Guilty Pleasures

Confession time: I read popular mass-market paperbacks. Murder mysteries are my favorites, but the occasional romance novel has been known to sneak in here and there. These are books by big-name authors, the ones who often end up as punchlines for people who talk about literature, like John Grisham, for instance. Now, I read my fair share of literary fiction, and I can tell the difference between quality and not-so-quality, but when it comes down to it, I don’t actually care. I like to read books, so I do.

I’ve been thinking lately about this — why some things are okay and other things supposedly aren’t — and I came to the conclusion that I’m tired of being embarrassed by the things I like. If I like them, even in a fleeting, braincandy sort of way, then I like them. Life is too short to be a snob about these things, I think (other forms of entertainment like music and film fall under this too). I have Wham! songs on my iPod and yes, I do watch American Idol. I recently picked up a James Patterson book called Honeymoon and laughed my way through it because it was both insanely predictable and ridiculously bad, but I sure had a good time reading it.

Anyway, back to the point. I suppose this all goes back to the classic “What is literature?” question (which has been discussed here). Sure, some books are good and some books are bad, but why are some books and writers not even considered to be worth enough to be taken seriously at all? What takes a book out of the realm of literary fiction and pushes it into the world of guilty pleasures (if it’s pleasurable at all)? I’m honestly curious. How do we end up defining these things?

So, in between all of the important, high-quality literature you consume to maintain your genius, do you ever read mass-market, blockbuster paperbacks? When you do, do you admit to other people that you’re reading them? What are some of your guilty pleasures? Confession is good for the soul, you know.

27 Responses

  1. Guiltiest
    Guiltiest Pleasures
    I read the Crumb version of Kafka and never read any K. I’ve been racing through Oxford U. Press’ Very Short Introductions. If I can’t get interest in a book, I stop reading it.

  2. I love the Kafka book
    I love the Kafka book illustrated by R. Crumb & written by David Mairowitz’s. Crumb’s artwork is perfect for illustrating Kafka’s dark, neurotic, and sometimes hilarious stories.

  3. I read Da Vinci Code onceBut
    I read Da Vinci Code once

    But only once. It was fun. I wouldn’t call it literature, though.

    To me literature requires one quality: to breed some kind of profound sympathy in my thoughts. Here is a quote from Lady Chatterley’s Lover which, though it is somewhat out of context, sort of sums up my opinion:

    And here lies the vast importance of the novel, properly handled. It can inform and lead into new places the flow of our sympathetic consciousness, and it can lead our sympathy away in recoil from things gone dead. Therefore, the novel, properly handled, can reveal the most secret places of life: for it is in the passional secret places of life, above all, that the tide of sensitive awareness needs to ebb and flow, cleansing and freshening.

  4. art for our sakeJamelah
    art for our sake

    Jamelah always asks the questions I’m interested in. But since I barely read…allow me to consider movies as similar to books. Crash, and Walk on Water, are great powerful literary works of art. So is Sin City – a greatly artistic production. But it gets tagged as being in the genre of graphic violence.

    The problem is with the concept. Categorization is part of human brain activity, but it is dangerously over-used. We have to resist trying to pigeon-hole everything. Chick-lit (I assume) has no appeal to me, unless it crosses over into literary. And that is generally true of all writing. I’ve been looking at, which genre-types itself as fantasy-horror. But actually, it’s primarily literary, but with a genre slant.

    Back in high school we were all reading Sci-fi. But the attraction wasn’t so much the fantasy of the settings; it was the mind-expanding concepts of Vonnegut, Bradbury, Van Vogt, Clarke, Asimov, etc. In a similar vein, P.G. Wodehouse is a literary writer. To so artfully craft his writing as to make it laugh out loud funny, is a unique talent.

    The difference (to me) between ordinary entertainment (like watching sports) and something higher, better (like watching art) is the skill to which the writer or actor presents the piece. That’s not to say that Beckham’s penalty kick in the World Cup wasn’t powerfully dramatic and marvelously artful. But it’s a sort of random bit of luck, from the viewer’s perspective. In a Shaftsbury Avenue play, you go in expecting to get wowed. I think that’s the difference between art and casual entertainment.

    Casual entertainment is a distraction from life; art is the pinnacle of human expression. It guides us toward being better people.

  5. Warren, you’re not guilty of
    Warren, you’re not guilty of anything. Reading Kafka in any format is good for you.

  6. innocentI don’t want to sound

    I don’t want to sound like a lit-dweeb (hah, I guess it’s too late for that) but I can’t think of any guilty reading pleasures. I don’t care for mystery, science-fiction, horror, romance, military thrillers, adventure novels or erotica.

