I brought two books with me on vacation last week: the new collection of Jonathan Franzen essays and the new Dark Tower prequel by Stephen King. One guess as to which one I read. That’s right: both books stayed shut as I inhaled 20 or so Batman comics on my iPad and caught up on Beach Boys message boards. Guilty pleasures in other words. So upon returning to the world of ‘serious’ reading I was pleasantly surprised to discover a wonderful little piece in The New Yorker last week by critic Arthur Krystal, tracing the history and appeal of literary guilty pleasures. He touches on a number of familiar themes, e.g.  identity/self-justification aspect that often informs what we want to consume vs. what we feel we should consume, the palliative quality of story, our collective desire for escape/transcendence, the discovery and parsing of genuine (objective?) beauty in the midst of the neverending ebb and flow of cultural Law/trends, etc. At several points, Krystal even employs religious language to describe how we relate to fiction. And if you can get ahold of the article (not available online), I loved Martin Amis’ slightly embarrassed praise of Elmore Leonard as “a literary genius who writes re-readable thrillers”:

It’s one thing for a poet who contains multitudes to become a literary dude; it’s another for writers who deal with lawmen, criminals, private detectives, spies, aliens, ghosts, fallen heroines, and killer cars. Such writers–commercial and genre novelists–aim at delivering less rarefied pleasures. And part of the pleasure we derive from them is the knowledge that we could be reading something better, something that, in the words of Matthew Arnold, reflects “the best that has been thought and said in this world.”

For the longest time, there was little ambiguity between literary fiction and genre fiction: one was good for you, one simply tasted good. You could either go to an amusement park or trundle off to a museum, ride a roller coaster or stroll among the Flemish Masters… Readers who seek out mystery novels are looking to escape not from life but from literature, from the “pluperfect tenses of the physical novel.”

Skilled genre writers know that a certain level of artificiality must prevail, lest the reasons we turn to their books evaporate. It’s plot we want and plenty of it. Heroes should go up against villains (sympathetic or hateful); love should, if possible, win out; and a satisfying sense of closure and comeuppance should top off the experience. Basically, a guilty pleasure is a fix in the form of a story, a narrative cocktail that helps us temporarily forget the narratives of our own humdrum lives. And, for not a few readers, there’s the additional kick of feeling that they’re getting away with something. Instead of milking the cows or reading Meno, they’re dallying somewhere with “Fifty Shade of Grey.”

The guilty pleasure label peels off more easily if we recall that the novel itself was once something of a guilty pleasure. In the mid-eighteenth century, there was a hovering suspicion that novels were for people not really serious about literature. Instead of laboring over “An Essay on Man” or some musty verse drama, readers could turn the pages of an amusing French novel or even one by Richardson or Fielding. Unlike works of moral or religious instruction, novels were diverting. Of course, if they proved too diverting, how good could they be? Hence Dickens, with his enormous audience, was considered to be more of a sentimentalist and caricaturist than a serious artist.

Modernism, of course, confirmed the idea of the commercial novel as a guilty pleasure by making the literary novel tough sledding. Far from delivering easy pleasures, modernist fiction could be an exercise in aesthetic and psychological subtlety; it was written not for people with time on their hands but for those willing to put in the time to master it. Indeed, fiction in the age of modernism became as much identified with literature as poetry or plays, and its complexities required a new class of expert readers, a secular clergy capable of explaining its mysteries. Serious fiction was serious business, and a reader might tire of it.

The reason that Wittgenstein eagerly awaited his monthly copy of Street & Smih’s Detective Story is the same that prompted Nadezhda Mandelstam to aske visitors to bring her Agatha Christie’s latest. Neither one was after startling revelations about nature or society; they simply wanted the comfort of a familiar voice recounting a story that they hadn’t quite heard before. Call it a vice (Edmund Wilson does), call it an addiction (Auden’s word), a guilty pleasure in book form simply means time off from heavy lifting or heavy reading. Auden, in truth, didn’t do [Raymond] Chandler any favors by admonishing prospective readers that Chandler’s books should be “judged, not as escape literature, but as works of art”–because it’s only as models of escape literature that they work as art.

Apparently, we’re still judged by the books we read, and perhaps we should be. Preferring Ken Follett’s “On Wings of Eagles” to Henry James “Wings of the Dove” is not a negligible bias. Nonetheless, we shouldn’t sell short the likes of Follett, or, for that matter, Ross Thomas, John Grisham, James Lee Burke, Sue Grafton, Janet Evanovich, Rovert Crais or George Pelecanos, all of whom consistently deliver entertaining works in serviceable prose. Such writers have a gift that is as mysterious to nonwriters as plucking melodies out of thin air is to nonmusicians. Plotting, inventing, creating characters, putting words in their mouths and quirks in their personalities–it all seems pretty astonishing to me. The prose may be uneven and the observations about life and society predictable, but, if the story moves, we, almost involuntarily, move with it. And, if we feel a little guilty about getting swept up, there’s always “The Death of Vigil” to read as penance.”

Alright people – what are your guilty pleasures this summer?!