November 25, 2009 at 9:35 am | Posted in Book Blather | 21 Comments

What is fluff?

When I used this term recently, I had no idea it was so loaded with connotations.  (Sort of like when I first moved to California and thought “macking on” meant the same as “flirting with” instead of “making out.”)  It seems that ‘fluff’ is like ‘porn’ – hard to define, we know it when we see it, personal preferences may differ, some will have nothing to do with it, and the one with a problem is the one who looks at it more often than you do.

The first time I heard someone else use the term ‘fluff’ it was in the context of a sort of blind date to start a book group.  The other party said she wanted “to read fluff.”  (Trish and I took one look at each other and knew it wasn’t going to happen, not with this lady, at least, though she was perfectly likeable).  We all had a shared enthusiasm for V. C. Andrews and Stephen King.  When it came to book groups, though, one of us wanted to read for pleasure and entertainment only, while the other two wanted to read for the challenge, to expand our tastes, and to promote vigorous discussion.  There just didn’t seem to be much to discuss when it came to certain books – mystery, horror, or romance, for example – and when it came down to it, we agreed we would read ‘fluff’ on our own whether we had a book group or not.

Let me reiterate.  We easily agreed on what ‘fluff’ meant and that we liked to read itIt’s not a put-down.  When I think ‘fluff’ I think ‘beach read’ or ‘airport novel.’  Let’s face it, when we’re at the beach or traveling we need a different type of book than what we read when we’re at home.  We get down on our knees and thank heaven there’s a book of portable size and absorbing plot to take with us.  If it weren’t for ‘airport books’ there would probably be an upsurge of rioting in the security line – people would just go stir crazy!

Rewind a paragraph.  Trish and I decided certain books would be less likely to promote discussion in our book group.  That also does not mean they’re not worth reading.  For instance, mystery is one of my favorite genres.  The thing is, though, once everyone knows whodunnit there isn’t all that much to say afterward.  I also find mysteries are not good for re-reads.  We couldn’t do horror because some members of our group turned out to be exceedingly sensitive – one started having nightmares during Geek Love and had to quit reading it.  And, well, romance doesn’t really do it for us.

I’ll make a point I’ve made before.  ‘Fluff’ runs bookstores, most particularly romance.  I have an acquaintance who had worked at a B. Dalton’s for many years, and she said easily a third of total sales came from romance.  She said most small bookstores would have to close their doors if it weren’t for romance readers.  My mom reads Harlequin novels by the grocery sack load (this is literally true – when she fills a sack, she hides it in her bedroom closet) and she has for at least the last 30 years.  My dad and grandma read science fiction, crime, and action thrillers, also by the grocery sack load.  (Those go out to the garage).  My nana read Reader’s Digest Condensed Books.  If it weren’t for genre fiction readers, I doubt I, for one, would be interested in books at all.

Now let’s talk about chick lit.  I believe all chick lit is fluff; if it wasn’t fluffy, it wouldn’t be chick lit.  Again, this is not a put-down.  I read almost nothing but chick lit when I was in college.  I appreciate the positive approach and the focus on landing the great job rather than the great boyfriend, though when I was single I wanted to read about that too.  I know that for some reason the concept that chick lit is fluff is an explosive one.  Simply put, I think it’s absolutely terrific that something designed for pure entertainment carries an implicitly empowering message: girls, go out and work for whatever you want, and the world is yours.  It’s great.  Now that I’m married and have a family and a career, though, there’s less to grab my attention, just like a gal of 25 wouldn’t care to read about my travails with cleaning the gutters, saving for Sweetie Junior’s college fund, or planning for retirement.  (Come to think of it, I don’t want to read that, either!)

‘Fluff’ means “a book I personally find less challenging than my normal reading.”  I don’t think it would be possible to ascribe this term to someone else’s reading, because ‘fluff’ is a term that crosses genres.  When I use the term, take it to mean “whatever you think of when you want to read something light.”  The reading we do in the bathtub after a long day; the reading we do when we’re on vacation; the reading we can’t resist or do purely in secret – that’s our fluff.  It’s the jeans-and-T opposed to our work clothes.  A world without fluff would be a world without Oreos.