    I read “Da Vinci Code”, and I guess there was a time when I used to read John Grisham or Scott Turow legal thrillers, though I’m not sure why I did this and I don’t have time for books like this anymore.

    The one type of reading I do that feels like a guilty pleasure is rock star or hiphop biographies — “Before I Get Old”, “Hammer of the Gods”, “Shakey”, about forty books on Bob Dylan, “From Pieces to Weight”, “Have Gun Will Travel”. I sure do like books like this. But this is non-fiction, so I guess when it comes to fictional guilty pleasures I’m embarrassingly innocent.

  7. I’m not sure that’s true —
    I’m not sure that’s true — but I think the act of proclaiming innocence infers some type of superiority over a artificially constructed “guilt” … which I think invokes the sort of snobbishness that Jamelah is talking about. Perhaps this is your guilty pleasure?

  8. I’d Like to Teach the World
    I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing

    in perfect harmony
    I’d like to buy the world a Coke
    and keep it company.
    And then I’d like to tell it that if it ever reads a mass-produced, ultra-popular, non-critically acclaimed, non-classic, it’s obviously an uncouth rube who just doesn’t understand the value of true art and intellectual prowess.

    And then I’d soothe my anger by picking up the latest Weekly World News.

  9. Funny you should bring this
    Funny you should bring this up.

    I have a friend who proofreads a lot of my work and he is very good at it. For the most part, he likes my stories. Sometimes, however, in all sincerity, he says I’m being too high-brow. He says I have a great Stephen King novel inside me that is imperiled by my attempts to appeal to the literati. Most of you literati out there would probably agree that I’m in no danger.

    The thing is, my friend is quite intelligent. He has two degrees in accounting. He speaks French, German, Russian, and Bulgarian, and will soon have a Masters Degree in Computer Science. All this is why he makes such a good proofreader.

    He likes John Grisham, Tom Clancy, and other popular writers. I know he would hate William S. Burroughs, who is one of my favorite writers. Two days ago, my friend loaned me the new Stephen King book, Cell, and I’ve got to say, King can write. I’m not talking about plot or subject matter; I’m saying that the man crafts vivid scenes on the page, briskly, somewhat like Hemingway. Anytime I read Hemingway, I try to absorb his style, not to copy it but to make it my own. Right now I’m doing the same thing with Stephen King.

    As I think about it, that is probably why I like William Burroughs. His writing is both experimental and succinct.

    It’s all good. I want the best of both worlds.

  10. Well said, and great quote.
    Well said, and great quote. Have you read The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera? Probably my favorite book about writing. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in writing or reading for deeper meanings! I think you would like it.

  11. From 30 feet away
    From 30 feet away she…

    …looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like someone made up to be seen from 30 feet away.”

    I love noir. I suppose it’s not really much of a confession to reveal my love for Raymond Chandler (as he seems to be in the middle of a very gradual move from “pulp” to “literature,” much like Vonnegut was officially released from the sci-fi gulag a decade or so ago), but I love Raymond Chandler. And I love a number of the lesser detective-fiction writers, too. Sue Grafton isn’t bad at all … she works entirely within extremely limited parameters, but you can tell she’s nonetheless very serious about her craft. It’s just like that Wordsworth “nuns fret not” poem; some poets like to be constrained by the same meter and length over and over again, some novelists like to write the same story over and over again. If you can keep it snappy and fresh, why not?

    I like books that can be full of great humor without ever cracking a joke, and I think that’s what I enjoy so much about the genre. It’s more than just suspension of disbelief, it’s like a drunken pact between author and reader: “Listen, I realize we’re both smart enough to know better, but for the next 300 pages, let’s just pretend that people actually talk like this and that this could actually happen. C’mon, it’ll be fun.” (Maybe that’s what bothers me about so much sci-fi and fantasy, the seriousness with which the reader is expected to take everything. Given the freedom to do anything they want, so many of the writers in these genres seem to impose rules upon their parallel universes that are even more rigid than the rules on this one.) And I love the fact that the endings, no matter how clever or outlandish, are always such a letdown. In a way, I guess that’s the most realistic element to be found.

    Stephen King is awesome. His early short stories are at least as good as Poe’s lesser work. “The Da Vinci Code” was one of the worst books I’ve ever tried to read — and not for the ludicrous story, because I adore ludicrous stories, but just for the writing. I don’t demand that my mass-market paperback writers dazzle me with their sentence structure, I just ask that they not make me wince. Try opening up “Pet Cemetery” (one of my favorites) and “The Da Vinci Code” to a random page and comparing the style in both. The differences are staggering.

