Guilty Pleasures, Gendered Language + Other Irritations


I have a confession: I have never, ever felt guilty about reading.

Clearly, I’m doing something wrong.

Why? Because as summer reading season heats up, more and more book sections of magazines, newspapers (yep, they still exist… sort of) and online media are proclaiming that now is the time to read those “guilty pleasure” books. It’s made even worse this year since every journalist with access to Google has written some variation of a ridiculous, alarmist piece about Fifty Shades of Grey. 

Take this random “observation” from Michael S. Rosenwald this week in the Washington Post

There are no book covers on e-readers, meaning you can read all the steamy sex you want and tell your friends that you’re reading the new Robert Caro. This is one of the key advantages to e-readers — lying about your reading habits — and it probably helps explain why guilty-pleasure fiction is the most popular genre of reading on e-readers, according to the Book Industry Study Group. (I had to ask my wife last month whether she was reading “Fifty Shades of Grey” on her e-reader. Yes, she was.) 

Let me get this right… ereaders are popular because because it’s easy for readers to lie about what they like to read? 

Um, no.

Here’s why I prefer my ereader over traditional print books.

  1. Weight. Both for portability and reading comfort, my Kindle is more comfortable because it’s small.
  2. It’s easier to read multiple books at a time. I often have three or more going at a time, and it’s easy to switch around based on my mood.
  3. Frankly, and I know people will say I’m a horrible person for this, it’s way easier to buy books with an ereader. No trying to guess where something’s shelved, no waiting for delivery. It’s just there. Immediately.
  4. It’s easier on my eyes. My eyesight is kind of sketchy, and book print quality is also kind of sketchy. Therefore, my Kindle makes for a much more pleasant reading experience.
  5. Because I like it.

Note: “Because I want to hide my steamy sex books from the world because I am very, very ashamed.” is not on this list. 

However, now that I think about it, a big advantage of ereading is that I can read what I want free from judgement of sanctimonious, smug assholes. 

It’s a classic case of, “It’s not me, it actually is you.”

A couple weeks ago, I went into our local, sketchy Barnes & Noble at the local, sketchy mall where people stab each other on a fairly regular basis. I was in search of Shadow Bound, because Harlequin/Mira made the unfortunate decision to window the ebook release and I had a BN giftcard burning a hole in my pocket. Because I couldn’t even deal with the absurdist organization of this particular BN location (seriously, it’s like someone’s doing a social experiment with their shelving), I did that nifty trick where I ordered the book from my phone for in-store pickup, and it was ready in about ten minutes. 

When I went up to the counter, this went down:

Me: I got a text saying my book’s ready for pickup.

Balding, Scraggly Ponytail-Sporting BN Employee: What’s your name?

Me: Sarah Moon

Balding, Scraggly Ponytail-Sporting BN Employee: *holds up Shadow Bound by the very corner of the book, like he will contract Ebola from touching * Is this your book? *sneers*

Me: YES! This series is soooooo great!

Balding, Scraggly Ponytail-Sporting BN Employee: *looks uncomfortable while swiping my giftcard and I make intentionally obnoxious smalltalk about the awesomeness of this series and how excited I am to get this book* 

Me: Have a really, really fabulous rest of your day. 

Balding, Scraggly Ponytail-Sporting BN Employee: Uh huh… *slides Shadow Bound across the counter with a single finger*

This scene was pretty hilarious, to be honest. It’s even funnier, because the Shadow Bound cover is pretty great (hell, not only are the characters depicted accurately in a scene from the actual book, there’s no random mantitty nor a sword in sight!); I’m not even sure why Balding, Scraggly Ponytail-Sporting BN Employee had his feather ruffled by it so much. 

But, it also illustrates how much of the book establishment treats genre fiction in general and genres favored by female consumers in particular. They’re looked down upon and viewed as “guilty pleasures”—things we should be ashamed of consuming.

Kelly articulated this beautifully on Stacked a couple weeks ago, saying, 

If something brings you pleasure, there should be no guilt associated with it. The reason people find themselves talking about guilty pleasures is because someone has taken their right to enjoyment from whatever it is that they like doing.

That piece stuck with me and it’s what popped into my head when Balding, Scraggly Ponytail-Sporting BN Employee sneered at me for buying what he clearly thought of troublesome and lowbrow. (Which is awfully rich coming from a dude with scraggly ponytail working at the sketchiest BN in America.)

It’s what I thought of when I went into Powell’s Books in downtown Portland, looking for a book for a friend and discovered that the romance section where the book was shelved was quite literally detached from the rest of the inventory, instead in the corner of the coffee shop. Let’s ponder that for a moment: At this supposedly “iconic” bookstore, how-to books on slaughtering your own chickens while living on a tiny city lot have “mainstream,” for lack of a better word, position near the registers, while books categorized as romance are almost hidden away from the rest of the books.

And, it’s what I thought of when I clicked the link on a article supposedly about ereader choices that managed to conveniently fit in a dig about “steamy” reads. In an “evaluation” of the best ereaders for beach vacations (e-ink, duh), the author couldn’t resist noting that ereaders are perfect for hiding what you’re really reading, naming “steamy” novels as something that should be a dark, dirty secret.

Here’s the thing, as much as a I have issue with the idea that there are reading habits that should be hidden, I have an even bigger problem with the culture of reading shame.

The books we’re supposed to be ashamed of exclusively belong to genres popular with women.

What that means to me is that the White Male Literary Culture has deemed what’s acceptable and unacceptable to read free from guilt. It assumes that the only “right” reading is that which has the White Male Literary Culture Seal of Approval. Which means that lady genres are, naturally, those which readers should hide from public view and feel guilty about enjoying.

What people (and some of these folks are women, disturbingly… *cough* Jennifer Egan *cough*) are saying when they deride “guilty pleasures,” is that they’re uncomfortable with women reading—to use Rosenwald’s word from the Washington Post—“steamy” novels. Because it makes them uncomfortable, women should feel embarrassed and shamed about enjoying* “those books.”


No one tells men they should feel guilty about enjoying crime novels, which are often full of sex (and violence) and have the same varying writing quality of every single other genre. Maybe that’s because the sex is usually terribly written in that genre? 

It’s sexist B.S. And I’m sick of it.

*And, yes, I’ll tackle the question of why people are so freaked out about women reading books with sex in a future edition of Sarah’s Rants. That won’t be awkward at all.

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