Monday, May 9, 2011

The Tyranny of Pleasure

I'm continuing with a series of reflections on book blogging. Check out earlier installments on overusing "I" (and redux) and why we spend so much time not writing about what we read.


I've paid close attention over the last years to the posts in which a blogger lists their favorite books of all time. Most are drawn from a familiar pool (The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, Catch-22, and the like) with a couple of more idiosyncratic titles thrown in. In general, these are a well-crafted, serious works of literary art. This fact stands in stark contrast to something else I've been watching closely: the dominance of crime and romance on bestseller lists.

How is it that most people's favorite books are neither crime nor romance but these are the books that people buy most often?

I think the common answer would be something like "most people enjoy easy, fun reads" and while I don't think this answer is wrong, the emphasis is generally misplaced. This answer tends to blame the unsophisticated reader, but I think the culprit is the verb "enjoy." For once enjoyment becomes the principal mode of evaluation, a certain kind of experience will tend to be sought again and again. Such is the tyranny of pleasure.

Pleasure's tyranny has two sources: the fleeting nature of pleasure and the fact that seat of pleasure resides in the already-known. Taken together, these two characteristics make pleasure the enemy of experimentation, difficulty, and, in the end, enrichment.

That pleasure is fleeting is so well-known that it hardly warrants discussion, but the fact that crime and romance fiction tend to offer the most concentrated doses of readerly pleasure is perhaps not obvious. Readerly pleasure is generally aligned with "page-turning," the almost compulsive need on the reader's part to race through the book. Here, consumption is aligned with pleasure: the more greedily you run-through a novel, the more pleasurable it is. This quality of pleasure, the desire for consumption, then generates a need for more: more pages, more murders, more romantic intrigue, more and more and more to the point where sufficiently successful authors cannot fill demand for their work and farm out their name to other writers.

The second quality of pleasure that is relevant here is pleasure's preference for the known. We tend to desire that which we know. This might seem a tautology (how could you desire something you don't know) and perhaps it is, but for readers, it means that readers who primarily read for pleasure tend to stay within a certain, limited material.

As it so happens, crime and romance deal in consumption and the familiar directly. Both genres hold out the resolution as the goal of the plot: the evidence and investigation lead to a "solved" crime, the courtship and badinage lead to a coupling. That there is a clear finish-line leads readers to race toward it.

Not only do both genres offer a resolution, but it is a resolution that reaffirms normative values. In crime fiction, the crime is almost always solved. The moral fabric of the world is sutured by having the criminals be captured or at least identified. In romance, the chaos of social life is domesticated by romantic coupling. The idea, so romance would have it, is that the falleness and imperfection of the world can be ignored if only the right paramour is located and secured. Both genres create order out of chaos; they transform the unknowable into the familiar.

These two features pleasure, consumption and the familiar, can, given the right conditions, lead readers to strip mine certain genres and authors. If you are a fairly serious reader, you have probably had the experience of reading a new author, loving it, and then tearing through that author's backlist. This was probably enjoyable, but I would also guess that it wasn't exactly gratifying; once you finished the last book, you probably were less satisfied than you were left wanting more. (I call this this "Dorito" effect).

Lest I be accused of snobbery (again), I do not mean to suggest you should only draw your meager gruel from the classics or the high-brow. There is a place in your reading diet both for Fruit Loops and Foie Gras. But if you only or even primarily read "for fun," you are leaving the most complex, most nourishing, most soul-sustaining books on the shelf.


  1. Excellent. This is something I've felt without articulating, and I think enjoyment vs. enrichment pretty much nails it.

    Even the very basic issue of why I spend my time reading has popped up in my head a couple of times recently, and this is a much healthier angle to approach it from than 'there's not a lot on TV.'

    I wonder if the familiarity and order-from-choas traits that you identify in both those genres are more widespread? Surely familiarity must be at the heart of all who read exclusively by genre.

    I work in a bookshop, and sell crime novels and romance at a rate of knots -- but also misery memoirs, where you have familiarity (presumably) and moral order-from-chaos (i'm guessing.)

  2. Ben-
    I was really only thinking about fiction, but memoir does seem to have these two traits as well (and not surprisingly sells well as a result).

    I'm sort of working up toward a longer "why we read" post, but I am definitely thinking along the same lines, both for my own reading life and for the life of this blog.

    Enrichment is the best word that I can come up with right now, but it has some problems as well.

  3. Great post! I think that your analysis of the whole comfort-of-the-known and normative resolutions is very well done!

  4. Very interesting post! Also I think people find a lot of comfort in the familiar - especially when purchasing, it is easy to fear getting something you won't like. (A big plus for libraries- free experimenting.)

  5. As I read your post, the sentence structure and cantor seemed very Pauline.

    I can relate to the "more pages, more murders, more romantic intrigue, more and more and more" on a few reads. For example Ken Follett, a suspense/mystery author who moonlit PILLARS OF THE EARTH and WORLD WITHOUT END, has now released the first of a 20th Century trilogy that I am resisting reading for the very reason you describe - I felt as though I needed a shower upon finishing each listed above (not to mention two days to catch up on sleep).

    In the end, the pleasurable reads rarely stay with me. Whereas I often recall reads like 2666, THE ROAD, FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS and LES MISERABLES that I did not exactly "enjoy" reading (in the case of the Hemingway, I outright disliked).

    The Pauline reference seems fitting because once we break free of the tyranny of pleasure, we can cease being "infants, tossed back and forth by the waves..."

  6. I do like that phrase "tyranny of pleasure." At the other end of the spectrum from the "page turners" there is the pleasure of rereading a (classic) book time after time. Most crime and romance fiction don't yield any more on a reread than on a first read.

  7. I think there's something about time, effort, and energy, too. After my son was born, I only read "light" (mysteries, romances, etc) for 6 years. The only "serious" reading I could keep up with was The New Yorker, everything else fell by the wayside.

    For me, the X-Factor was time and attention. If I have 20 minutes to read, and I might be interrupted at any second, the book had to be something I could put down and then pick right back up again without really having to think too hard about where I left off.

    All the easy reading just kept me in the habit, and now that my son is older (and I know when he goes to bed he's really going to stay asleep!), I have more time and energy for other kinds of fiction.