  12. I second the Raymond Chandler
    I second the Raymond Chandler motion. Farewell My Lovely: A classic of the noir genre. Phillip Marlowe sleuthing around LA – what could be finer? And let’s not forget Dashiell Hammett. The Continental Op – noir don’t get much better than that. I also like Eric Ambler – check out A Coffin for Dimitrios – the atmoshpere is so thick you can cut it with a knife. I think Burroughs absorbed a lot of this stuff and distilled it through his own unique genius to become a truly modern American literature of the second half of the 20th century. As for sci-fi it’s Dune for me every day of the week. Sand Worms and Melange.

  13. a couple of things about
    a couple of things about that

    Two things come into play when discussing the role of literature.

    1. The first thing is a person’s outlook on life. Some people believe life holds mysteries. Why are we here? What is love? Does God exist? What urges hide in the lower parts of our brains?

    “Gatsby believed in the green light,” says F. Scott Fitzgerald. “The orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us.”

    “Love is a desire for that lost half of ourselves,” says Milan Kundera.

    “All right, then, I’ll go to Hell,” said Huck Finn when he decided not to return Jim to slavery.

    Other people either don’t think about these things, or they think they have it all figured out, or they have no interest in it. They just want plots that entertain them. There is no “right” or “wrong” to it.

    There is, however, a great irony here, because most people who live for the moment don’t bother asking the big questions, yet the books about people who live for the moment were written by people who do think a lot about these questions:

    “I’m writing this book because we’re all going to die,” says Kerouac in Visions of Cody. “In the loneliness of my life, my father dead, my brother dead, my mother far away, my sister and my wife far away, nothing here but my own tragic hands that once were guarded by a world, a sweet attention, that now are left to guide and disappear their own way into the common dark of all our death, sleeping in me raw bed, alone and stupid: with just this one pride and consolation: my heart broke in the general despair and opened up inward to the Lord, I made a supplication in this dream.”

    2. The second thing is called Maslow’s Heiracrchy of Needs. psychologist Abraham Maslow theorized that if our basic needs are not met, we have a hard time pursuing our higher needs. It goes like this:

    1. Safety — this includes eating, breathing, shelter, having enough money for these things

    2. Belonging/Social — friendship, sexual intimacy, family

    3. Esteem — Knowing that someone respects or appreciates you

    4. Cognitive — The desire to understand, explore, discover, and learn

    5. Aesthetic — The need for something pleasing to look at, something beautiful.

    I’m sure it would be an oversimplification to say a person who only reads romance novels is stuck on the 2nd or 3rd need in the heirarchy. We all probably move up & down on the list at various times in our lives.

    Sometimes I just enjoy a good picture book.

  14. A Coffin for Dimitrios, eh?
    A Coffin for Dimitrios, eh? I’ll check it out.

    Burroughs definitely has that noir tone, which I like.

    Dune was a great book. I haven’t read any of the sequels. For sci-fi, I like Philip K. Dick.

    And, Milton, regarding not taking everything so seriously, I agree. I like the lines from the opening theme song on Mystery Science Theater 3000:

    If you’re wondering how he eats and breathes
    And other science facts,
    Repeat to yourself “It’s just a show”
    And you really should relax…

  15. I, in turn, will second your
    I, in turn, will second your Ambler submission. I really liked “The Light of Day,” too.

    Okay, here’s a real confession – I’ve never read “Dune.” In fact, I’ve never even seen the movie. I realize that this immediately disqualifies me from making any sweeping judgments on “sci-fi.” I will therefore respectfully withdraw my comments pending a more thorough analysis of the evidence at hand.

  16. I value true art and
    I value true art and intellectual prowess. To me, a writer is like the High Priest of the tribe. What he/she says must be the most important thing that anyone could hear (otherwise they shouldn’t be writing). True art and intellectual prowess, if viewed by everyone, would dramatically change for the better the contents of Weekly World News. That is/should be the function of literature.

  17. I’m not really sure why you
    I’m not really sure why you seem to have to come to the defense of art and intellect. Nobody’s knocking art and intellect; I think the point of Caryn’s post (and my original one, for that matter) is to lighten up and enjoy what you want to enjoy without feeling like crap if you happen to like something that isn’t totally deep, man once in awhile. Chill.

  18. Three things:1. Noir is
    Three things:

    1. Noir is delicious.

    2. “Listen, I realize we’re both smart enough to know better, but for the next 300 pages, let’s just pretend that people actually talk like this and that this could actually happen. C’mon, it’ll be fun.”

