Michaeline: The Lure of the Shiny, the Featherbed of Familiarity


A backless, cushioned writing desk

There are many ways to combine the cozy familiar with the shiny new. Some ways work better for most readers than others. But there’s always going to be someone who says, “Oh! THIS is what I was looking for!” (Wikimedia Commons)

I was catching up on some podcasts and the fun folks at SF Squeecast were talking about shiny vs. familiar. It got me to thinking. Some readers say they like the shiny – the new concepts and the things they’ve never thought about before, while others think that one of the great points of reading in genre is that you get more of the same – if you read space operas, you know you are going to get adventure and space ships and if you read Harlequins, you know you are going to get happy endings after some obstacles.

The problem is that most “shiny” people want new things, but not too new and weird, thank you. And “cozy” people can get bored if something is too familiar.

The shiny/cozy problem shows up in all the arts, and two of this year’s Christmas songs illustrate the spectrum.

“Text Me Merry Christmas by Straight No Chaser featuring Kristen Bell is, AFAIK, the first Christmas song to include the pitfalls of a modern long-distance relationship, leet-speak and selfies.

The plotline is new-fangled, but the song is solidly set in tradition. There’s the longing for loved ones far away (“I’ll Be Home For Christmas”, “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” “No Place Like Home for the Holidays”), there are the fantastic harmonies (start with the “Hallelujah Chorus” and work your way forward), and there is that poppy, bouncy beat that typifies 20th and 21rst century carols.

I really like how “Text Me Merry Christmas” marries the old and new. There’s a good balance with the coziness of the genre combined with lots of shiny in the setting. I don’t know if it’ll become a Christmas classic, but there’s enough fun here to keep the song around for a decade at least.

On the other hand, Idina Menzel and Michael Bublé’s version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” clunks in strange places. It’s very charming, so please watch it. But there’s no denying that it has problems.

Menzel has one of the most heard voices of 2014, and Bublé‘s voice is a Christmas standard . “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” itself is extremely familiar. It’s got a great story line with two conflicts going on (wolf vs. mouse, and also mouse lust vs. society’s expectation). It can be interpreted a number of ways, from creepy-rapey, to old-fashioned seduction where both partners really want something amazing to happen.

With so many great versions of the song out there, Menzel and Bublé must work to make theirs different.

I think the first problem comes in where they try to escape the “rapey” by featuring pre-teens in the video. Lines get changed, like the slightly ambiguous “maybe just another drink more” becomes the strait-laced “maybe just a soda pop more.” I think this change is cute but “Say, was that a wink” instead of “Say, what’s in this drink?” is getting clunky. But they keep “Gosh, your lips are delicious,” and “Can you lend me a comb?” Did they give up on the clean-up job in the middle?

I heard in a YouTube interview that Menzel wanted to make a Christmas album for her kid, and maybe that’s why there were changes. But, wondering about why these things got changed threw me out of the story, and made me inspect the rest of the song in a way that it probably doesn’t deserve. I love the 1920s and Art Noveau, but what are they doing in this video? And why is a pre-teen bellhop changing into Bruce Wayne and trying to keep a girl in a hotel lobby?

Still, I will probably listen to this version again. Wonderful voices.

You can apply this to literature, of course. There’s Bridget Jones’ Diary, which takes Pride and Prejudice as a plot-base, and makes the story fresh and modern and wonderful. Or, interchanging the old and new parts, there’s Georgette Heyer’s Regencies, which are old-fashioned and full of period detail and wonderful – yet the plot is fresh and new.

A good story is like a wedding – something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. And if it ends in a good party, I’m happy.

But, what works for me isn’t necessarily going to work for you. It’s kind of comforting to think of all the different niches that are available on the spectrum from cozy to shiny. Is there a right or wrong to choosing one’s own spot the rainbow? I don’t think so.

So, what have you read this year that was cozy? And what have you read that’s been shiny for you? How has it changed over the years?

(Note on the SF Squeecast: I think it’s worthwhile to listen to the whole thing. But if you don’t have so much time for 88 minutes, the conversation about cozy/shiny really begins at 38:00. There’s a very nice discussion on what “genre” folk find shiny vs. “mainstream” folk from 50:20. And at 58:25, Seanan McGuire makes a brilliant summary of the podcast, making a case for both shiny and cozy. Finally, at 1:07:35, someone says, “We all make our own comfort food as far as literature goes.” So true. (-: Happy writing, everyone!)

6 thoughts on “Michaeline: The Lure of the Shiny, the Featherbed of Familiarity

  1. Thanks for this, Michaeline – I’m going to listen to that whole podcast later, when I’ve ticked off my ‘to-do’ list for the day. I think we choose a comfortable place on the cozy/shiny spectrum in all aspects of our life, not just the arts. Frex, I have always been a ‘shiny’ vacationer – never could understand people going back to the same place year after year when there’s a whole wide world out there – but I am definitely a ‘cozy’ diner – when I find a restaurant with great food and fantastic service, they’ve got me for life.

    For books I like a whole lotta cozy, with occasional forays into shiny. Seanan McGuire was a shiny new author for me this year, and Anne Bishop, Ben Aaronovitch and Darynda Jones.

    • I like Seanan a lot, too! She wrote one of the few zombie novels that I liked (using the name Mira Grant), but I don’t think I’ve read anything under her “McGuire” name yet. Love her on the podcast.

      I think we all have our cozy spots and shiny spots, and that changes as we age (or at least, it can). For example, I was very proud of myself for not serving the same meal twice during the first 18 months of my marriage. My husband, OTOH, probably would have been happier with some repeats of his favorites. These days, though, I will often make the same thing several times a month. Current favorite: rosti potatoes, eggs, sausage or bacon, pears, and some sort of piquant cheese like the new Gorgonzola I found recently. (-: It’s as if I had a Denny’s in my own home, and my arteries thank me everyday for filling them up (-:.

    • I’m not sure . . . do you mean a novelist’s first novel when you say breakout? Or the novel that lets them quit the dayjob and make writing a full-time job? I think a shiny first novel can happen a lot, but it also can put a lot of pressure on the novelist to make every novel shiny. OTOH, I think a lot of first novels can be very familiar. A publisher (I imagine) just feels more comfortable with something that fits nicely in a genre and is just like a lot of other things. There are more marketing points.

      I just finished reading “Only A Novel: The Double Life of Jane Austen” and it seems like the shinier she got, the less she sold. Her breakout was probably Pride and Prejudice, but her first was Sense and Sensibility.

  2. I just heard “Text Me Merry Christmas” about a week ago and really loved it. I hadn’t thought much about why, but you are right on target with analysis of cozy and shiny.

    I haven’t done a lot of reading recently, but the books I have read have been cozy mysteries – definitely not on the “shiny” end of the spectrum, but they are what I have been looking for. I haven’t always been quite such a cozy reader, but I’ve always tended in that general direction. Maybe next year will include a foray toward the shiny.

    • One of the ladies from the Squeecast mentioned that when she reads for fun, she doesn’t even go for her own genre anymore. She prefers cozy mysteries — mostly because they are fun, and she doesn’t feel like she has to analyze the heck out of them. Her brain can take a break!

      I have a list of books that I like to reread once or twice a year, but I also like things that make me stop and think, “Oh, that’s a new take!” But it has to be friendly. I have to feel that the author likes human beings in general, and her/his characters in particular.

      And even the shiniest becomes familiar after two or three reads-throughs. What’s super-cool is the kind of book that offers up a little new shiny inside the cozy familiar even after three or four re-reads. I get that mostly with books that I discuss with other people.

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