Top 10 Comfort Read Authors As Determined by AAR's Readers in September 2000
Shelley Dodge, AAR's pollster, polled for readers' favorite comfort read authors this time around. Below you'll find the winning ten presented in two distinct ways, a special list of authors who received many votes but did not make the final cut, and some analysis by both Shelley and myself. Finally, you'll be able to read some reader responses to the poll results and the analysis Shelley and I devised.
Jayne Ann Krentz and all pseudonyms
Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb
Susan Elizabeth Phillips
Mary Jo Putney
As you can see from how the above list panned out, two authors at the very top of the list are known for writing under more than one pen name. For some of those who participated in this poll, there was a clear distinction between a romance by, say, Jayne Ann Krentz and Amanda Quick. The same can be said for those by Nora Roberts and her pseudonym, J.D. Robb. So Shelley re-ran the figures and separated out the various pen names, which created a different list.
Nora Roberts only as Nora Roberts
Susan Elizabeth Phillips
Jayne Ann Krentz only as JAK
Mary Jo Putney
Mary Balogh Jayne Ann Krentz as Amanda Quick
When Jayne Ann Krentz and Nora Roberts and their various pseudonyms are broken out, the list undergoes a fairly substantial change. For one, Elizabeth Lowell falls out of the top ten. For another, Julie Garwood rises to the top. Finally, Nora Roberts, writing as J.D. Robb, disappears from the top ten, which may not be surprising since her Robb books, as romantic suspense, are fairly gruesome and not necessarily "comfortable."
Shelley went back to her polling results and created a list of those authors who didn't make the top ten, but who did receive a multitude of votes - at least ten apiece. Many other authors received multiple votes, but this next group received (at least) votes in the double digits.
The Best of the Rest
Nora Roberts as J.D. Robb
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To say I'm surprised with some of the results would be a major understatement. My idea of "comfort" must differ greatly from most of our readers. Many of the authors (four) who made it onto my personal list are there for series titles - their books are quick and easy to read, and the quality is generally consistent. Most of the authors (eight) on my personal top ten are there because they write romances on the lighter side. While Judith McNaught and Mary Jo Putney are fabulous romance writers, their books tend to be emotionally draining, which I personally do not find comforting. Linda Howard and Elizabeth Lowell, who do tend to write draining books, are on my list for their series titles, which, because of their brevity, are quick and easy to read even if they can be emotionally or erotically charged. Sorry to use a food analogy, but meatloaf and mashed potatoes are comfort food to me, and most of the authors on my own list are the equivalent of mashed potatoes. I don't like a steady diet of comfort food and if I were to go out to dinner I would probably go for steamed clams and asparagus, which, much as I adore them, were foods I had to develop an appetite for.
On the other hand, a good number of the authors on my own list made it onto at least one of the above lists. My list of ten favorite comfort read authors is comprised of:
Jayne Ann Krentz - books 1995 and earlier
Amanda Quick - books 1997 and earlier
Leanne Banks - series titles for Harlequin/Silhouette only
Elizabeth Bevarly - series titles only
Nora Roberts - no mystery or suspense titles, though
Elizabeth Lowell - series titles only
Linda Howard - series titles only
I've asked Shelley for her own list as well, and for her thoughts on the results. Here's her list, followed by her comments:
Jayne Ann Krentz
None of the authors surprised me, but I believe this is because I view my comfort reads a little differently than Laurie. For me a comfort read is a book I find that can involve me to the point of blocking out every-day life while I am reading.
It also has to have a happy ending. This is key as I can handle plots with dark subjects or tense emotions but everything has to come out well in the end. Without the happy ending the books would not be comforting. That said, I definitly pick up different books for different types of comfort. Anne Stuart's To Love a Dark Lord is good after a fender bender, illness or other outside irritant, but it would not be my first choice if I were in an emotional conflict with someone. In that case I might go for some thing much lighter, for example Georgette Heyer's These Old Shades or Frederica.
