There’s No Such Thing as a Guilty Pleasure
By Katharine ColdironJune 24, 2023
These books are not nourishing, not challenging. Their caloric richness hovers somewhere near that of sugared rice cakes. They do not display the solidity that good literature possesses; the characters are unmemorable, the situations laughably unlikely, the prose largely transparent and forgettable. What has lasted from my experience reading them is the emotions they made me feel: lasting, pleasurable tension, and the kind of rapacious hunger for the spell of reading that I first felt as a child. These feelings drew me into a life of letters in the first place.
I’d talk about these gothic suspense novels to anyone who asked, because I’m not ashamed of reading them. I understand them for what they are—disposable pleasures, meant not to leave the reader shaken and changed, but to pass a few hours. I am comfortable with the portion of my life I’ve spent that way.
Why should I feel shame? Why should I hasten to add that I commonly read Elena Ferrante and Ben Lerner too? Why does that matter?
Perhaps it’s because I want people to think well of me, that I am a smart person and a meaningful reader with good taste. But I can be all that and still read Barbara Michaels sometimes. Life without vices is far too pure for the likes of me.
Can the person receiving this information about me, that lately I’ve been reading books by Barbara Michaels, comprehend that I know what I’m doing? I recognize that Barbara Michaels wrote silly books, and that spending my time on them = eating sugared rice cakes. At some point or another I’ll eat a meal; I’m an adult, and I know what to do with my own diet.
Do you believe me about that? If not, why not?
In my new book Junk Film: Why Bad Movies Matter, I tried to work with some of these questions via a pair of bad movies, Girl in Gold Boots (1968) and Safe Haven (2013). I couldn’t adequately explain to myself why I like both of these movies so much. Neither has qualities that my film critic’s mind can point to as meaningful or worthy of further study. Safe Haven is a melodrama, which is an underestimated genre in terms of its appeal to all strata of audiences, but that doesn’t altogether explain why it works such magic on me. Girl in Gold Boots is also a melodrama of sorts, but it’s primarily a dumb go-go dance movie, with, let’s say, less tangible magic. I concluded that I liked these movies because I liked them, “the same way I like macaroni and cheese—uncomplicatedly, without reservation or explanation.”
A question I didn’t dig into very far in the book was whether something inherent in the movies touched me because of a life-shaping experience that they resemble: a movie I loved in early life, a relationship that bore similar struggles. I’ve thought about it, and the answer is no. I think this is a useful question, though. We cuddle up close to things we like because of nostalgia or affinity, things we can otherwise sense have little aesthetic value. John Hughes movies are a great example of this: millions of people grant them much more significance in the critical landscape than they deserve because, in the cultural landscape of a couple generations, they loomed quite large. But they’re teen movies (an especially disposable, especially nostalgic genre), not as a rule carefully made, with problematic aspects that glare more troublingly with each passing year.
Critically, John Hughes movies are uninteresting, with feel-good but unconvincing messages about nonconformity during the Reagan years. But even I have a soft spot for The Breakfast Club (1985), which I felt, as a teen, actually expressed the multidimensional hell that is high school, where similar movies perform an ankle-deep survey of those years or color the black parts rose. The movie met me where I was instead of coaxing me to believe its propaganda about what I was living through, and for that I give it credit. But it ain’t Brazil (also 1985).
That is, it’s not a serious film, not a work of art that was built to last. It resonated with me because of what I was experiencing, not because Hughes tapped into something artistically significant. That’s the distinction between art that matters to an individual and art that simply matters: a work that hits you somewhere personally meaningful, or a work that hits an audience because it has more timeless, universal meaning. Brazil could signify to people in Argentina, or North Korea, or South Africa, while The Breakfast Club probably could not. It might entertain, but it would not mean.
A book I loved in my teen years was The Wakefields of Sweet Valley (1991), a spinoff from the Sweet Valley High series of books about California twins Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield. This book narrates the history of Jessica and Elizabeth’s forebears—their mothers, specifically. It wraps up the twins’ family in all kinds of unlikely adventures, including bootlegging during Prohibition, French Resistance work during World War II, and even the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. It’s a deeply silly book, full of cliché and melodrama, and I reread it until I had whole paragraphs memorized.
