Guilty Book Pleasures

Like many Americans, I do some “guilty pleasure” reading each summer. Do you make this distinction? For me, guilty pleasure means a novel I enjoy reading, even can’t put down, but don’t particularly admire. During a recent vacation I read four novels: Eight Black Horses, by Ed McBain; The Girl on the Train, the bestseller by Paula Hawkins; Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Purity; and After the Fire, A Still Small Voice, by the Anglo-Australian novelist, Evie Wyld. Two guilty pleasures; two un-guilty.

For me, genre novels are often the guilty kind. The opening scene of Eight Black Horses (one of McBain’s 87th Precinct series) is as formulaic as Law & Order, which it distinctly resembles. Body is found in gruesome circumstances; cops show up and exchange mordant-morbid jokes; the investigation begins. Classic police procedural, and for me, very enjoyable. But nothing in a novel like this is going to surprise you. All the pleasures lie in the reconfirmation of the already-familiar; even the cops themselves are worn down by familiar routines, and we enjoy hearing them say so.

A friend of mine, Michael Robinson, a historian of science with an avid interest in science fiction, likes to challenge my notion of the guilty literary pleasure; he defends genre fiction and insists that its practitioners deserve more literary respect than they get (I’ll agree when it comes to Philip K. Dick, though I balk at Orson Scott Card). But it’s not about genre, really. I can think of any number of novels I have admired, from John le Carre’s The Honourable Schoolboy many years ago, to Emily Mandel’s Station Eleven last year, that qualify as genre but still pass my test. 

One way to know you’re in a guilty-pleasure novel is speed. You dive in for an hour, and find you’ve read a hundred pages. This is less reading than careening. A novel, like a highway, has to be built in such a way that will allow this.  Can you skim, and still follow what’s going on? The guilty-pleasure novel allows you semi-consciously to separate narrative elements, sorting what drives the plot from what is mere scene-setting, and then read accordingly, cruising past “filler” to land on important plot turns or payoffs.  The guilty-pleasure read is all about ease. You never have to reread. There are no impediments. Everything is designed to keep you cruising.

In contrast, many of the novels I have prized most over the decades do the opposite: slow you down.  Language is used in unexpected ways.  Temporal structures and points of view shift. Ironies ramify on multiple levels. Chapters do not follow precut sizes or designs. These writers have a way of making you stop to reflect. You pause from reading in order to put the text of your own life up against the one you are immersed in. You are being invited, lured, or even forced into a meditative action. James Joyce’s “Araby” is a small, seemingly innocuous story, but I have lingered for years over its radiant and elusive closing lines. This slowing-down action is a basic part of my memory of reading Faulkner, Joyce, Nabokov, and even Hemingway... and more recent books as well, like Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings. Or most of Alice McDermott. Or Evie Wyld.

Evie Wyld’s novels are the slim, spare-looking kind you think you’ll polish off quickly. But two hours later you’re only on p. 60.  You spend time getting your bearings. You flip back to re-check something thirty pages ago. (Even the title – After the Fire, A Still Small Voice --  slows you down.) Wyld’s language and perceptions are just offbeat enough to keep you alert. After the Fire is set partly in Australia in the early 1950s. Consider these sentences describing a boy’s impression of a dreary Australian Christmas, his father off fighting in the Korean War, and the boy’s angst triggering an oppressive sense of a dark presence or fate shadowing him: 

Christmas day was tense, full of wide fake smiles and the smell of too many cloves in the pudding... Leon went to the bridge and watched people strolling through the harbour in their Christmas outfits. Women with legs the colour of sweet nut glaze, their dresses high and tight to their throats, the clip of their short steps. The girls with the secrets under their skirts, fingernails like preserved cherries. Something watched him from under the bridge, he could feel it, something that snuffled and scritch-scratched. It threw him looks from the coolest bit of shade.

The un-guilty literary pleasure is delivered by writers using language to convey the impression of a world seen fresh, felt fresh. Wyld’s second novel (she has published just two), All the Birds, Singing, is a small masterpiece that I’ll hope to discuss in a future post. A slender, dense, eccentric novel, it weaves two first-person narratives around a nominal mystery (something is killing the sheep on a small farm off the coast of England) to create a meditation on suffering, memory, and the construction of the self. It’s a novel that gets its grip on your imagination and just won’t let go.

When all is said and done, for guilty pleasures I prefer novels – like McBain’s --  that make no claim to being literature, over those that have middlebrow pretensions, like Gone Girl, or Girl on a Train. (A novelist friend of mine, Dan Pope, recently reeled off the list of novels with “Girl” in the title, discerning a brazen play for women readers. How many novels have “boy” in the title?) Writers like Paula Hawkins or Gillian Flynn have figured out how to give their sentences a sheen of contemporary literary realism, but beneath it you can hear the plot machine clanking away.

These highbrow/lowbrow discussions of the arts in America afford endless opportunity for contested categorization and bitter border wars. What I want to point out is that like any other muscle, the novel-reading muscle needs exercise. In all calisthenics we get accustomed to the machines we use, and I suspect that reading too many Gone Girls will, over time, make it harder to read Evie Wyld.  You’ll lack the patience. You’ll slow down and stop. It’s too dense, too rich, too digressive... too hard. I mean, it’s summer, right?

Like summer itself, the guilty reading pleasure is gone far too quickly. But great literature clears a space in your mind that stays there for a long time.

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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