While reading is generally encouraged, there are some genres that people often see as a guilty pleasure, that is to say, books they don’t want to admit they enjoy. This tends to include the romance genre, along with ‘chick-lit’ (heroine-centred narratives, according to Wikipedia), and teen fiction. I feel there are two main reasons for this: partly because they are seen as being ‘low quality’, but also because they are seen as neither academic nor prestigious enough to be displayed proudly on your living room bookshelf. However, I do think there is a case for these ‘guilty pleasures,’ and would argue that we shouldn’t feel so guilty about them after all.
Firstly, I think ‘low quality’ needs to be defined. Some people may say that this includes books with common tropes, often-used plots, or predictable endings. While this is admittedly frequent with romance novels and teen fiction, it is not always the case and there are many which are more original. Even though these genres can be accused of being cliché, other genres have their own frequently used tropes. For example, mystery novels will have red-herrings and almost always end with the reveal of the culprit; that is simply the framework and necessary ingredients of the genre.
The other reason why we feel guilty reading books from certain genres could be because we feel expected to read something more challenging, thought-provoking or academic
A book based on a commonly used storyline does not automatically mean that it is of low quality. There are lots of young adult books that are well-written, and enjoyed by all ages, like the Harry Potter series. Although the popularity of something doesn’t always prove its quality, I think the popularity of the romance genre and teen fiction does suggest that we should appreciate these works and that the achievement of these authors should be admired. For me, it is more appropriate to judge a book as badly written if characters are unrealistic or underdeveloped, there are plot holes, or if there are overused descriptions. Therefore, even though romance novels often use similar storylines, as long as they have been written well, we shouldn’t judge them for it.
The other reason why we feel guilty reading books from certain genres could be because we feel expected to read something more challenging, thought-provoking or academic. Whilst it is undeniable that the classics have value, I believe that romance, chick-lit and other ‘shamed’ genres have their own value and can be equally ‘thought-provoking’. Teen fiction often approaches difficult issues and provides opportunities for discussion, as well as making people feel less alone when they see relatable characters and situations.
Chick-lit and romance is generally more light-hearted, which makes it relaxing to read. Although some argue that chick-lit is anti-feminist, perhaps for their exaggerated and stereotypical presentation of women, it still frequently places women in the centre of the narrative which is a contrast to the majority of the classics.
To free ourselves from the guilt, we should be judging the quality of books individually and realising that we don’t always need to read what others have established as acceptable
Although our classification of ‘the canon’ is gradually changing, they were predominantly written by and for a very narrow demographic. In contrast, change is happening much faster in teen fiction, allowing readers to get the representation that they have been missing. We might see classics as valuable, but we should also see their flaws and not dismiss the value of different genres.
To free ourselves from the guilt, we should be judging the quality of books individually and realising that we don’t always need to read what others have established as acceptable. We should realise that the canon is not perfect. Even when a book is badly written, it isn’t necessary to feel guilty for enjoying it, as a large part of reading is about enjoyment.
Often we see books as a way of furthering ourselves, and that can be true – and can also be achieved through the genres we label as ‘guilty pleasures’ – but reading can also be beneficial in terms of giving us an opportunity to retreat from our everyday stress, and providing simple enjoyment, in whichever genre you find it. At the end of the day, everyone is going to have their own taste when it comes to reading, so there is no reason to feel guilty, except perhaps when you abandon your course reading list for a bit too long.