The Year of Guilty Pleasures

Megan Stephan

American critics may as well have designated 2014 the Year of Talking About Guilty Pleasures. In the last 12 months, the New Yorker (three times), the New York Times, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times, among others, have weighed in on the tension between what we think we should be reading and what we actually do. Should adults caught reading mass-market paperbacks be ashamed, or take pride, given how wide and vast our entertainment options are, in reading anything at all? Can so-called genre fiction—mystery, sci-fi, fantasy, romance—also claim to be literary? Why are Hilary Mantel’s historical novels about Thomas Cromwell considered Booker-worthy, while Philippa Gregory’s epic tales of Tudors and Boleyns are relegated to airplane reading?

The argument over the relative value of our reading choices feeds off many nebulous, first-world anxieties about taste, literary merit, cultural categories, consumerism, and pleasure. Because other sources of entertainment are so readily available, reading books becomes a more public act, a demonstration of agency as well as a statement of critical acumen. After all, I could be watching Scandal (reasonably likely) or playing Minecraft (extremely unlikely) or taking in the latest Katy Perry music video on YouTube (even less likely). Instead, I am choosing to read a book, and my choice is presumed to say something about the kind of person I am. But how will you judge me if the book in my hand is by Dan Brown? And should I care?

In fact, I have never read a novel by Dan Brown—or by Nicholas Sparks or Nora Roberts or Jodi Picoult or James Patterson, to pick a random sampling of recent New York Times best-selling authors whose works are often deemed guilty pleasures. I’ve managed a few pages of The DaVinci Code and The Notebook, just to see what all the fuss was about, only to be reminded when I did so that boredom is not a guilty pleasure of mine.

On the other hand, I have read and relished novels by Stephen King, Tom Clancy, Anne Rice, and Ken Follett, to say nothing of the entire Harry Potter series. According to the rules of guilty-pleasure cultural consumption laid out in many of those recent think pieces, my enjoyment of some popular fiction could negate any intellectual cachet I might have acquired through years of studying and teaching literature. At the same time, because I teach English for a living, people are often nervous about admitting what they read to me. To them, my job means I will always be surreptitiously eyeing their Kindles and their bookshelves, and finding them wanting.

It’s hard to have a conclusive discussion about guilty pleasures because pleasure, if not guilt, is subjective and relative. What’s guilty for me may not be guilty for you—or one of us may simply choose to ignore guilty feelings, having other metrics to measure what we read. Much of the current debate about so-called guilty pleasures in American critical culture allows that different people have different tastes, only to return quietly to enforcing certain standards: yes, we shouldn’t judge one another based on our choice of reading matter, but a balanced literary diet, which we should all be striving for, requires more than just easy, light, pleasurable reading. We need some fiber in there, some Faulkner to keep our systems in tune.

In the interest of calibrating my cultural taste buds, the editors of Public Books sent me a selection of fiction published in 2014 with the following assignment: Did I find these novels sufficiently entertaining and lightweight enough to qualify as guilty-pleasure reading? Were they the sorts of books that would hold my attention without requiring intense concentration on a long flight? Would I push aside more serious literature to find out how things went for the characters in these books? Would I care what people might think of me if I read them in public? And so I asked to see Bird Box by Jonathan Malerman, The Secret Place by Tana French, Baghdad Central by Elliott Colla, No Hero by Jonathan Wood, The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman, The Major’s Daughter by J. P. Francis, and What Is Visible by Kimberly Elkins.



The success in the last decade of books like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2007) and Justin Cronin’s The Passage (2012) suggests post-apocalyptic or dystopic novels provide pleasure reading for millions, even those who might normally shy away from titles explicitly marketed as science fiction. Such narratives, in which the remains of the human race struggle to survive after a catastrophic event, are the stuff of my nightmares. I’ve always been curious why others devour them with such relish, and equally why tastemakers relegate Cronin’s novel to the larger cultural guilty-pleasure stack while hailing McCarthy’s as great literature. This might be because literary reputation always trumps subject matter, but it’s also possible that the books themselves play a part. Narrative ambiguity seems to occupy a higher critical shelf than straightforward explanation: The Road refuses to give an explicit account of what brought about the collapse of society, only hinting at an environmental disaster.

