I don’t know about you, but 2020 brought my reading to a screeching halt.
In the past decade or so, I was accustomed to reading about 50 books a year. An average of a book a week. I’d typically have two or three going at once: a fun novel, a challenging novel, and a non-fiction tome to expand my mind.
After March’s shutdown of life-as-we-knew-it, I was too upset to read. Too troubled, too anxious, too afraid to do anything that required sustained focus. My work as a teacher and our transition to remote learning was more than difficult enough. In my spare time, I wanted ease and comfort.
I did puzzles with my kids, both forced home from college. I played card games and board games (not Pandemic, though. Our favorite game was now terrifyingly real.) I bought a Nintendo Switch and played Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
I do love my Animal Crossing island. As you can see from above, my friends are the BEST and my outfits are to die for.
But reading? Nope. Writing? Oh, hell no.
No desire. No “gee, I miss reading.” No “hmm, haven’t looked at my MS in forever.” Nothing.
(OK, I did feel guilty that I wasn’t writing, but that just paralyzed me even more. But that discussion is for another day.)
At some point, I realized that I was, in fact, reading. Just a little. And the only books I was reading were of two genres: mystery and romance.
Don’t get me wrong. I have always enjoyed a good mystery now and then, and I loooove romance novels. But it was not typical or normal for me to read ONLY those genres.
So I thought about it. Why was I devouring mystery and romance while ignoring the usual books I enjoyed?
The answer, when it arrived, was obvious in hindsight. I read them precisely because they were genre fiction, with all that entails.
Both genres feature a familiar and comforting structure. They both begin with a problem. In romance, some change of circumstances brings the main characters together. The tropes are familiar: best friend’s boyfriend, or fake relationship, or enemies-to-lovers, or any of a dozen others that readers adore. In mystery, there’s always an inciting crime: a murder, typically, because who isn’t fascinated with death and the ripples of its wake?
In the middle section of the book, the problem develops, deepens, expands. The lovers can’t seem to make it work; the mystery proves even more dire than it first appeared. Obstacles arise. Interference occurs. We wonder how this can ever end well.
And that right there is the crux of it. We wonder and worry, yet we KNOW it will all come out right in the end. In romance, the lovers reach understanding and achieve their happily-ever-after (HEA in the parlance of romance) or at least a happily-for-now (marriage and a baby not necessarily being everyone’s idea of a happy ending). In a mystery, the dauntless detective — be she an officer of the law or a citizen who simply enjoys meddling — avoids peril at the last second and solves the case. In both genres, the evil-doer or antagonist is always thwarted and brought to some kind of justice.
In both cases, the tropes and the structure are dictated by the genre. Writers who do their job well keep us in suspense, making us doubt the ending, but ultimately, we do get there. If we don’t get an HEA or HFN, the book we’re reading is not a romance novel, and if the killer gets away, we are not reading mystery fiction.
This is the magic of genre fiction. It does what we ask it to do.
And this, of course, is the reason I was able to read it while the world collapsed around us.
No matter the twists and turns on the way, genre fiction promises that everything will come out right in the end.
And in 2020, what else did we need but the assurance that everything would be okay in the end?