Thomas Sutcliffe: Literary guilt ain't what it used to be

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The Independent Online

Apparently, Stephen King is the nation's favourite guilty pleasure - which strikes me as a bit pathetic, really. I have no problem with the pleasure bit, you understand, having from time to time opened up one of King's Gothic potboilers with the crooning sigh of someone easing into a hot bath. But I'm not at all convinced that these responders really understand what literary guilt is. Don't they know that King effectively bypassed guilt several years ago? That he is a recipient of the National Book Foundation's Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. That The New Yorker has published his short stories? Alibis for reading his books are thick on the ground: you could claim to be fascinated by his deconstruction of late-20th-century consumer culture, for example; or pretend to an analytical interest in his incorporation of American demotic into the authorial voice. But you certainly don't have to feel guilty.

This may be true of pretty much any book these days, of course. There's no question that literary guilt once existed. I remember, during my first week at university as a student of English, being given a brief induction by our director of studies. Read deeply and widely, he advised us, but also keep something light and frivolous beside your bed so that you can unwind after a hard day in the library stacks. His suggestion was F Scott Fitzgerald - which, from the looks on the faces of my fellow-students, didn't exactly chime with their notion of literary downtime.

Then again, he was a medievalist, so anything that didn't have yogs and thorns in the text counted as a potential beach book. He, I think, would genuinely have felt guilt if he'd been caught reading Stephen King - but the rest of us, beginning to be schooled in postmodern eclecticism and the easy relativism of cultural studies, were already finding the notion a little dated.

The runner-up in this survey was J K Rowling, which met a prejudice of my own, but probably doesn't quite cut it either. Anyone above the age of 18 certainly should feel guilty for reading the Harry Potter books - and I've occasionally fantasised about being the person who brings it to their attention, when I see some pinstriped City gent on the Tube engrossed in the doings of Harry and Hagrid and Hermione. "For God's sake," I feel like shouting, "if you're going to fritter away the hours, at least do it with something aimed at your age level!"

There would be little point, though. There is no real guilt there in the first place, for indignation to find some leverage on. Guilt would require a copy of The Economist, behind which the tome was concealed. But, whatever they might say about guilt to market researchers, nobody bothers. In fact, I suspect that Potter readers like the idea of belonging to a community of fellow-Potterists, cleansed by enthusiasm.

Literary guilt's endangerment is partly the result of indiscriminate propagandising for reading per se. Never mind what you read, the activity itself is deemed to be superior to any of its contemporary rivals. (Significantly, only 3 per cent of responders were prepared to admit that they never read a book at all - a finding that certainly can't be a truthful account of national reading habits.) How guilty a pleasure can any book be when the alternative is to power up a PlayStation and run amok through Miami with a chain saw? Admitting to taking pleasure in that would at least make a penitent think twice before confessing. Because the other problem with guilty pleasure these days is that pleasure itself is not quite the sin it used to be. The puritanical notion that what was fun was wrong has almost entirely disappeared, to be replaced by a civic duty of happiness.

Other literary guilts do survive in attenuated form, and may have left a mark on this survey. Thirty-two per cent of the responders, for example, reported that they regularly bought books that they then put away to read at a later date. Yeah, sure. What this means, I suspect, is that, along with the copy of King's Lisey's Story goes a paperback edition of Middlemarch and a popular science book about string theory. And while people don't really feel guilty about the former, they do feel a faint nagging guilt that they never got round to reading their alibi purchases, the ones that they bought so that the guy on the till would understand that Gothic horror wasn't the only kind of book they read - that they had grasped the essential principle of literary eclecticism.

I'm guilty of this myself, incidentally - buying books because I think that you can judge a person by the cover of the book they're carrying - but I don't feel guilty about it. That stuff you never get to find out.