I found myself pondering a question this week: should we ever describe a book as a 'guilty pleasure'?
My musings started after a conversation with a friend about children's books, where I'd said that I thought anything that encouraged a love of reading in children, was a good thing. She disagreed and named a series of popular books that essentially told the same story over and over again, with only minor character modifications each time. I walked home wondering if she had a point, or whether it was enough that these books might encourage children to eventually move onto better quality fiction. I still don't have the answer.
A few days later I was looking at my reading list for this month and thinking about the books that were coming up. I'm trying to reduce my 'wish list' and this month is dedicated to Kindle Unlimited and reading some of the books that have been on there for years without being read. Consequently, some of the books are variations on Pride and Prejudice. When I was doing night feeds with my youngest son, I read a lot of these books (300+ is a lot, right?) because my sleep-deprived brain couldn't cope with anything more challenging - the plots weren't complicated, the characters were already familiar and a happy ending was pretty much guaranteed. I got into a bit of a rut for a while, where this was pretty much all I read and I was content. However, when my energy levels started to resemble something approaching normal, I went back to reading a wider variety of books and these became something I dipped into occasionally, when I needed a bit of a pick me up.
I also began describing them as a guilty pleasure. When I started writing this article, I looked up the definition of the phrase and found this on Oxford Languages: 'something, such as a film, television programme, or piece of music, that one enjoys despite feeling that it is not generally held in high regard.'
Taking the definition at face value, I think it's an accurate one. Having spoken to other people they have described this type of book as 'lazy writing - don't steal other people's characters, make your own up' and 'a bit of a waste of time'. In one sense they're right - the Booker Prize is never going to be awarded to this kind of book and many of them are dreadful, with weak plots, poor characterisation and an inadequate grasp of the English language. However, there are also some which are excellent, and these are the authors I come back to. These are the books where it doesn't really matter that it's Lizzie and Darcy, they'd work just as well if the characters were given different names.
However, to get back to the definition. If we dig a bit deeper into the implication of the phrase, it seems to suggest that there is something wrong in finding pleasure in something that isn't popular with others and yet most things it describes cause no harm to anyone else. Things which are truly harmful are rarely, if ever, described as guilty pleasures. So this leads me to question why popularity should be a measure of how much pleasure we personally find in things? What is the difference between Jo Baker's Longbourn which was a Sunday Times Top Ten Bestseller and Abigail Reynolds' To Conquer Mr Darcy, which wasn't? Both use pre-existing characters and events and weave a new story around them. Why is one deemed acceptable and the other less so? There's more sexual content in Reynolds' book, but that doesn't seem to have done Fifty Shades any harm, so I doubt it's that. Perhaps it's because Longbourn's focus is on the servants who barely appear in P&P, but that on its own can't account for the difference in the perceived status of the books.
Perhaps as a society, we are always on the lookout for something different and when something becomes familiar, we begin to look on it with a degree of contempt. My eldest son refuses to watch the original Superman films because 'they're like every other superhero film, it's boring. Plus, the special effects are rubbish'. We've explained that at the time of their release, other Superhero films didn't really exist and only came about because of the popularity of Superman and the special effects were okay for the time. On an intellectual level he knows that. He doesn't care. It's too familiar and not realistic enough.
I realised that I was guilty of making the same mistake with books. I always describe the Twilight series as another of my guilty pleasures. I acknowledge that the first one in particular, is not well written (in fairness the quality of the writing improves significantly over the course of the series) but that doesn't take away from my enjoyment of it. I was quite late coming to the series but again, it's one I've revisited and enjoyed just as much as the first time.
This leads me onto another confession. At 42, I still read children's books and enjoy them. I see so much on social media where people are asking if it's okay that they still like to read children and Young Adult books when they're in their twenties. I always reply that I'm twice their age and I still love those books. The older I've got, the more I think that it doesn't matter what age a book is aimed at, if it's good and you enjoy it, just read it!
So... to answer my original question, emphatically, no we shouldn't. Enjoying a book is never something to feel guilty about. Regardless of the quality, perceived literary value, or other people's opinions of it, if you enjoy it, read it and don't worry what anyone else thinks!!