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Wednesday, June 13, 2007


Guilty pleasures

Some months ago, an Australian interviewer asked me an unexpected question:

What's your favourite guilty reading pleasure?

Well, I rather garbled the answer, for two reasons: one, if I named any specific author I'd be implying there was something wrong with their stuff, which would hardly be a tribute to an author whose work gave me pleasure, and two, the question confused me. The reason, I figured out afterwards, lay in the answer I would have given had I had time to reflect:

I never feel guilty about reading. I'm twenty-nine; I can read what I want.

Because what is this idea that you're supposed to feel guilty for reading? I don't really get it.

I can understand the idea that some books are inappropriate for some situations. I wouldn't read Gone With the Wind at a Martin Luther King memorial; I wouldn't read Delta of Venus at a children's playgroup. There's no need to be offensive. But if I read either of them at home, I don't see that I'm doing anything wrong. I'm perfectly aware that Margaret Mitchell was a horrifying racist who nonetheless had a genuine talent for character writing; in many ways Gone With the Wind resembles Triumph of the Will - a lot of talent poured into valorizing something evil, and you can admire the talent without subscribing to the philosophy - and I don't think it's ever going to make me think that slavery was a good idea. All I have to do is think of Frederick Douglass's writings, the dignity and humanity, to know who I take seriously. I hear the cry of 'Send me my grandmother!', and I know what side I'm on. Similarly, I know that erotica is best kept for adults, but as long as I'm not collaring children and making them listen to extracts, then I don't think I'm outraging anyone's innocence with good writing.

But I have the feeling that reading guilt is supposed to be more about stuff that you read for pleasure, as a treat. And when it comes to that kind of book, I have no guilt at all. Why should I? I go on the assumption that if I like a book, there must be something good about it, because if I think a book is entirely bad then I don't enjoy it.

Chick fic, for example, is supposed to be a guilty pleasure for a lot of people, I think. I'm not guilty. I like some of it. It doesn't dominate my shelves, but I'll happily recommend Jane Green and Donna Hay to anyone who's looking for a comfortable girly read, because both of those authors are smart. Jane Green is more fashionable (much more so than me, hence my personal favourite is Spellbound because the heroine cares nothing about the Right Labels), and has considerable insight and compassion that she applies to a wide variety of personalities; Donna Hay is more cosy and romantic and has an ability to make her characters vividly, charmingly ordinary while getting you genuinely caring how their adventures come out. Neither of them are trying to be Tolstoy, they're trying to be perceptive, entertaining writers whose books take the function of understanding and gossipy pals, and they're both good at it. So no guilt there: I respect those authors. I've read chick fic books I didn't think were good, so I didn't bother to reread them and didn't feel guilty about that either.

What else are you supposed to feel guilty about reading? Stuff that's bad for you, perhaps? Fashion magazines are a guilty pleasure for some women, I think, but I don't read them, because if I want to be made to feel frumpy and inadequate, I'll - actually, I don't want to be made to feel frumpy and inadequate, which is why I don't read magazines whose advertisers depend on you feeling that way and thinking their products will change that. Possibly that's a guilty pleasure, reading stuff that you know you shouldn't because it isn't good for your general happiness? I don't know. I don't read stuff that makes me feel bad about myself.

Stuff you're supposed to be too old for? I like children's books. Children are not stupid, and it takes a clever author to hold their attention. Children's books have an advantage over adults': genre has not yet taken hold in quite the same way. The main grouping of books is by age rather than by content, with the result that an author is free to invent and add whatever seems good to them without reference to convention or classification. The result is that many children's books are imaginative, thoughtful and well-written, and perfectly admirable.

'Unserious' genres? Well, I don't believe in genre. There are good and bad books in every subsection of the bookshop. Personally I think anyone who reads books purely because they're in their favourite genre, and ignores others because they're not, is missing out - which possibly means I'm making some people feel guilty by saying that, it occurs to me - but still, I stand by the point that no one genre is inherently worse than another. If it's well done, it's well done.

It seems to me that the idea of guilty pleasures in reading is based, fundamentally, on insecurity about one's own taste. If you're capable of saying to yourself, 'I think my taste is fine and if I like a book there must be something good about it' - not defensively, but cheerfully - then you're unlikely to feel guilty about reading anything. Like I said, one of the perks of being an adult is that you get to decide for yourself what you read, watch, eat, buy and wear; if you don't enjoy that, then you're just giving up the energy of youth without getting anything in return. On the other hand, if you harbour a secret fear that your taste isn't very good, then you're likely to end up feeling guilty about enjoying more or less anything.

Where does it come from? School classes that emphasise there are books you 'should' admire? (But then those classes introduce kids to good stuff, which isn't a blameworthy aim.) Other kids teasing you for liking this or that? (Seems more likely to leave an impression.) General insecurity that applies to more than just books? (Seems possible, but I hope not, for everyone's sake.) A sense that reading is fashionable and there are 'in' and 'out' accessories to read? (Man, I hope not.)

My boyfriend suggests that it may partly be because of an association of guilt and pleasure in religion-based cultures: if you enjoy it, you probably should be feeling guilty about it. I wonder if part of that association might be that you associate guilt and privacy: if you feel guilty about it, you'll probably do it where no one can see you, which means some cosy little alone time where you get to do things purely because you enjoy them - which is actually very relaxing. But then unless you genuinely think that you ought to be mortifying yourself non-stop, then that one doesn't seem like a good reason to feel guilty about enjoying reading either. Heck, reading is supposed to be good for you.

