good luck make for great heroines. How do you carry on when your life is in chaos or is suddenly destroyed by an unexpected event, like your husband dying or asking for a divorce out of the blue? The heroine has to be brave and stand on her own feet, find inner strength. Even if they are normally patient and undemanding, there comes a time when they have to stand up for themselves. This is very satisfying for a reader – personally, I love stories like that, and I read two of them as a consequence of this segment of the conference, both by Swedish author Marie-Louise Marc. Friendships are also important, and the heroine needs great friends to lean on. Making new and unexpected ones can be wonderful!

Books involving travel can be a lovely way of getting away from your own life without actually going anywhere – making you feel good. The authors who wrote this type of story said they hoped to totally immerse their reader in a specific place, using all the senses to situate them there. Foreign places are not always just a setting, but a character in its own right. And you can use the environment to strengthen or test the characters. The place you end up in can be the catalyst for change or difficulty. Going through huge events in an unfamiliar place is unsettling to say the least. And being away from home gives you a unique perspective on your life.

Feelgood twoAnother theme discussed was secrets – how a secret or mystery in a story can be the driving force. It was agreed that it is more difficult these days to keep secrets because of all the technology – mobiles, CCTV cameras on every corner, social media etc. That doesn’t make it easy for authors!

Finally, there were the older heroines. The panel talking about this mentioned that when you get to a certain age you have nothing left to lose. You might be stuck and feel discriminated against because of your age, but at the end of the day, do you really care how others see you? The authors writing books about older heroines said their advice was to “not think so much – you are fine exactly the way you are”.

What struck me mFeelgood threeost was the incredible enthusiasm all the authors shared when talking about feelgood fiction. It made me think about what constitutes feelgood for me. Personally, I’m not satisfied with a story where there’s little to no romance. I’m not interested in tales of middle-aged women grabbing life by the throat and having adventures or going on a pilgrimage to Compostela to figure out where their lives are going. But that’s just me. I don’t want to change my own life so I don’t have a need to read about it. I can see that it might appeal to someone who’s in a desperate rut though. Someone who perhaps needs a little push to free herself from a humdrum existence. To be inspired and told it IS possible – basically just go for it because life is too short!

As for cosy crime – sure, it’s feelgood insomuch as there is very little blood and gore. Apart from for the poor murder victims, these types of stories are generally upbeat and the killer/killers are always caught and get their comeuppance. That’s very satisfying. I do read and enjoy the occasional cosy crime, but it wouldn’t be my go-to genre to make me happy.

Lake MalarenIt was truly fascinating to hear all this, though. One author I spoke to said the Feelgood fiction genre in Sweden is getting so big she thought it will probably soon need to be sub-divided in order to not confuse readers. That makes sense and it would help someone like me find the kind of stories I like. Short of looking at the back of a book (which I confess I have been known to do on numerous occasions), it’s impossible to know if a story is going to end happily. And as Anne said in a recent blog post, that is a must!

I had a lovely time and, as a bonus, got to spend time with some wonderful old and new Norwegian friends who had come over for the festival! All in all what I took away from the day was the overall joy in writing and reading books that lift us up in some way. We all have different tastes and that’s as it should be, but the main thing is that feelgood fiction should leave us feeling satisfied and hopefully with a smile on our faces.

What constitutes Feelgood fiction for you? What’s your go-to sub-genre if you need cheering up? Send me your recommendations please!

17 thoughts on “Feelgood Fiction”

  1. I think the most important thing about Feelgood fiction for me is that it must be about characters I like and can respect or admire. No graphic violence, no serial killers, no accurately portrayed psychopaths. Feelgood fiction is what I read at bedtime and I don’t want anything that’s going to give me nightmares. That’s why I generally have an old favorite on my bedside table—no unpleasant surprises.

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  2. That’s a very good point Lillian! I wouldn’t want to read anything that gives me nightmares either and it’s lovely to go to sleep with a smile on your face isn’t it.

