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Coming to Terms With “Cozy” Fiction


Coming to Terms With “Cozy” Fiction

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Coming to Terms With “Cozy” Fiction

Categories and genres are weird things. Sometimes they make perfect sense; sometimes they feel like mental sandpaper.


Published on February 15, 2024

Photo by anotherxlife [via Unsplash]

Photograph of two open books beside a candle. An additional stack of books and blankets or other cloth are visible in the background.

Photo by anotherxlife [via Unsplash]

If you say the word cozy to me I will, without any intention whatsoever, immediately picture the Sleepytime bear. Pajamas, a fireplace, a nice little cap—the only thing wrong with the bear is that his room is entirely too bright for a friend that, to all appearances, just wants to doze off by the fire. It’s a sweet image that I have been looking at since I was a tween. I kind of love it. And yet I have for a while now just groaned at the rise of cozy when applied to SFF.

The term, as I understand it, was lifted from the world of mystery, where it tends to mean somewhat gentle, small-town investigations undertaken by people who are probably not cops. Cozy mysteries arose, according to Novel Investigations, partly in response to the more hardboiled style of seedy underworlds and terrible humans.

So what happens when the world itself seems to be a seedy underworld, and too many terrible humans are in power? We start to want cozies—and in genres beyond mystery. We want comfort reads, books in which nothing bad happens, and competence porn

Still, one person’s comfort rewatch is another person’s disliked Battlestar Galactica episode in which people punch out their feelings, which is to say, I think comfort is a trickier subject than is sometimes addressed. But cozy is more like a subgenre—a style as much as a feeling. It can be comforting, but isn’t necessarily synonymous with “comfort reads.” Cozy tends toward witches and innkeepers, ordinary folks, unchosen ones, the regular-old crews of regular-old ships. It’s found families and unexpected magical inheritances, and stories about just trying to find one’s place in the world (or galaxy). And it’s been bubbling up for years and years, well before our current pandemic-shaped landscape.

So why did I bristle at the category? Why did I want to not read all the sweeter-sounding books, even though I went looking for exactly this kind of thing when I wrote a column, two years ago, called “What to Read When You Are Worn Out on World-Saving”? Why do I hate it when stories are called “low stakes” because they’re not about saving the world? The stakes for anyone, in their own life, are high. Can’t that reality play out in stories, too? Maybe “stakes” is just not a useful way to look at books.

Categories and genres are weird things. Sometimes they make perfect sense; sometimes they feel like mental sandpaper. I know I’m not the only person who has heard of a new subgenre that ends in -core or -punk and cringed, quietly, on the inside. Cozy has always elicited a similar response in me. It sounded too small. But I think, now, that I was caught up in a weird kind of semantics. I think that maybe it’s about something else altogether, something we just don’t always want to say on account of we might sound kind of mushy and sentimental.

Cozy, in SFF, just means it’s about people. 

There are other awkward words for this. Human-centric, maybe. Things that might once, or by some people, get called “soft SF,” in opposition to “hard SF,” a frustrating delineation that always felt like a ranking of the sciences to me. I haven’t heard these terms much in recent years, and I’m not sad about it. But that doesn’t mean the kinds of stories the awkward terms were trying to describe stopped existing. 

Cozy means we soft little creatures, the ones rattling around in tin cans in a galaxy that could kill us in minutes—we’re the point. Not the world, not the spaceship, not the neat wormholes or the super-cool magic sword or the things that need to be collected. Cozy is why I play The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom and never tackle the final battles, opting instead to run around visiting every village I can find, helping random people with their often very weird problems. Cozy is a whole genre of helping random people with their often very weird problems, you could say. There might be an epic battle against magical forces, but it’s over there. There are still people going about their days, collecting bugs, needing to get a rushroom fix, or trying to make their kid happy.

Yes, books with big epic quests and world-saving are also about people. Books are about people, generally speaking. But every storyteller prioritizes: Are you saying something all-encompassing or something intimate? Do you want to look deep into the hearts of a bunch of weirdos on a spaceship or do you want to trace the rise and fall of a dynasty? Do you want to do both? Can you do both? What do you want your readers to take away from a story?

What do you, as a reader, want to take from a story? Has it changed, at all, in the last five or eight years? Has it changed again in the last year?

An old friend pointed out another thing about cozies, and about comfort, the other week. She said the same thing I just said: that they’re about people. But her point was that they’re also not about machines, or sweet new technologies, or finding new ways to share on social media. They’re not about robots, or so-called AI; they’re about the things that the techbros can’t or don’t or won’t understand, in their quests to optimize and minimize and turn every narrative into a quickly digestible blog post. 

Cozy stories can be a kind of defiance. Their rise is a testament to what a lot of readers need—comfort, yes, but also connection, meaning, purpose, ritual, care, love, possibility. Not just the possibility of a single, lovely, charming story, but a reminder that it’s possible for our world to contain those things, again, in larger measure that it feels like it does right now. 

This doesn’t mean there’s no struggle, no difficulty in the character’s lives. But it does mean recognizing that not every struggle is against a demon king with a sword. What we’re struggling with, down here on the ground, with our muddy boots and our broken hearts—those struggles are just as valid. If the world is constantly questioning your right to exist, to be equal, to be heard, why would you not want a story that lets you live, however briefly, in a world where none of that happens? When you turn the last page, all the struggles are still real, from book bans to bombings. Escapism isn’t a dirty word, and it’s not just about leaving the world behind for a little while. It’s also about coming back better able to face what’s right in front of us. icon-paragraph-end

About the Author

Molly Templeton


Molly Templeton has been a bookseller, an alt-weekly editor, and assistant managing editor of, among other things. She now lives and writes in Oregon, and spends as much time as possible in the woods.
Learn More About Molly
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