In what may thus be a bid for a more literary status, Josh Malerman’s debut novel, Bird Box, is similarly vague on the details of his apocalyptic disaster, one in which something horrible and unnamed lurks outside the battened-down houses of survivors. One glance at the menace leads the viewer to commit unspeakable acts of violence upon others and then kill herself. The novel’s protagonist, Malorie, has spent five years hiding with her two children in an abandoned house near what was once Detroit. They rarely venture outside; when they do, they are blindfolded. Her children, known simply as the Boy and the Girl, have never seen anything outside their house. As the story opens, Malorie is moving ahead with a carefully planned escape down a nearby river with her family. Their journey will expose them to the dangers of the outside world—to the unnamed, unseen monster, and to the potential threat posed by other survivors.

What power post-apocalyptic novels have must come from the contrast between what is and what was—what has been lost, what reimagined. Reading Bird Box, one can lose track of not just where and when Malerman’s characters are, but what their experiences have been and what they have been forced to leave behind. More lyrical passages dealing with sensory deprivation are juxtaposed with the more forceful storytelling typical of classic horror novels. I’m sure this blunt, fast-moving approach is compelling enough to classify a novel like Bird Box as a guilty pleasure for some. For me, it suggests Malerman was writing towards a screenplay, rather than embracing the slower pleasures of the novel form. That rushed feeling, of being swept up in someone else’s commercial enterprise, offers me no pleasure, guilty or otherwise.



In her study of English crime fiction, The Art of the English Murder, Lucy Worsley notes that

Today, one in every three novels sold is a crime novel, but many people look down on them as trash … the literature of murder tells us not what people [think] they ought to read. It tells us what they really read.

Worsley’s description of crime fiction as “the very essence of a guilty pleasure” suggests an unpalatable truth about human nature (one echoed also by our taste for the apocalyptic): we find escape in stories of others’ untimely deaths. Central to the murder mystery is the thrill we get from a brush with death, the illusion that we might solve the mystery, and the imposition of order upon chaos by the central detective figure. The place in which that detective finds himself also figures in whatever escapist qualities the mystery novel may possess.

I’ve whiled away many happy hours in P. D. James’s England, Sara Paretsky’s Chicago, and, more recently, Tana French’s Dublin. In each case, the novelist’s ability to establish a compelling sense of place is essential to the feeling of being outside of myself. French’s novels about the Dublin Murder Squad, beginning with In the Woods (2008), don’t deal in cozy Guinness-fueled stereotypes. Instead, her detectives track gruesome crimes against the background of Ireland’s post–Celtic Tiger economic collapse. The genre’s staples, suspense and betrayal, are all the more potent when experienced by people who have been flattened by a crisis less dramatic than Malerman’s, but no less devastating.

The Secret Place, the fifth novel in French’s current series, centers around a murder at St. Kilda’s, a girls’ private school. The victim is a student from the neighboring boys’ school, offering French plenty of opportunities to play with social class, gender, and teenage angst. Her protagonist, Detective Stephen Moran, yearns to move up to the Murder Squad. His chance arrives when a former witness, Holly, now a 16-year-old student at the girls’ school, comes to him with a piece of evidence suggesting that she knows who killed the boy. The ambitious Moran is grudgingly allowed to tag along with Antoinette Conway, the Murder Squad’s lead detective on the case, as they spend a long day at St. Kilda’s School trying to uncover the killer. French’s ear for both adult and adolescent dialogue (and internal monologue) is spot-on. Her depiction of the schoolgirls is particularly sharp and sympathetic, whether she’s dealing with embryonic Mean Girl bullies or the more iconoclastic group that centers around Holly. As in all of the previous Murder Squad novels, French demonstrates that she can balance emotional tension with a satisfying resolution. Perhaps I should feel guilty about The Secret Place—especially considering the number of other, arguably more important tasks I let slip while I was reading it—but pleasure outweighed guilt here in every respect.

<i>A reader on a New York City subway platform</i>. Photograph by Mo Riza / Flickr

Elliott Colla’s Baghdad Central, set in 2003 Baghdad, successfully blends the murder mystery with politics and recent history, offering a sense of being on the ground in a world Americans have heard a lot about but largely failed to comprehend. Colla has constructed a believable detective-hero, Inspector Muhsin al-Khafaji, who finds himself mistaken for a high-level official in Saddam Hussein’s government. He ends up a prisoner of the American forces at Abu Ghraib prison, along with his disabled daughter. His only way out is to collaborate with his captors in their effort to revive the defunct Iraqi Police Service.