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  3. Sounds great Pamela! I’m just about to start Wench Patricia’s latest which I believe fits that description perfectly!

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  4. What a great description of the Feelgood Festival in Sweden. For me, feel good fiction is an essential as it gives me the chance to opt out for a little while – I reckon when the going gets tough, the tough get reading! I can just put the real world to one side for a short space and immerse myself in someone else’s, generally where there is some romance, laughter and definitely a happy ending. I heard it described as up-lit once and that seems to fit the bill

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  5. Christina, thanks for the really interesting analysis of Feelgood reading. WE don’t have that as a category in the US, but feelgood books are certainly loved and read, and romance is firmly in that category. I like to have some romance in my reading, and I want a strong, interesting plot where the protagonists successfully overcome tough challenges. My reading tastes are a lot like what Lillian mentioned, and like her, I enjoy my re-reads because I know they end well!

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  6. Thank you Alice! I like the term ‘up lit’ that sounds perfect! And I agree it definitely needs to be happy stuff.

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  7. Many thanks Mary Jo, glad you enjoyed the post! I too want romance in my feel good stories otherwise it doesn’t feel complete to me. Re-reads are great because you’re guaranteed to get the feeling you want.

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  8. Very interesting blog, Christina. I’m especially interested in how different countries approach various kinds of “feel-good” fiction.
    I read a variety of genres, and one of my autobuys is a Scottish crime writer, JD Kirk, whose books are not at all ‘cosy’ and the murders can get a bit grim, but the interactions between the members of the team of investigators (police, forensic examiners etc) is so enjoyable, and the murderer is always caught, which makes it “feelgood” for me.
    As for those older women finding themselves stories, and people who go on pilgrimages etc., I like them, but if I were writing them, I’d ALWAYS put in at least a thread of romance. I don’t think it matters how old you are, love can always come along and unexpected love is even better.
    Thanks for the great post.

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  9. Thank you Anne! Yes it’s very interesting how different people have different takes on what constitutes feelgood. I love it when thrillers or any story has at least a romantic subplot. That really enhances the enjoyment for me.

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  10. Christina, thanks for sharing about the FEELGOOD FESTIVAL; it sounds like an event I’d have enjoyed attending. I’m assuming, given the name, that the speeches were in English; is that correct?
    I don’t have a good definition of Feel Good fiction, but I’d say I know it when I read it. As you indicated, what feels good for one reader might not work for the next.
    A couple of books that make me Feel Good are The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison and The Curse of Chalion. They are both fantasies but each does include some romance.
    And now I’m wondering if Feel Good reads differ from comfort reads.

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  11. Thank you Kareni – I think comfort reads are definitely feelgood but feelgood fiction is probably a bit broader than that. Your favourites sound great!
    Unfortunately most of the festival I attended was in Swedish with only one session in English. We’ll have to hope for something similar over here.

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  12. Feel good for me is good triumphing over evil. This definition is probably broader than the Swedish one as it encompasses all genres, as does my reading, but my favs tend to have this feature. As representative I would Choose Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books for SciFi, Lynda La Plante’s Tennison series for detective thrillers and the Wenches (and their recomendations) for romance.
    Thanks for the fascinating discussion. My only visit to Sweden was a conference in Malmo. I took a propellar driven flight from Copenhagen which was exciting but most participants took the ferry. Now I believe there is a bridge. Interesting country and people … must explore more someday!

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  13. You should definitely go back sometime Quantum, both to Sweden and Denmark! There is indeed a bridge and you can take the train directly from Copenhagen airport across to Sweden and up all the way to the north. I agree about good triumphing over evil – an absolute must!

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  14. Another interesting blog! I read so many genres & sub genres but I do like a bit of romance included & a happy or at least satisfying ending. Hey – even Frank Hardy & Nancy Drew had an attraction to each other in the crossover mysteries.

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  15. Same here. I love historical mysteries which are thoughtful (not ‘cosy’ as such, but not creepy either), particularly when they touch on real history

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