Monday, August 11, 2014

Guilty Pleasure Reads


Discussion Post: Guilty Pleasure Reads - Is There Such a Thing?

I assume most everyone has heard the term “guilty pleasure” applied to a book. Reviews might declare a novel a “guilty pleasure read.” But what does that mean? Is there such a thing?

I take “guilty pleasure” to mean the reviewer did enjoy the book...but feels embarrassed for their enjoyment. Usually, they consider the book of poor quality in some regard - perhaps terrible writing, worrisome values, or a lack of depth. Their intellect dismisses the book as lesser and yet they connected with the story nevertheless. Perhaps they even want to run around raving to everyone about this story nevertheless. Except they recognize the book’s flaws and fear a backlash of “Really? You recommended that? That’s what you think a good book is?” “Guilty pleasure” has become a kind of disclaimer phrase for when someone recommends a book, with reservations.

Of course, some argue back against this backlash. My sister has a saying that, though I might phrase differently, I wholeheartedly agree with the underlying philosophy: Don’t yuck other people’s yum. I understand “pleasure read,” but do we need the “guilty” adjective tacked on? Why are we making people feel guilty for enjoying a book? Why do we make ourselves feel guilty? Some argue that there isn’t - or shouldn’t be - such a thing as a guilty pleasure read, that if you liked something you shouldn’t have to apologize for your taste.

Drawing from my own experience, I have definitely felt guilty for liking a book. I can recall books that I found addictive and absorbing and that lingered in my mind for weeks or months after I finished them, but I chastised myself for such a strong connection to a book that possessed one to all of the following: horrible grammar or otherwise clumsy and distracting writing, flat or Mary Sue characters, a predictable plot, objectionable subtexts, and, well, I could go on. Sometimes I loved a book without having any specific praise for it. I could say, “I couldn’t put it down,” but I couldn’t honestly say, “What apt metaphors!” or “I so admired the heroine.” When I get into specifics I have a cluster of criticisms but my overall enjoyment of the book still rates very highly.

Because I tend to avoid the phrase “guilty pleasure read,” I’ve adopted the terminology of intellectual vs. emotional connection for my reviews. I can emotionally connect with a story while my analytical side tells me the book is terrible. Just as I can highly connect with a book intellectually (which means there’s a plethora of themes begging for discussion) despite a lack of feeling the book. And I sometimes use terms like “lighter” or “fluff” (which has negative connections but I never use as a put-down) or “entertainment reading” to distinguish between stories that make you think vs. those that provide a break. (And, yes, I think a book can do both, but that’s a post for another day.)

In case my opinion hasn’t already peeked out here and there with my phrasing, let me specify that I don’t think we should feel guilty for enjoying a book. We tend to associate reading with intelligence and personal growth, so it’s no surprise that we feel bad if we suspect a book isn’t challenging us enough. Of course, I could also do an entire post on what it says about our society that we can feel guilty in a solo pursuit for not meeting perceived group expectations. Do other cultures have the same guilty pleasure read concept?

That being said, I still think the packaged phrase “guilty pleasure read” is helpful in labeling a book that you enjoyed and recommend while acknowledging flaws and weaknesses. I tend to avoid it due to my stance that I shouldn’t apologize for enjoying a book, but sometimes it’s a nice summary term for reviewers.

How about you? Have you read what you might call guilty pleasure reads? Do you think we really should feel guilty for reading certain books? How do you interpret the term? Is it useful or should it go?

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