Khafaji draws us in; he is disarmingly human and recognizable, with the necessary detective’s quirks (in his case, a taste for whisky and poetry). Seeing the chaos of wartime Baghdad through his eyes educates us by stealth, so that any remaining guilt on the reader’s part derives from a greater awareness of American misdeeds and mismanagement in that highly inadvisable war.

Jonathan Wood’s No Hero attempts to put a sci-fi spin on a fixture of murder mysteries: the gruesome crime committed against a civilized backdrop, provided here by Oxford’s colleges and churches. In this case, a hapless detective must do battle with the Progeny, evil tentacled creatures from another dimension. Unfortunately, the result reads like an unholy mash-up of Douglas Adams, Neil Gaiman, and H. P. Lovecraft.

The antihero at the center of the story, Arthur Wallace, often amuses. It is difficult not to be disarmed by a character whose words to live by are “What would Kurt Russell do?” But even his desire to emulate the hero of Big Trouble in Little China couldn’t stop me feeling as though I were being bludgeoned by another screenplay-as-novel. If I wouldn’t pay to see the inevitable film version of No Hero when it comes out (and I wouldn’t), then there is little or no pleasure in reading a novel so clearly an appendage to that movie. I feel overwhelmed by the preview of special effects and cuts in Wood’s prose, when I would rather be able to envision such details for myself. Passages like “Kayla jumped. It’s twenty yards or more to the car. She arcs through the air. There’s a grace to her” offer me a Matrix flashback, but nothing more.

While science fiction and crime fiction have made numerous bids for consideration on their literary merits in recent years, most readers would still place them firmly in the genre camp. But such classification gets trickier at the intersection of historical and literary fiction. Historical fiction seems to get relegated to genre when it doesn’t make us work hard enough for our entertainment. This helps to explain the dichotomy between Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy and Philippa Gregory’s Tudor novels. We get more than a hint of the bawdiness of 16th-century English life, high and low, in Mantel’s books, but Gregory’s focus on the dirty bits has a trashier edge. She deals in clichéd dialogue and melodrama, rather than in Mantel’s careful characterization and deftly handled ambiguity, although the popularity of Mantel’s novels would seem to belie the received wisdom that better-constructed prose is less pleasurable. Yet all historical fiction appeals to or awakens a desire to know more about a time and place. Even when the narrative superimposed on historical events by the novelist is more eye-roll-inducing than compelling, it’s still possible to come away with the satisfactory feeling that I now know more than I did before.

The lines between popular and high literary culture seem to get blurrier all the time, and I’m not convinced that’s a bad thing when it comes to everyday pleasure reading.

As Mantel has proved, a compelling first-person narrator is often the key to a successful historical novel. Susan Jane Gilman’s The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street allows Lillian Dunkle (née Malka Treynovsky), the monarch of the title, to tell her own 20th-century American story: rags to riches to public disgrace. Her family emigrates from Russia to New York City in 1913. We see tenement life and child labor through Gilman’s skillful balance of pathos and comedy. Their family of five bunks in a back parlor with no beds; the mother tells her daughters that “anyone who doesn’t earn doesn’t eat,” turning them out on the streets to find what work they can. 

The adult Lillian’s caustic description of the “immigrant experience” tourism that has sprung up on the Lower East Side captures her voice at its best: “Such nostalgia! The pickle men, the peddlers’ wagons, the children playing marbles on the stoops … Now, apparently, there are even ‘cultural walking tours’ for tourists: Some schmuck with an umbrella points out a knish store to a bunch of Japanese.”

Lillian is badly injured in an accident (the novel’s promising first line is “We’d been in America just three months when the horse ran over me”), abandoned by her own family, and adopted by a family whose business is Italian ices. Her picaresque story of becoming the Ice Cream Queen, with an empire of Carvel-like franchises and her own children’s television show, takes us from 1913 to the 1980s. While the later historical references entertain—there’s a funny scene in which Lillian drinks gin-and-tonics and smokes pot with her college-age grandson while he introduces her to the music of Grandmaster Flash—they also feel insubstantial in comparison to the sometimes brutal story of how the younger Lillian fought her way through the world. There is, too, a Forrest Gumplike quality to Lillian’s repeated presence at or near major historical moments of the 20th century, which drains away much of the novel’s pleasure for me. The long cultural shadow cast by one of my least favorite movies of all time carries with it a sense of facile entertainment masquerading as historical information and genuine emotion, and the pleasures of Gilman’s novel can’t overcome that guilt.

