Reading and Guilty Pleasure
As we move into the summer season of beach and hammock reading, many of us reach for books that we describe as “guilty pleasures.” This notion has become an important category in our thinking about literature. Two prominent examples are NPR’s regular feature “My Guilty Pleasure” and Arthur Krystal’s recent New Yorker essay, “Easy Writers: Guilty pleasures without guilt.”
Reading Krystal’s subtle and savvy piece, it struck me that our talk of guilty pleasures involves two controversial assumptions: that some books (and perhaps some genres) are objectively inferior to others and that “better” books are generally not very enjoyable. Combined, the two assumptions lead to a view under which, to pick up Krystal’s metaphor, we think of books the way we often think of foods: there those that are “good for you” and those that merely “taste good.” Here I want to reflect on the viability of these two assumptions.
Are some books objectively better than others, or are literary preferences ultimately just matters of subjective taste? In our democratic society, many take a relativist position: you can’t argue about taste, because there are no standards that allow us to establish higher quality as an objective fact. If I think that Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” is a magnificent probing of the nature of time and subjectivity and you think it is overwritten self-indulgent obscurantism, we both have a right to our opinions. So doesn’t it follow that each opinion is only relatively right (right for me, right for you)?
This is a difficult question in principle, but I doubt that it’s of much practical significance. In fact, even the most vehement supporters of relativism as a general theory make absolute judgments when they start talking about specific cases.
We often appeal to relativism as a general theory to soothe incipient disputes about the relative value of “serious” and “popular” genres. 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. In any case, as I’ve noted, much of the discussion about “guilty pleasures” assumes a domain of higher quality “serious” fiction that is superior to but less enjoyable than “lower” forms of fiction.
But when we think this way, what do we mean by “enjoyment”? Sometimes, as Krystal points out, we mean escape from the grubby difficulties of real life into a more enticing fictional world. But Jane Austen or Thomas Mann (or even Homer or Chaucer) can as effectively take us away from our daily cares as can Ken Follett or John Grisham.
Seemingly more plausible is the idea that serious fiction is not enjoyable because it is difficult, requiring intellectual effort to untangle complexities of plot and syntax, to appreciate obscure allusions, or understand deep philosophical themes. Literature of previous centuries is likely to pose problems simply because of unfamiliar modes of expression or cultural contexts; and more recent literary fiction—beginning with the great modernists like Proust, Eliot and Joyce—often seems deliberately constructed to be hard for readers.
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