He also points out that if you're reading, you're not working. You withdraw from your social obligations, stop making money, looking after your house, feeding your family, participating in your community and generally being part of everyone else's business. But why should that particularly apply to some books more than others? I suppose you could make the case that difficult books are supposed to count as self-improvement in some way, so you could class them as work in the same way that exercise is supposed to be virtuous. But then some people like difficult books. If reading was inherently bad because it's non-productive, then you'd expect educated people to feel guilty about reading Middlemarch and Eugene Onegin, and I don't think they do, on the whole. I think the reason comes back to taste: those books are socially sanctioned. Then again, maybe he's right; if you've been educated and you read books that you generally need an education to appreciate, then you are at least putting the education your society invested in you to use. You're fulfilling a social role. And if you haven't had much of an education but you still like 'educated' books, then your tastes are aspirational, the self-improvement thing again.

Rationally that's nonsense; if you enjoy them you're reading them for pleasure rather than for aspiration, but it might look that way from the outside. But guilt can come either from feeling that you're letting yourself down, or from feeling that others would judge you harshly if they saw you. So where does reading guilt come from? Outside or inside? I don't know, because I'm personally pretty shameless; I can feel a bit of outside guilt if I think my reading choice would offend the company I'm in (the socially inappropriate choice thing), but otherwise I don't feel guilty so I can't refer to my own experience.

Does anyone reading this feel guilty about this or that literary pleasure? Either furnish a better explanation or stop feeling guilty, I say. But if you do feel guilt, enlighten me while you're at it. What's going on?

I think this is a pretty straightforward extention of the guilty pleasures thing with the music, i.e. if you like ELO's "Mr. Blue Sky" (which I think is fab, by the way), you shouldn't admit it because everyone will think you're sad and totally out of touch. I can't recall what the other songs are - sort of Village People 70s disco stuff I think, all terribly naff to the hip-hop with-it youf of today, don't you know.
(In case you can't tell, all the sheep-like fads that come and go, purely to pray on the shallow and insecure to relieve them of their cash, needle me a bit.)
But how this can be applied to such an individual thing as what books one likes is totally beyond me - how can you have a book that everyone else thinks is naff?
I don't feel guilty reading a book any more than listening to music, only annoyed when I feel I've been conned by all the praise on the cover and found out it's a load of old codswallop between the pages.
I always assume that by "guilty pleasure reading" people mean books that are some sub-standard or dumbed-down. The kind of thing people will ask "why are you reading that?" about if they see you with it.

I'll admit I occasionally read books that I wouldn't confess to reading, if only because I don't want to have to justify why I'm reading it. I used to get a lot of my fellow English Lit students at uni looking askance at my choice of reading material and it got very old very quickly.

I do think there's an issue of genre involved. Not that one genre is any better than another, but people do look down on certain genres. For example, (I'm generalising wildly here) sci-fi is regarded as the domain of geeks, virgins and Star Trek fans, chick lit is seens as belonging to lonely single women, etc. It's snobbery and it's stupid, but it does happen.
Must kill parents ... inexplicable urge...
"I'm twenty nine. I can read what I want."

This is classic. I like this and will use it often. (Although in my case, I will have to say "I'm thirty nine....")

I do think that this interviewer was trying to get you to criticize a certain genre as "less than." Good for you for not falling into that trap!
It was tricky! Later he asked me what the worst book I'd read that year was, and I had to step all around that to avoid naming names. I ended up saying that I had a book in mind but I didn't think it would be polite to identify it ... so at the end of the interview, he said very casually, 'So now we've finished, just out of interest could you tell me what it was?'

To which, mercifully, I managed to think just about quick enough to give the right answer, which was 'Absolutely not, you're a journalist.' (In a friendly voice, of course. You can't blame a man for doing his job, but still.)

I'm all in favour of honest reviews and free exchange of opinions, but there's no point in taking gratuitous pot shots.
Excellent, the plan is working...

*evil finger temple of doom*

Just to be contentious, Kit, is there a particular genre you don't read for whatever reason? Be it a lack of interest, dislike of genre convention or something else entirely?
Guilty reading pleasure? Georgette Heyer!

Oh dear did I just admit to that in public?

I've heard that Heyer is pretty good, though. Sounds like a fairly highbrow guilty pleasure to me!

Genres I don't read? Hmm. Well, I don't particularly read by genre, so I think I've read and enjoyed books from most genres in my time. I'm less likely to pick up a book that looks like high fantasy, has the word 'post-modern' in its blurb, or is a war thriller with square-jawed soldiers and heavy weaponry on the front, but there are always exceptions. In all thoses cases, the basic reason is that I'm less likely to enjoy them. High fantasy is fairly convention-heavy, and genre conventions turn me off; post-modern writing tends to favour stuff I'm not interested in, like literary philosophy, over stuff I am interested in, like story, character and evocative writing; and war thrillers involve lots of people blowing up other people, which is not my cup of hard-bitten tea. But hand me a good example of any of those and I'll happily give it a whirl. I certainly don't think that any genre makes it impossible to write a really good book.
Generally the things I feel guilty reading aren't very pleasurable, to me!

I did have a great deal of fun riding the New York subways with a book called "BAREBACK" in my hands...
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