Disclaimer: If anyone is expecting this blog post to arrive anywhere near a conclusion, it is best to step off before the train gets rolling. It arrives nowhere. Stay on board if you think you might enjoy some of the scenery we pass on the way back to where we started.
Last night on Twitter, the subject of “guilty pleasures” came up. What do we mean by it? Is it an inherently objectionable concept? &c &c. Some questions were asked that I’m having trouble answering, so I’m going to explore them a little. Guilty pleasure, I think, is a concept worth taking some time with, if for no other reason than because it has some interesting interactions with the question of what we mean by “good.” And, at least for a writer, it is always worth exploring that question, seeing as how, you know, writing stuff that’s good is kinda the goal.
Those who are saying, “it is time we get rid of this whole concept of guilty pleasures,” have an interesting point. At least as I understand it, the argument runs, “If you’re enjoying it, there is something of value in it. If there is something of value in it, maybe we should spend more time figuring out what that is and seeing if others will enjoy it, instead of castigating ourselves for enjoying it even though it does other things badly.” That’s kind of hard to argue with. Let’s see where it leads us.
First of all, to be clear, I do not actually feel guilty–in the strict, literal, I-have-just-hurt-the-feelings-of-someone-I-love sense of guilty, about enjoying something I call a guilty pleasure; nor does anyone else I know who uses the term. What it means for most of us seems to be something along the lines of, “I like this, but I’m afraid if I admit it I’ll be teased about it,” or, “I recognize that this is a bad one-of-these, but I like it anyway.” Hidden (or, perhaps, not hidden at all) in the idea of guilty pleasures are, therefore, two interesting concepts: one, that we worry about being judged for our taste, and, two, the idea that it is reasonable to have a sort of “good/bad” scale that is at least somewhat independent of one’s “like/dislike” scale. At which point we realize that what we’re saying (to ourselves if not to anyone else) is, “I’m sorry I’m enjoying this. I apologize. I know I shouldn’t.” Sounds kind of dumb, doesn’t it?
Another thing that enters at this point is snobbery. I don’t terribly care for snobbery, nor do I terribly care for those who point and cry snobbery whenever someone dares to suggest that the food at White Castle may not be as good as at the 5-star restaurant of your choice. Here, too, we have the idea that there is something to the judgment of good/bad as distinct from like/dislike.
We all know that, for many, many years, science-fiction itself was something that certain literati who enjoyed it have called a guilty pleasure. For me, the idea of apologizing for enjoying Theodore Sturgeon or Gene Wolfe is silly at best. And I know that it would hurt my feelings to have someone call my work a guilty pleasure. So, then, what am I doing apologizing (even if only to myself) for much the same thing?
Can I find a rational argument to support this position? Well, aside from cases that are so extreme as to be useless (horrible errors in spelling, grammar, syntax, or other technical problems) I really can’t. But I do feel that way. I do feel that, for example, The Destroyer novels (one of my guilty pleasures) is, quite simply, not as good as, say, Zelazny’s Lord of Light. I’m not at all certain I can justify that feeling, but neither can I ignore it.
I don’t know. Is my belief that there is good and bad in the arts anything more than rank pragmatism? In other words, is it more than the knowledge that, if I don’t believe in “good,” I’ll be less driven to do my best work? I hope there’s more to it than that. My opinion of pragmatism is something I’ll save for another post, but it isn’t pretty.
There are a some subjective observations that might provide insight: 1. When I think of something as a guilty pleasure, it is based in part on the feeling that the artist did not do his or her best work–that this could have been better if the artist had cared enough. 2. One thing that I always feel when in the presence of what I consider great art, is a sense of awe that a mere human being, just like me, was able to do this, combined with a sense of pride in being a member of a species that could produce it. 3. Confession time: When addressing a work that I consider good, especially a story, there is at least little part of me (and sometimes a big part) that is feeling, “Damn, I wish I’d created this!” I never have that feeling with those works that I categorize as guilty pleasures.
So, as promised, I have arrived nowhere. I’m still not sure what I think about this, or why I think it. I know it is interesting, and I believe it matters, so I look forward to hearing what some of you think about it.