I read this book again last year during a project I tried to mount on the value of melodrama, and I honestly could not tell you whether or not it holds up. It enraptured me completely, but I’m pretty sure that’s because I remembered and loved it so well, not because it has value that another reader could perceive. (Pick up a copy from eBay and let me know what you think.) A related question I cannot answer is whether I loved The Wakefields of Sweet Valley as a young reader because my heart and mind naturally cleave to melodrama, or whether this book is the reason I loved Someone in the House—because Wakefields molded my heart and mind to respond well to melodrama.
Why we like what we like is such an impossibly complex equation that there’s no solving it. We can’t break down the molecules of what we enjoy because it’s got aesthetic value versus what we enjoy because the main character looks a little like our mom when she laughs versus what we enjoy because we watched Top Gun (1986) too many times as children. I know the first hint that I liked postmodern art appeared when I, at around age 15, heard Beck’s album Odelay (1996), but I didn’t know to call it postmodern until many years later. The excitement that rose in me, the subsequent obsession—was that natural affinity? The circumstances of when and where I heard it? My soft, impressionable brain at the time?
There might be neurological or psychological answers to these questions. Maybe I can split the hair of what I love about Odelay into intellectual appreciation, novelty, and beats I could move to. Maybe I love Barbara Michaels because I loved The Wakefields of Sweet Valley first, because the latter introduced me to the joy of galloping through a juicy book full of troubled women.
But the truth is, I don’t really care. I’m happy to like what I like, clearly dividing what appeals from what has deeper artistic meaning, and let go of any further judgment.
Back to shame. I’ve never held with the phrase “guilty pleasure,” nor with the act of “reclaiming” a work of art with a dubious reputation. No pleasure should be guilty unless it does harm, in my view, and a work of art’s reputation matters only to snobs. Showing me the value of a movie like Speed Racer (2008)—possibly the most reclaimed movie of the 21st century so far—shows me nothing I didn’t already understand about the film. Some people didn’t like it or take it seriously when it first came out, I’ll grant. But if reclaiming is only pushing back against a work’s initial reception, it’s too common to warrant column space.
I don’t watch bad movies because I feel that injustice has been done to them. I watch them for enjoyment, and to learn what I can from their failures. I don’t think (most) bad movies are somehow secretly good; I think they’re often fun, and sometimes worthy of study because of their badness, but I am well aware of the quality and significance of what I’m watching the entire time. It’s not a guilty pleasure to watch them. It’s just a pleasure, and a puzzle to solve.
Yet there’s a distinction between what I can break out and understand as successful in a work of art and what I can only mysteriously call appealing, or pleasurable. I know that gothic stuff appeals to me, and that postmodern structural games delight me. As a critic, I don’t elevate these qualities above others just because I like them, and I don’t confuse these elements with artistically sound aspects I can defend.
I also won’t denigrate my own taste by calling Barbara Michaels a guilty pleasure. I won’t feel shame because I like reading gothic suspense. I’ll talk to you until you walk away about how much sheer fun it is to read My Sweet Audrina (1982), a bonkers V. C. Andrews novel, and I do not think it matters one bit that I liked it better than I liked 2666. Roberto Bolaño’s 2004 novel is built to last, and My Sweet Audrina isn’t, but how can anyone survive on a diet of solely kale?
I know what I’m reading. Better than most. Just because I can categorize books as insignificant to the human project of art creation does not mean I can’t enjoy them. And I would never ask a reader to sacrifice one bit of pleasure for the sake of shame.
Katharine Coldiron is the author of Ceremonials (2020), a novella inspired by Florence + the Machine, and Junk Film: Why Bad Movies Matter (2023), a collection of essays about bad movies. Her essays and criticism have appeared in Ms., Conjunctions, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, and many other places.
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