Thursday, 26 June 2014

The Strange World of Guilty Pleasures

There's been a recent kerfuffle over whether adults should or should not be embarrassed about reading Young Adult books. The original article in Slate came in for some criticism which the author, Ruth Graham of the original piece, has responded to as best as a critic can, though it seemed to boil down to, "what I think is a worthy book is good, anything else is not". It got me thinking overall about the strange phenomena known as "guilty pleasures" and why exactly we should feel bad about liking something.

The only media I have ever felt that my tastes may be judged is music. This is what happens when you have an ex-folk singer for a Mum and a late-60s/early-70s rock connoisseur for a Dad. I admit it changed my listening habits growing up, so I refused to even listen to mainstream Pop (or did so secretly on the radio on my Walkman) and I was a huge Indie Rock fan in the 90s. As it happens I do generally prefer Rock and Alternative over other types of music. But I no longer bar Pop music from my iPod; I have a collection of Beyonce, Lady Gaga and even Ms. Spears (among many others) that I listen to when I want a bit of light relief. Some of it is "good" and some of it is not, if such subjective measurements can ever really be assigned to something as personal as music. But I like the songs, which is ultimately all that matters. And yes, I take great pleasure in telling my parents this and arguing with them that Lady Gaga is actually really rather good if you give her a try. They remain unconvinced. I remain unrepentant. We talk about other things.

My current read and to be read pile #5
So, which of these books am I meant to feel guilty about exactly?
Graham's assertions seem a bit odd to me and I've long wondered why one piece of art or media is more deserving than another. I've done my duty and read or tried to read the classics;

  • Great Expectations - dull, only ever get to the fourth or fifth chapter before I give up
  • Moby Dick - good, but massively racist and the language is so hard to read with this damned 21st century perspective.
  • War and Peace - just no.
  • Pride and Prejudice - love, love, love. I've reread it so many times I now have two versions; one well thumbed and one intact for future read-throughs.
  • The Odyssey - adore and again have re-read countless times.

The only thing the books I like have in common is that I like them. Yes, there's common features such as interesting female characters, magical or supernatural elements or explorations of far flung worlds and future times. But I'll give anything a go, especially in film and TV (takes less time to consume so even if I don't like it I won't have lost more than a few hours of my life) so the idea I should feel guilty for enjoying something just seems… odd. If I like a thing all it says is that I like it. Nothing more. It may mean a friend of mine likes it too, if we share the same tastes. Then again, maybe it won't. But no one needs to be embarrassed or feel guilty, regardless whether we both like a thing or don't.

A big part of this whole discussion over "guilty pleasures" or keeping your penchant for glittering vampires secret, is simply snobbery; some folks think they're better than others and they use a person's taste in entertainment to justify that view. I'll be perfectly honest here and say I have much the same problem but in reverse; I have no time for literary novels and watch very few (if any) art films or "serious" films. I generally find them boring and tedious, which inevitably makes me judge people who like these things with the assumption that they likely share these characteristics. It's wrong and unfair, but it is what it is. However I would never tell them they shouldn't watch or read in these genres. That's none of my business. I wonder how long it will be before the favour is returned the other way? In the meantime I'll continue to watch my Buffy the Vampire Slayer on repeat, cheer away to Kaiju being hit in the face by giant robots and delve into the latest novel (YA or otherwise) that feature vampires, assassins, sorceresses, the undead, aliens, conspiracies or any combination of the above.

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