Why Are We So Suspicious of Pleasure?

It’s a phrase I’ve found myself saying troublingly often: “well, it wasn’t good, but I enjoyed it.”

It’s something I reserve for movies or books or TV shows that I like but that, for one reason or another, don’t get categorized as “objectively” quality in my brain (more on that word in quotes later). Maybe it’s too “lowbrow” (superhero movies) or not the right genre (thrillers). Or maybe I feel a vague sense of shame, like admitting to enjoying a CW show is somehow embarrassing or even dirty. It’s not culture, something in me seems to say. It’s not sophisticated, and therefore not good.

I’ve laughed at theorists and writers who make sweeping claims about the antithesis between meaningful art and pleasure – it’s not really art unless it’s difficult and, for some, even outright displeasing. Real art is dissonant music, perplexing art, unreadable texts. But when I contrast “good” with “enjoyable”, aren’t I assuming the same thing? If I enjoyed it, isn’t it “good” on some level? Isn’t there some “quality” there that resonated with me, and doesn’t that, in itself, render a piece of media worthwhile?

There is a certain disdain in “culture” circles – literary critics and theorists, for example – for what is commonly called “mass culture” or, somewhat disparagingly, “entertainment.” This disdain is frequently coupled with suspicion: Adorno and Horkheimer accused mass culture of rendering citizens complacent, a sentiment echoed in modern thinkpieces by the notion that things like superhero movies are dumbing people down. No one appreciates real art anymore, the lament goes. People just want to be entertained. 

On some level, so what? People have always wanted to be entertained. That has always been one function of art. (One recalls the cries of alarm surrounding the rise of the novel, that frivolous new form of writing.)

Leslie Jamison writes in her essay “In Defense of Saccharin(e)” about the dismissal of the sentimental as inauthentic or “too easy”. Yet, she argues,

…doesn’t anti-sentimentality simply offer an inversion of the same kind of emotional indulgence? We dismiss “sentimentality” to sharpen a sense of ourselves as True Feelers, arbiters of complication and actual emotion, and it’s the smug satisfaction of this dismissal that really gets us off. It’s a kind of masturbatory double-negative.

Furthermore, she goes on:

Even if there’s nothing aesthetically redeemable in the eliciting of this prepackaged double-tiered (double-teared?) response, might it have some other value? How do we reckon with the fact that formulaic self-help books bring consolation to millions of readers? How do we account for the pleasure people take in trashy romances? Are these functions of entertainment and consolation entirely divorced from our conceptions of aesthetic value?

We are too quick to dismiss works on the basis of an imagined authenticity or difficulty that allows a kind of cultured superiority. What does it even mean for something to be “good” or “quality”? Who makes that judgment?

I’m going to go ahead and make a statement here: I do not believe in objective judgment of art. “Objectively” derived canons are seldom so: the literary canon has for generations overwhelmingly shut out authors that are not white men, and continues to do so. All too often, supposedly “objective” judgments mask an agenda: thus genres that are authored by or appeal to women or other marginalized groups can be dismissed under the guise of disinterested and unbiased examination (see: romance novels, or even mysteries and thrillers; see: the continued snubbing of hip-hop and rap artists at music awards shows).

And yet I still find myself falling into this trap: dividing my interests and entertainment into worthy and not worthy, good quality and bad. I find myself self-conscious about my reactions to things: should I have liked this? Did I enjoy it too much?

I want to work on erasing that distinction between “good” and “enjoyable”. Good things should be enjoyable, after all, and if I enjoyed it there must be something good. Art and media shouldn’t have to be like eating your vegetables: something done grudgingly and with reluctance. It doesn’t have to be formally experimental to make me think.

And even if it doesn’t make me think: maybe that’s okay too. Not everything has to be a challenge. Sometimes it’s just fine to have fun.

There’s no such thing as objective, and pleasure isn’t (or shouldn’t be) a culture sin.


One thought on “Why Are We So Suspicious of Pleasure?

  1. For me, a “guilty” pleasure is a shallow pleasure. Sometimes I read books (or see something, but I read a lot more than I watch) and they are fun and I enjoy them, but nothing resonates on a deep level; it doesn’t open up a new understanding of myself or other people; it’s not something I’ll still be thinking about and wrestling with a week later.

    But I don’t actually feel guilt about it. I’m not very good at guilt in general — I tend to only feel it when I’ve done something deliberately against my ethics. Enjoying myself is not wrong. (Neither is making innocent mistakes, but that kind of guilt is more for a discussion on a mommy blog.) Reading something that is pure fun is worthwhile.

    “I didn’t like it but it was good” is something I’ll say about things that I didn’t enjoy but that did resonate — maybe I learned something I don’t like about myself or about society. And the best of all worlds, the things I put on my shelves and recommend, are the things that I enjoy and that do resonate. Not that I don’t also have shelves full of the shallowly fun books as well. Public libraries are where I keep the “good but not entertaining” stuff.

    Sometimes my quality literature overlaps with “The Canon” and sometimes it doesn’t — I found Madame Bovary tedious and obvious, but War and Peace surprised me by actually being awesome. I rejoiced when my teenage son complained about Catcher in the Rye being boring and sorta misogynistic (there’s something really neat about having children with good taste). And I agree that some forms of art are dismissed because they are written by or for the “wrong” people — I’ve got Romance books on that prime shelf but precious few books about middle aged men discovering themselves while having affairs with convenient and young women.


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