Some of those who participated in this poll shared with me why they liked the authors they chose and some got specific and listed actual titles. It seemed that, more often than not, it was the older titles of many of the authors that were listed. Some respondents simply said they liked those titles that began an author's backlist as opposed to their newer releases. I wonder if the first as favorites concept is at play here. Readers really do seem to get attached to the first books that drew them into the genre or attracted them to a specific author. This was especially true for Garwood, McNaught, and Quick for single titles and JAK, Roberts and Lowell for series titles. There's a definite chasm for JAK fans - readers who discovered her long ago prefer her more romantic stories to the newer, mystery-oriented ones while those who have more recently discovered her like the newer titles better.
What interested me is why books are comfort reads. Some readers wanted very light-hearted stories while others wanted dependability. Still others, myself included, often want a deeply emotional read. In a parallel discussion of comfort reads on aarlist, many readers pointed to a comfort read as a book they knew so well they could just re-read favorite parts for a half hour before bed. And let's not forget that many if not most romance readers are also comforted by interrelated books that feature different family members. Basically, a comfort read seems to be anything that allows us to distance ourselves from "real life" for a little while.
Part of the comfort read phenomena is the fact that I find owning the books comforting. Like many readers, I keep a shelf of my very favorites seperate from any other books. Knowing my 'stash' is there when I need it is heartening. Who is it who said, "A good book is never over, it continues to whisper to us from the wall?" Comfort reads are books I can return to again and again - familiarity, in this case, does not breed contempt but enjoyment.
I had a problem making up my own mind as to just what a "comfort read" was; was it something you could read without expending much energy (fluff?), something you know backwards and forwards, humorous as opposed to serious, what?
I finally decided to look at my keeper shelves and pick out authors whose books I consistantly reread, figuring that if I reread them so much, they must be comfortable! I must have decided well, for 9 of my 10 made the Top Ten and Best of the Rest lists.
It was also a comfort to me to see that there are differing opinions as to what makes a "Comfort Read," for if Laurie and Shelley disagree on it, then I can't be too far off the mark either.
I'm glad Shelley and I eased your mind. There's a great difference in my own mind between a comfort read and a favorite read. One can be one w/out being the other. For instance, the Anne Stuart title Shelley referenced is one I wrote a DIK review on for the site, and yet it would never be a comfort read for me. Conversely, Leanne Banks' has never written a DIK for me, and yet she's one of my favorite comfort reads.
I guess my definition of comfort reads are books that I've read over and over because they make me feel good. There's got to be a unique connection between the hero and heroine that makes them special - some sort of quality that endears them to each other as well as to the reader. Sometimes they are light and humorous, other times they are more cathartic.
Only three out of ten of my authors showed up. I expected Julie Garwood to be at the top and was surprised to not see her there. Linda Howard and Elizabeth Lowell were my other two picks, mostly for their series romance. I'm very surprised not to see Christina Dodd on the list. I haven't been into her recent books, mostly because of the period in which they are set, but her early works are wonderfull comfort reads, right up there with Julie Garwood. Another one I like to go back to is The Night Remembers by Kathleen Eagle.
I find it interesting that the 10 ten comfort read authors resembles a top ten best-sellers list - not a bad thing, just interesting. I really enjoyed seeing the results of this poll, especially since the results were so different from my own selections.
My list included Jane Austen, Mary Jo Putney, and Georgette Heyer (and maybe a few others - I don't recall exactly). I didn't really ponder my definition of "comfort read" when I sent in my list, but on reflection I'd say that a comfort read is:
1. Well-written enough to bear repeated readings.
2. Has likable characters and a setting I can immerse myself in.
3. Can be emotional and gut-wrenching, but not dark and disturbing. Pat Gaffney didn't make my list because To Have & To Hold still gives me the creeps whenever I think about it, even though Wild at Heart is the epitome of a comfort read.
In general, a comfort read is a book I pull off my shelf to re-read when I'm feeling frazzled, or when nothing in my TBR pile appeals. A lot of the time, I go for childhood classics (some of which I didn't discover for myself until adulthood) like Little Women, the Chronicles of Narnia, or the Anne of Green Gables series. I'm on my third reading of the Harry Potter series, so I should add them. And then there's Dorothy Sayers' mysteries, Lindsey Davis' Marcus Didius Falco mysteries, and Kate Elliott's Jaran novels.