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  1. This is the best thing I’ve read all day and I believe you have nailed this particular bit of jello to the tree quite well! 😉

    • Thanks! Now, is that jello with marshmallows or pineapples? 🙂

  2. Jello with marshmallows or pineapples? You guys sure eat some weird things south of the border 😉 Just kidding.

    Seriously though, you have had a lot of trouble with these posts! I just wanted to stick my nose in and let you know that I completely agree with you on the posts that you’ve been writing. I was shocked that people took offense to them. I think that everyone should branch out and read more than just their comfort reads.

    I like to read a wide variety and really mix it up. Maybe a YA fantasy series today, a history of rape tomorrow, a mystery the next day, and a political biography the next. Fluff to me is also something light and relaxing, something that I don’t have to think about too much. But that certainly doesn’t mean I dislike it or think less of it, almost a quarter of my reading has been my fluff (ahhh I love teen fantasy series!), and I definitely don’t regret it.

    • Thank you!

      As it turns out, I haven’t eaten Jell-O since the 80’s. I just thought it sounded funny. But I have seen it served not only with marshmallows or pineapple, but with other fruit inside too.

  3. I didn’t comment on your earlier post because I only discovered it after the brouhaha was over and had nothing to add, but I didn’t find it particularly offensive because I don’t consider fluff a derogatory term. (I can see why others might, though.)

    I probably read more moderately heavy stuff than I do anything else, but it’s all about balance. I like some fluff now and then. I’ve even found that those “fluffy” novels can surprise me by making me think about something in a new way. But when I pick up a fluff book, I’m not looking for a challenge–I’m looking for comfort, distraction. If I’m made to think or get inspired to try something new or whatever, that’s a bonus.

    And you make a good point about it being difficult to apply the term fluff to someone else’s reading. If you usually read James Joyce or Proust or something like that, then Jane Austen or Ian McEwan might seem fluffy to you while to me, they’re normal reading. Others, however, will find them highly challenging. It’s all a matter of perspective.

    • So true! I read all those authors and that’s pretty accurate. I’ve heard John Irving refer to himself on the level of Dickens and Hardy, and I’ve heard Harold Bloom call Toni Morrison’s work supermarket fiction. Hard to say which is funnier.

  4. I don’t necessarily consider fluff a bad thing either. I enjoy fluff!

    • It could also be said that if it isn’t enjoyable, it isn’t fluff either! If it was designed for pure entertainment and it failed, it would just be… sad.

  5. Wonderful post! I agree with every word you wrote. When I’m talking about “fluff” books I generally call them airplane books or vacation reads. It’s not a put down or I wouldn’t be reading so many of them.

  6. Fluff is def. necessary. For me most of the fluff are the Steeple Hill Love Inspired books. 🙂

  7. I totally agree. I like to read a mix of fluff and non-fluff, personally. I also refer to fluff books as “mind candy”. They are delicious and fun, but you can’t (or at least I can’t) have an entire reading diet on ONLY these types of books.

  8. I don’t know if I’m reading you right so feel free to tell me otherwise. You say you think it’s fantastic that chick-lit contains an implicitly empowering message, but if that message is to be found in a chick-lit book it isn’t there by accident, or as a by product of the stories essential nature anymore than a big idea just happens to turn up in literary fiction – it’s planned and written in by the writer in much the same way that a literary author might design their story so that it reflects ideas about society. If those ideas are absent then it’s likely that the books has been written as pure plot entertainment, with no thought for exhibiting wider ideas and these are the kind of books I’d classify as fluff, maybe, but if ideas about female empowerment etc appear in a chick-lit book they’ve more than likely been consciously added. In the same way that an author uses a piece of literary fiction as a conduit for ideas, at the same time as providing an entertaining experience for the reader much genre fiction is consciously created on these two levels (off the top of my head I’m thinking of ‘The Little Lady Agency’ by Hester Browne which challenges some of the assumptions and stereotypes found in more traditional chick-lit, while also providing a well written, entertaining, not entirely realistic plot).

    When you say there’s less for you to find personally interesting now that you’re married with a family is interesting because in other areas I bet you read well outside of your own current experience. What makes chick-lit different for you? Is it that you’ve already passed through these experiences, while you may not have experienced things in other kind of books? Why do you think it is that girls of 25 will happily read outside their own experiences, but might not want to read about retiring (personally I’m afraid of ageing, because I’m young and stupid ; ) but I’d be really interested to find out why other women might not want to read ahead of their age).