Before reading The Major’s Daughter, by J. P. Francis, I had no idea that a POW camp for German prisoners had ever existed in northern New Hampshire. Francis uses multiple third-person narrative perspectives to describe the peculiar juxtaposition of German soldiers at Camp Stark with small-town New Englanders: we perceive events through the eyes of Major Brennan, the camp commander; his attractive daughter, Collie, who learned German at Smith and has put her studies on hold to help her father run the camp; Collie’s best college friend Estelle, a society belle from Ohio; and handsome, sensitive prisoner Private August Wahrlich, among others.

The main flaw of The Major’s Daughter is that it tries to cram in too much—too much plot, too much detail, too much description, and too much history. Francis thoughtfully explores the contrasts (and unexpected similarities) between the local residents and the foreign prisoners, who are put to work as loggers. A scene in which the German prisoners react to newsreel footage of the liberation of the Auschwitz camps is surprising and original. But Francis also squeezes in not one but two love stories doomed by cultural differences, a harrowing death by influenza, and what feels like an attempt to critique gender and class roles in the 1940s. It’s ambitious, but leaves the reader perplexed and a little exhausted, not least because of the sometimes hackneyed dialogue. As she sits by the sickbed of a younger friend, Collie says to the kindly local doctor, “Everything is a war, isn’t it?” He responds, “No, not everything. Sometimes it’s a very graceful ballet. It’s not one thing or another. You’ll see as you go along. There’s as much beauty as suffering.” In that passage, the guilt rests squarely with the author, and any pleasure is lost to cliché.

What Is Visible, by Kimberly Elkins, constructs a fictional biography of Laura Bridgman, who, though all but forgotten until recently, was one of the best-known women in the world during her lifetime. Fifty years before Helen Keller, Bridgman was the first deaf, dumb, and blind pupil to receive a substantial education, including training in a kind of communication that involved spelling out letters on another person’s palm. A childhood illness took away all of her senses except touch. Her doctor and mentor, Samuel Gridley Howe of the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston, exhibited her talents to huge audiences, including presidents, kings, and luminaries like Charles Dickens. She was celebrated as a miracle child; Howe often tellingly described her, at least in childhood, as an “angel in a cage.”

Howe, a giant of 19th-century educational and social reform, does not come across as the saintly hero he wishes to embody. When Laura grows from a malleable child to an unmanageable, ungainly, and opinionated young woman, his attempts to stifle her are both cruel and unsuccessful. But it is Laura’s own voice that gets under the reader’s skin. There’s nothing easy about Laura or her story, related largely in the first person. She is cantankerous, angry, vain, and resentful, and she has not been given the physical or emotional tools to make sense of the changes she goes through. Elkins’s personalizing of history really works; unlike Francis, she draws together themes that seem organically to have been present all along, and the story nearly allowed me to forget I was listening to it while driving in impenetrable Los Angeles traffic. 

The rise of audiobooks and e-readers has made it possible to conceal one’s guiltier reading pleasures; statistics show that the proliferation of Kindles, Nooks, and their ilk has boosted sales not just of sci-fi and mystery, but of what the publishing industry calls “romantica” (think Fifty Shades of Grey). I’m not going to use my e-reader (or my eyes, for that matter) to read Fifty Shades of Grey, because it doesn’t interest me, but I’m increasingly uncomfortable judging someone else for doing so. The lines between what we think of as popular and high literary culture seem to get blurrier all the time, whether we can see a book’s cover or not, and I’m not convinced that’s a bad thing when it comes to everyday pleasure reading. As a teacher and a reader, I want people to read books that challenge them, take them out of their comfort zone, and teach them something they didn’t know, but it’s not my job to decide which books those are. For me, the model reader is the person who reads a little bit of everything—who isn’t a stranger to the best-seller list or the joys of genre fiction, but who can also find edification and entertainment in an essay collection or a novel that challenges formal conventions. I’ll be grateful when the back-and-forth chatter about whether our reading should make us feel guilty fades to a silence that allows me to hear the sound of pages turning.