Why Are We Embarrassed To Have Guilty Pleasure Reads?

Why are we so precious about what we read? Admitting to a guilty pleasure TV shows is the stuff of Cool Girl celebrity profiles. Plenty of brilliant women are open about the "Real Housewives" backlog on their DVRs, but loving un-literary books still feels like a shameful secret.
11/21/2014 08:41 am ET Updated Jan 21, 2015
UNITED STATES - 2008/07/12: Romance novel section of a bookstore. (Photo by John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - 2008/07/12: Romance novel section of a bookstore. (Photo by John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images)

My freshman-year roommate introduced me to Marian Keyes. She was sheepish as she presented me with Angels and Sushi for Beginners on my 19th birthday. She'd been a fan for awhile. "It's fluffy," she told me, indicating the telltale chick-lit cover art, "but she's Irish, so it feels less trashy." Ten years later, I've read at least 11 of Keyes' novels. I've read them over and over. I love Marian Keyes. I just wish I could say I loved her unabashedly.

In my idle hours -- there were more than a few -- as an MFA student, I often sat in crowded living rooms watching movies. We dabbled in the Criterion Collection. We watched "Citizen Kane" and "Breathless" and "Fat Girl." But just as often, we gathered around "For Richer or Poorer" (the '90s Kirstie Alley/Tim Allen vehicle), "Josie and the Pussycats," or the entire first season of "America's Next Top Model." We had no shame. Yet even to the people with whom I watched the made-for-MTV movie "2gether," I never admitted that I had a duffel bag full of Marian Keyes paperbacks in my closet.

Why are we so precious about what we read? Admitting to a guilty pleasure TV shows is the stuff of Cool Girl celebrity profiles. Plenty of brilliant women are open about the "Real Housewives" backlog on their DVRs, but loving un-literary books still feels like a shameful secret. Much has been written about the misogyny at play in the discussion of so-called chick-lit. Jennifer Weiner (whose books I enjoy, and yes, hide) has written widely about the unjust critical dismissal of (often wildly commercially successful) women's fiction. I agree with much of what Weiner has written, but I don't think I would feel any less sheepish if my closet were full of James Patterson or John Grisham. I've been sharply shushed for revealing in mixed company that a fellow poet had read The Hunger Games. For people who fancy themselves literary, reading "airport fiction" isn't done.

Perhaps the intentionality of reading adds to its weight. It is necessarily deliberate, and seeking out "difficult" books can be a badge of honor. But as anyone who loves both "Citizen Kane" and "Step Brothers" knows, loving the lowbrow doesn't preclude loving the high. Even the snootiest film student will watch different movies for different reasons and to correspond to different moods. So why is reading a book for pure enjoyment, for fun, mindless or otherwise, unacceptable?

In the middle of her takedown of adult readers of young adult fiction, "Against YA," Ruth Graham writes for Slate, "I know, I know: Live and let read. Far be it from me to disrupt the 'everyone should just read/watch/listen to whatever they like' ethos of our era." Graham, though, writes not about movies or television of music, but about books alone. In September, also on Slate, Willa Paskin wrote a defense of the TV show "Friends," arguing, "in the decade since 'Friends' ended, it has become clear just how hard it is to make a straightforwardly pleasant sitcom, one that 20 million people want to watch and discuss." Paskin admits that "'Friends' was smiley and conflict-averse to the point of being featherweight," yet she defends it passionately. Books and television are obviously completely different media. Still, it's not so easy to write a fun, engrossing, smiley novel, either. Or a fun, engrossing, thrilling one. And I don't think there's anything wrong with reading a featherweight book once in a while, for the pure enjoyment of it.

Trust me, it won't negate that time you read Ulysses.