    For me fluff is books that just deal in plot, without attempting to looking at wider ideas, but as I get more into reviewing I find those are fewer and fewer of these kind of books than I thought, even in genre fiction. There are lots of books that are easy to read quickly, they don’t tax your brain much as you read through them, but when you look into them afterwards quite often they’re attempting to express quite deep ideas (thinking of crime books here like ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ which is essentially a mystery, but also has a lot to say about violence against women, or ‘Dance Night’ which was just as fast to read as a YA novel, but was full of some very complex ideas).

    Really thought provoking topic btw, good to break away from the typical definition of ‘fluff’ = bad.

    • You’ve struck a note here that I want to respond to. Why don’t I read chick lit any more? Frankly, I burned out on it. It’s not just that I’ve gotten older. The chick lit I’ve read is basically about shopping, dating, and trying to ‘chew gum and take names’ at work. (I’ve read several dozen ‘chick lit’ titles by different authors and publishers). I’m glad other people like it, I just don’t any more. I will read books about younger people – as well as older people – but I’m simply more interested in literary fiction.

      The main point I have been trying to make is that fluff is entertaining, and reading for entertainment is good. Many of us, though, only want light entertainment on certain occasions. I believe that at a certain point most readers will eventually wish to stretch out and expand their reading repertoire, the way I did. It’s not a criticism, just an observation. Few people are satisfied with only one genre forever.

  9. Yup, I have recently found my reading tastes turning to the fluffy in times of stress as well. (In my most recent post I found myself calling it “downy literature”….) Sometimes the most imperative thing for me is to be in the grips of a book, rather than feeling like I have it in my control. And that is when I turn to genre fiction.

  10. […] Fluff « Both Eyes Book Blog “When I used this term recently, I had no idea it was so loaded with connotations. (Sort of like when I first moved to California and thought “macking on” meant the same as “flirting with” instead of “making out.”) It seems that ‘fluff’ is like ‘porn’ – hard to define, we know it when we see it, personal preferences may differ, some will have nothing to do with it, and the one with a problem is the one who looks at it more often than you do.” […]

  11. Aha! I think you hit the nail on the head in saying you can’t really decide what is fluff for others. I think if a book you loved and found life changing was characterized as fluff by someone else it would begin to be understandable why the term can and has been seen negatively. Also I think that there are many people (not saying you’re one of them!) who look down at others and their reading choices….really I find it hard to believe that anyone who loves books hasn’t seen this. romance readers easily know this best. Therefore the words become explosive because some people have used them in the context of judgement.

    And I will continue to cheerfully disagree about chick lit but have you noticed that chick lit expanded to include women of all ages in all stages of life? hen lit, mom lit, etc. 🙂


  12. you’d think we could stop judging what others are reading and just be glad they are!

    I purchased about 4 young adult novels (love them) the other day and the clerk asked if I needed a gift receipt. I said “no, they’re all for me” and she had a look on her face that I later thought was “oh, how sad. she can only read at this level” kind of look.

    I was excited because they were a treat. All four hardcovers, none on sale, no coupons. They were an extra cherry on my sundae.

    go fluff 😉

    Oh, the shoe fits but that’s okay, it’s a comfortable one.

  13. What a great post – you’ve nailed exactly what “fluff” is: different for each person.

    Personally, my fluff is my “guilty pleasures”, my “snack food of reading” — my library of mystery books, especially themed (eg gardening, quilting, bookstores, etc).

    I don’t know about you, but I don’t want a world without snack food. It’s all about balance, isn’t it?

  14. Jessica, I don’t know if you have ever read ‘Thank you for Not Reading’ by Dubravka Ugresic (Croatian author) but if you haven’t, I highly recommend it. It is a collection of essays about books, publishing, agents, writers, etc and I’ve been thinking of these posts through a lot while reading!

    The whole collection is hilarious. It talks a lot about books and genres and stuff. Very good.

    • This sounds great! I have a soft spot for Eastern European writers. Thanks for the tip!

  15. […] Fluff « Both Eyes Book Blog “When I used this term recently, I had no idea it was so loaded with connotations. (Sort of like when I first moved to California and thought “macking on” meant the same as “flirting with” instead of “making out.”) It seems that ‘fluff’ is like ‘porn’ – hard to define, we know it when we see it, personal preferences may differ, some will have nothing to do with it, and the one with a problem is the one who looks at it more often than you do.” […]

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