    That’s probably my favorite description of what it’s like to read one of those wonderfully awful books ever.

    3. The Da Vinci Code was not fun even in a campy way because it reads like it was written by a very stupid third grader. Even though I like books that aren’t considered great literature, I still have standards. I do like to make jokes about Dan Brown a lot, however.

  19. What the hell? I don’t get
    What the hell? I don’t get it.

    What, Jam, do you mean when you say you don’t care about the difference between quality or not-so-quality? “I like to read books, so I do”. Does this mean you like reading so much reading a bad book is still pretty good because you’re reading. Like the “bad sex is like bad pizza – still pretty good” thing. You obviously care about quality (you’re a book reviewer!) so what do you exactly mean?

    The Da Vinci Code is one thick book. I have difficulty with thick novels. Harry Potter?- not gonna happen. This also rules out many heavy hitters of the literary canon for me. Ulysses – Sparknotes please. I also resent that people are plowing through the sixth hefty volume of some fantasy novel series but have never squeezed in Gatsby or Franny and Zooey. The longest novel I have read is The Glass Bead Game by Hesse. I’m amazed by people who read 400 pagers of pulp fiction regularly.

    I guess I don’t enjoy reading for its own sake that much and if I did I’d stock up on people I intuit would wise me up like Maugham, Miller or Lawrence. I borrowed Illusions by Richard Bach from the library because it was short and I can’t even review it because my brain could simply not process it. So I went to Amazon and found out that elitist types called it utter garbage amidst the generally life alteringly glowing reviews. So I assume I couldn’t understand it because it was so bad.

    I would say pulp is something that is liked by a mainstream for reasons that hipster types cannot understand so they call it cliche and unoriginal. But it takes a kind of genius to be cliche and unoriginal for 400 pages which would make it worth reading for the freakshow value. But we elitist-beat-types cannot because our brains can’t process the stank of that which leads to most mainstream popularity.

    Pulp writers I like – Ian Fleming.

  20. What I mean is that I know
    What I mean is that I know the difference between good and bad, but even so, I’m not going to let that stop me from reading something like I’m above occasional mindless entertainment just because I also read things that are literary, challenging, deep, whatever, and furthermore, if I enjoy a book that wouldn’t typically be considered worthwhile by the elitist litsnob hipster crew, then I don’t really care.

  21. I’m withbrooklyn. I don’t
    I’m with

    brooklyn. I don’t have time to read ‘guilty pleasures.’

    I did read The Da Vinci Code. It kept me turning the pages, but good gravy, was the writing bad.

    I actually sat down in late December and figured out approximately how many pages I will likely read in the coming year, and then looked at some of the books on my “To Do” list. It made me realize I had trim any fat off the list.

    Of course, this made me think that maybe my guilty pleasure is reading itself. I could be putting all the effort into writing.

  22. Milton, you can make any
    Milton, you can make any comments on sci-fi you want. Dune is not a prerequisite.

  23. No, Stokey is right. I am a
    No, Stokey is right. I am a high priest and I demand sacrifices of pizza and Blue Bell banana split ice cream ’round the clock! Do not incur my wrath by slacking on the cheese!

  24. I ConfessI read John
    I Confess

    I read John Grisham’s books, and I really like them, though my favorite of his was A Painted House, which was his most ‘literate’.

    Go figure.

  25. Hmm, well, the truth is that
    Hmm, well, the truth is that my statement above might make me seem like a snob, but I am really *not* a snob. I mean … I am willing to admit in public that I have never (never, yes never) missed an episode of either Survivor or Apprentice (and that includes Martha Stewart Apprentice). If that’s not embarrassing I don’t know what is. I just really don’t like genre literature, and that’s all I can say!

  26. The literary mashed potatoesA
    The literary mashed potatoes

    A subcategory of literature ought to be “comfort reading,” the books we crawl into when the world outside them gets too weird, too painful, too complicated. Nothing guilty about it — no sane person reads Kafka over a lonely, depressed weekend in February.

    Personally, my guilty pleasure is Terry Pratchett, whom I suspect of profundity, but he doesn’t feel the need to beat me over the head with it. By the time I’ve emerged from Pratchett’s world, I’m more sane and able to deal with my own. Brain exercise isn’t the only reason to read — brain repose is another, just as valid.

    (It doesn’t excuse Angels and Demons, though, which I hated with a hatred beyond anything rational. I only kept reading because I couldn’t believe how bad it was.)

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