“Guilty Pleasures” & “The Canon”


This video comes off the back of me watching Lindsey Rey’s video on the topic of guilty pleasures, a category which she identifies as being frequently applied to a books series she enjoys – the Vampire Academy series. I would certainly recommend you go watch the video because she’s great!

“Guilty pleasure” is a phrase that I occasionally use and absolutely hate myself for using. I know I’m not the only one who feels like that – we wish to eradicate any sense of guilt from what we enjoy and just enjoy the thing for enjoyment’s sake but yet, time after time, this phrase accidentally slips out. It is, if nothing else, a useful marker. It lets other people know “I know what I’m reading isn’t a masterpiece, look, I feel guilt over enjoying it!!”. A classic example is Twilight, “bit of a guilty pleasure” is a phase I muttered at one point. Now, when I matured and took a step back and away from the hype surrounding the first book I realised there were a few things about Stephanie Meyer’s “love story” (and yes I use the quote marks intentionally) that was more than a little bit suspect and, I’m just going to say it, potentially harmful. But try telling that to 13 year old me and she would have shrugged and just looked faintly apologetic for enjoying Twilight. 

This brings me onto what underpins the term “guilty pleasure” and the key here is working out what precisely people mean by “guilt”. I don’t want to get all academic but I was recently reading Ewan Fernie’s Shame in Shakespeare in which he delves into the etymology and changing meaning behind the terms “shame” “embarrassment” “guilt” and so forth and tries to pinpoint the differences and distinctions to be made between these words. Because it turns out, there is a difference, it might be subtle but it’s there. And I think a lot of what underpins what we call “guilt” for reading or watching something and enjoying it even though we know we probably shouldn’t is actually focused on not just external reaction but external sources. These are then internalised into our own thought processes and we consequently feel guilt when we pick up a trashy read.

I’ll explain… guilt in this context is, essentially, shame at not having lived up to expectations. These might be external expectations – i.e. you shouldn’t enjoy that young adult book, you’re 35 years old, that book is not for you, you should be reading more mature and literary work. These (presumed) external expectations are then assimilated into your own mind and you judge yourself to these standards, feeling ashamed and shy about what you’re reading because you think that it will reflect, to outside observers,  a version of you that isn’t what you wanted to project. You fall short of expected standards. That is, I think, the driving force behind what causes the term “guilty pleasure” to slip out of my mouth more often that not. Because I want to let anyone who might be judging me based on what I enjoy reading or watching that I am all too aware that these particular examples are shameful and that I do know they’re not what I ought to be reading/watching/enjoying.

Away from the realm of books I consider Leap Year to be one of my favourite films. But I add a caveat to that by saying “it’s just a cutesy chick flick, a guilty pleasure of mine”. As if I need to justify my choice in viewing material with this phrase “guilty pleasure”. Now, I’m sure plenty of people who are fans of this film would agree – it’s not award-winning, it’s fluff, it’s incredibly stereotyping of Irish people, it’s ridiculous, it’s predictable. But it’s entertaining, it’s a pleasure to watch. So why would I ever feel ashamed or guilty of watching it? Precisely for all the reasons I just gave – it hasn’t won awards, it’s considered in the “chick flick” genre, it leaves a lot to be desired in terms of realistic Irish accents for one, and so on and so forth. But I enjoy it, so perhaps the focus here should be the second part of the phrase “guilty pleasure”. Don’t spend the rest of your life feeling ashamed and embarrassed for getting pleasure out of something, just bloody well enjoy it without needing to qualify the enjoyment by indicating you know that it’s not exactly high brow.

And now we come to the crux of the matter… from the external environment which currently surrounds me, I should consider a large part of the books I own to be “guilty pleasures”. I’m in a top 10 university, studying English Literature, and specialising in Early modern literature. Therefore, a large portion of academia from this environment would turn its nose up at half of the books I own and enjoy. Just to use a recent example, Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone would not be considered a literary masterpiece. And I’ve assimilated (accidentally) some of this pretension by thinking I’m just reading some fluff piece of young adult fantasy. Because it’s not literary fiction. Because it’s not critically acclaimed, Pulitzer-prize winning stuff. Which is ridiculous. Did I enjoy this book? Yes. Would I recommend it? Yes. Did I feel a tiny bit of guilt over the fact I was reading this and not, I don’t know, Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd? Yes, in all honesty. Because I felt that people would expect me to read the tip top of literature, you know, being a literature student. It’s no secret I’m spilling here – that is so not the case, so incredibly not the case that I feel a little sorry for you if you think it is.

And I’ll let you into another secret… not all literary fiction or classics are even the slightest bit enjoyable. You can see their merit, for the sake of the social context it discusses, or the way it foregrounds the realistic novel, or the way that the author has characterised a particular individual etc. etc. Case in point, George Eliot’s Adam Bede. I hated it, I had zero fun reading it, I would never recommend it to someone to read. And yet, I could see its literary merit in the interesting social issues it discussed. So, did I enjoy it? No. Could I discuss it? Yes. Was it a pleasure? No. And that’s not the only classic that I could include in that group.

I choose classics merely as a way to illustrate this point – we think we ought to read these. Because these books, for whatever reason, are the shining beacons of “good literature”, chosen by (it’s worth stressing this point) a largely white-middle class set of academics who thought that these authors were the pinnacle of merit. Now, thankfully, the canon has expanded in recent years, diversifying into more experimental novels and poetry and including writers of nationalities other than American or British. There have even been discussions about the idea of a canon itself, its merits and its many demerits. But, like it or not, these are the books that will be studied and recommended with a certain level of prestige attached to them. They are “worthwhile books”, the opposite of the “guilty pleasure” light, disposable read.

They are the standard bearers to which many of these “guilty pleasures” are tested. Because we feel like classics have been ordained with this status, this prestige, and therefore we would feel pretty damn well good about ourselves if we struggled through reading them, regardless of what pleasure we would (or would not) have in the reading experience. And when we’re not reading something ordained with this critical prestige, we feel embarrassed or guilty for the time we are spending on enjoying our reading but maybe not getting a lot of particularly educated or philosophical thinking out of it.

Banish this notion, please. Don’t just banish the phrase “guilty pleasure”, banish the idea that if you want to not feel guilty about reading you need to read a thing that you might not even get pleasure out of reading but, hey, at least it projects the well-informed, well-educated image we all hope to portray to the world at large.


But that’s just my (rather long) two cents, what do I know? What do you think about the term “guilty pleasure”? What would you consider guilty pleasures in your life?

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