Me and Guilty Pleasure Books

Kathryn’s excellent post, No more guilty pleasures (In defense of non-literary genres) got me thinking about how my views on genre books have evolved over the years.  As a teen, I consumed an inordinate amount of fantasy and science fiction.  Back then, the characters were complicated, well-developed, and interesting.  Then, sometime in college, I went to Barnes and grabbed the newest book in the Ender’s Game saga, and found that despite a good plot, I just couldn’t continue reading.  A grad school workshop would have called the characters flat; Ricky Gervais might have said not 3-D.  I took no pride in this evolution.  In much the same way that I desperately wanted to be able to enjoy playing Goldeneye on Nintendo-64, I missed being able to disappear into an elf and dragon filled world.  But it was no longer possible.  From time to time, I went back and tried reading guilty pleasure books, but it just wasn’t the same.  I finally admitted this to a friend.  “I know this sounds super pretentious.  But I can’t read genre fiction anymore, unless it’s using genre conventions to tell a literary story.”  (Margaret Atwood’s “The Blind Assassin” and Jess Walter’s “Citizen Vince” come to mind)  “If I just want a good story without having to work too hard, I’ll watch a DVD of the best TV shows: The Wire, Deadwood, Dexter.”  My friend noted that I did sound pretentious, and I nodded.  “But you know what?” I said.  “Literary books that use a genre conventions are my favorites.”

And I thought that would be that.  I’d grown up.  Trashy books had gone the way of video games and fast food.  But coincidentally, shortly after turning 30, I starting obsessing over climbing really high mountains, like in the Himalayas.  And when I think about something all the time, I buy books about it.  And lo and behold, it turns out that at the moment, I will read just about anything, no matter how poorly written, if its about mountain climbing.  Are people deciding to use up their last oxygen tank?  Approaching the Hillary step?  Strapping on crampons?  I’m there.  And there are books like Krakeuer’s “Into Thin Air,” which is well-crafted, engaging, complicated, and about way more than a disaster on Everest.

Is there a point to this rambling?  Maybe that there is such a thing as guilty pleasure reading.  But just because your book has elves, or space-ships, or base-camps, doesn’t mean it’s trash.  The writing industry- writers, agents, publishers will create what the public will buy.  So demand more from your guilty pleasures.  Fully develop that wizard.  Read crime books that make you think about more than who the killer is.  I’m not so sure I can follow this advice when it comes to mountaineering lit, but I can try.


  • Melissa says:

    I have to say, Brenden, without the excuse of wanting to climb in the Himalayas myself (I think Mt. Rainier is a good life goal for me), I will read almost any mountaineering book out there. I even read the one that was written in response to “Into Thin Air” from the perspective of one of the Russian climbers in Krakauer’s group. They’re so compelling, I can’t help it.

    • Brendan Lynaugh says:

      Yes. Maybe it is the inherent drama built into the narrative. Like how hospital TV shows are always popular because each episode has a life or death plot line.

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