Guilty Particulars

— Dec 2012

Why do we have guilty pleasures? And what makes them guilty?

Every once in a while, your friends will admit to one: a B-horror-flick, cheesy poetry, or even a teenage pop star. They let you in on it, like it’s an elaborate joke – Isn’t this thing awful? It’s so bad, it’s good. *wink*

It’s tempting to call this “liking things ironically”, but that’s a form of intellectual paranoia – that your friend’s enjoyment isn’t real, and if you turn around fast enough, you can catch them laughing at how gullible you are.

Which is silly.

Look: coming clean about a guilty pleasure takes a strange mixture of vulnerability and defensiveness. You’re knowingly putting yourself up for tomato-throwing. And at the same time, it’s confusing to be enjoying this thing in spite of – you really don’t know why! – your otherwise perfect taste.

But let’s focus on taste for a second here. I wrote about a page of words to Erik Hinton, and he distilled it back down to one tight paragraph:

“It’s too hard to communicate the precise details of a taste profile so we approximate with category terms. “I love New Wave films, but HATE Italian neorealism”. A guilty pleasure is an acknowledgement that our categories don’t cut deep enough and there is taste spillover. “Goddamnn, I hate Claire’s Knee and Umberto D gets me every time.” Does that mean your category explanation was wrong? Not really. New Wave minus Roehmer isn’t a terribly useful category for communicating.”

Calling something a guilty pleasure is defensive: it’s a fluke. You’re telling everyone that you normally know better. But that response doesn’t actually teach you why you’re reacting this way. You’re just learning to flag things that don’t fit your broad taste categories.

One perfect paragraph from Daniel Mendelsohn about interrogating your own taste:

By dramatizing their own thinking on the page, by revealing the basis of their judgments and letting you glimpse the mechanisms by which they exercised their (individual, personal, quirky) taste, all these critics were, necessarily, implying that you could arrive at your own, quite different judgments—that a given work could operate on your own sensibility in a different way. What I was really learning from those critics each week was how to think. How to think (we use the term so often that we barely realize what we’re saying) critically—which is to say, how to think like a critic, how to judge things for myself. To think is to make judgments based on knowledge: period.

It takes attention and patience to learn the particulars of your own taste. Saying you liked a bad movie doesn’t mean you have to like everything about it – maybe the score was genius, or one character’s lines were spot-on. Being able to pinpoint what’s good about your guilty pleasures lets you talk about them without feeling ashamed by the bad parts.

Otherwise, it means being bound by a vague sense of what you’re supposed to like, and being instinctively skeptical of things that seem a bit too popular – as if that’s an automatic black mark. And the most dangerous thing as a critic is to feel like you’re learning to be discerning and critical when really, you’re only learning not to look foolish.

Since someone asked, it’s only fair to share some of my guilty pleasures: there’s Mariah Carey, the Animorphs books (I’ve read all of it, including the spinoffs), any cocktails named “The Gibson”, and a TV show called Everwood.