I find it interesting that many of the comfort books are set in the Regency period. Regencies and Regency historicals are my favorites, and almost the only romance novels I buy. One reason they are comforting is that they take place in a distant time; it is not comforting to read about people dealing with the same problems in the same space that you do. I cannot read most contemps for that reason; contemporary "heroes" are often crude, foul-mouthed, and sexually aggressive, like so many of the jerks I know in real life!
I quite agree with all your points, Barbara. I came to romance through what seems to be a fairly well-worn path: Jane Austen led me to traditional Regency Romance, which in turn led me to historicals set in the Regency. I have been very leery to venture beyond. Jo Beverley carried me back to Georgian, Connie Brockway dragged me forward to Victorian, though I still read those periods sparingly. I have recently taken a bold leap (for me!) into Medieval, but only by well-loved authors whose regency era novels I devoured ages ago, ie. Beverley, Garwood, Quick, Barnett, Deborah Simmons, etc
But yes, the Regency is comforting (sorry for wandering a bit there!), it takes us to a place where many of us first discovered romance novels, takes us out of ourselves and away from the present.
I think what you said plays into the "first as favorites" theory I first talked about way back in 1996 in one of the earliest issues of my column. I had never really thought about how the two combined until reading Shelley's comments from the results page itself, and now yours and I guess Barbara's. I didn't come into romance from the "classical" end of things as you did. I've always been a reader of fiction and historical fiction, but never really got into romance until the early 1990's when I bought what was selling at the bookstore. Luckily, some great books were out then. Most were regency-set historicals, but some were medievals. A great number of those books earned DIK status from me; indeed, I think I gave nearly 20 romances DIK status that first year I read romance. That number has dwindled in each subsequent year so that only two or three romances earn DIK status from me at this point.
Shelley and I are both fascinated by how our current polling for Favorites by Favorite Authors is going to end up. I hope you took part in that poll; if not, it's open through the end of this month.
Firsts as Favorites... I agree this is often the case, I know it is with me, but I think that is so only partly because they were our firsts. Why were they our first romance novels? I would bet that it is because they came highly recommended, either by friends or reviews, so they were good books in and of themselves, not just because we read them first. When someone asks me for a romance recommendation, I list some of my favorites - the best of the best - and therefore I expect that some of them will become my friend's favorites as well.
I also gave more romances DIK status initially, but isn't this mostly because we're now "caught up?" In my first three years of romance reading (I am a recent convert!) I have inhaled all the good stuff (and a lot of garbage as well) but I had years of good books to catch up on. Now the really good books are read and I am reduced to waiting for favorite authors to come out with their new book or I must venture out into new time periods, new authors. This is what is spurring my foray into Medievals and Victorians, though I cannot ever see myself reading contemporaries or Americana.
My comfort reads are all romances, but they are not all similar. Most of the authors on the list were on my personal list also. I need the happy ending, but also need some conflict and suspense, so "dark" stories are not excluded. My favorite reads that I have re-read more than 20 times are by Linda Howard and Elizabeth Lowell and Justine Dare - some category and some single titles. They all leave me with the feeling that I have struggled and won, and that the winning is valuable and significant. Of course the hero is very attractive to me too - my favorites are all alpha's and all intensely fixated on the heroine. The comfort element is the "take me away" feeling as well as the "HEA" - I need both.
To some degree any romance is a comfort read for me. They are a welcome escape from most of my obligatory reading where endings are depressing or nonexistent. Since I lost my mother three years ago, the books I reach for when my stress level reaches overload are those I shared with her. I re-read Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer, Elizabeth Cadell, or Elswyth Thane. I would also add Nora Roberts' MacGregor series to my list because of the generational links that endure and the "Born In" series because those characters understand grief.
Post your comments on these poll results
Link to the 2006 Top Ten Comfort Read Authors Mini-Poll