I try to avoid the philosophy blog in the New York Times, because for every insightful entry they post, there are half a dozen that talk down to the audience and make the writer look like a pretentious jerk. But I saw the title (Reading and Guilty Pleasure) and the teaser (“are some books just better than others?”) and I couldn’t resist. Yeah, I know, I know.
This column comes on the heels of the much-discussed New Yorker article by Arthur Krystal, “Easy Writers: Guilty Pleasure Without Guilt.” I read that article when it showed up in my Nook subscription and didn’t think too much about it afterward. As a romance reader I’ve developed a certain insensitivity to criticism of lowbrow reading habits, and as criticisms go, these seemed fairly tame. But apparently it kicked up a bit of discussion on the intertubes. Thus The Stone column, a bit late as usual.
Gutting sets up the usual dichotomies: highbrow v. lowbrow, genre v. literature, good for you v. tastes good, and he wonders why we don’t make judgements across these dichotomies:
If a friend and I are verging on an uncomfortable dispute about the merits of literary fiction compared to mysteries or thrillers, we may avoid conflict by saying, “Different people just like different things; we shouldn’t try to impose our views on others.” But once we return to our preferred genres, we are perfectly happy to make strong judgments about, say, the superiority of David Mitchell to Jonathan Franzen or of Raymond Chandler to Mickey Spillane. Regarding the books we really care about, few of us are relativists about quality.
It’s plausible, in fact, that the standards we appeal to in support of comparative judgments within a genre (complexity, subtlety, depth, authenticity and so on) could just as well be used to judge one genre, overall, better than another. I suspect it’s just a democratic preference for tolerance that keeps many of us from this path.
It might be our democratic preference for tolerance (somehow we apply it to books even though we’ve mostly abandoned it in, you know, democratic politics). Or it might be that we generally don’t compare apples and oranges and a lot of readers see genre differences as differences in kind, not just degree.
But that’s not the debate I want to have, because that’s not how I think about reading and guilty pleasures. I don’t feel at all guilty about reading genre fiction. But I do feel guilty about reading and enjoying certain types of books, whether they are genre or not.
First, I definitely think some books are better than others. I’ve said so many times. But the guilty pleasure part isn’t in reading an objectively bad book. It’s in reading a bad or a good book that you enjoy while you’re reading but then feel guilty about afterward. That doesn’t happen to me just because I’ve enjoyed an easygoing, mentally undemanding book. What rubbish.
I don’t read as part of some kind of holistic “self-improvement” regime, I read because I enjoy reading. I always have, and I assume I will until I die. When I don’t feel like reading, I don’t read. If that state goes on for a while, I take stock and try to figure out why, in the same way I would if I stopped wanting to spend time with friends, or stopped wanting to go outdoors. When something that gives you pleasure and makes you happy loses that power, you look for reasons. But I don’t try to understand the reasons because reading has some predetermined benefit that I must obtain. It’s not a multivitamin pill.
So what do I feel guilty about? I call a read a guilty pleasure when the sheer emotional pleasure of a book outweighs all the clear and present flaws, flaws that should preclude that pleasure for me. I’m not talking about here about books that are well written but fluffy (some cozy mysteries), or books where I’ve agreed to an unbelievable premise before I open the first page (secret baby books), or books that provide a physical rather than emotional pleasure (stroke romance and erotica). All those tradeoffs make sense to me: you take the bad with the good and the good outweighs the bad. Nothing to see here.
No, the ones that quality as my guilty pleasures are books that celebrate something I find objectionable but that I still enjoy reading. I’ll even reread them because they are so effective at manipulating my emotions in spite of my desire to resist. As opposed to presenting something I disagree with in a way that lets me think of the book as a learning opportunity, or offering a way to expand my reading horizons, they revel in a characterization or context or trope that I generally loathe and want to avoid.
In mainstream category romance, Betty Neels’ later books fall squarely in this category. Her over the top, little-match-girl heroines, who have lives of utter drudgery and humiliation until each is rescued by a hero who seems more father than lover, should drive me screaming from the room. But I still read them. Liz Fielding’s and Sarah Morgan’s sheikh romances fall into this category too. I hate sheikhs in romance. But I like these authors’ books, and if they write sheikhs, I’ll buy them. Why? Yeah, I know they’re good writers, but I still should not like these books.
In m/m romance, the Gay4U plot is the obvious one. Tere Michaels’ trilogy pushes every single one of my run-away-now buttons. But I gobbled it up and read it twice. Caught Running by Roux and Urban was one of the first books I read in m/m. I could blame how much I liked it on my genre ignorance at the time. But that wouldn’t really explain why I ate it up with a spoon when I read it a year later, would it?
I even read and enjoyed and reread an m/m with demon sex. Sex with barbed penii, people! I rarely read paranormals, and I sure as hell don’t read about demons and barbs, much less barbs doing the sexytimes thing. And yet, there I was, turning back to the beginning to read it again.
I could go on, but you get the idea. I don’t feel guilty for reading these books, but I feel a bit guilty for liking them. It seems so inconsistent and wrong.
Damn you, authors, for having the ability to get me to pick up something I really shouldn’t. And double-damn you for having the talent to make me enjoy it.
ETA: Since I’ve been ranting a lot lately, it might not be clear that when I say “damn you, authors,” I mean in it the same way that I say “Damn you, George Clooney, for being so handsome and talented that I have to see your movies.”