Not Guilty

In my last post I wrote about a book series being a ‘guilty pleasure’ and (entirely true to form) I have felt somewhat bad about it ever since. The term is a rather disparaging one and even if we ignore the vast gulf in achievement between me and Bernard Cornwell, it seems a little inappropriate to be throwing a negative label on books and stories that I obviously like.

Because I do like them, the Sharpe series and a whole other array of stories that I reach for when I’m in the mood for a story, but not one that is going to ask much of me. I just want to relax and enjoy, not be stretched and challenged. Not all books are good for this. When I read The Quantum Thief a few years ago, it was an amazing ride, but I had to be sharp before I was ready to climb on board. This is a story that will leave you behind if you can’t keep up. I find John Le Carre’s books somewhat similarly challenging because he uses language so subtly and well that if you don’t really pay attention to every word and consider it carefully you will probably miss some tiny important thing, and the gradual accretion of all these tiny important things will lead to you not really understanding what’s happening.

Sometimes, I’m not in the right space to do that. Sometimes I want an easy ride, and I do genuinely like the stories that give that to me. Grabbing another random example, while I would genuinely put John Carpenter’s The Thing up there as an absolute classic of the SF/horror genre, I also just as genuinely like Big Trouble in Little China, albeit in a rather different way. William Gibson is my all-time favourite writer, but some days I’m just not up to the challenge and just need a murder mystery.

There is, to be sure, enjoyment to be had in stories that challenge us, and I wouldn’t want to suggest otherwise. Being asked to think of things in a whole different way is amazing at the same time as it is kind of scary. There’s the pleasure of solving a puzzle when you unpick the mystery of what’s going on in a story that has been trying to hide it from you. Engaging the intellect is exercise, and it feels good.

Except I’m not always in the right place, mentally or physically, to exercise (like this week, as I continue to try to get rid of a stubborn virus) and then I know I will be suffering rather than strengthening my faculties, either by trying to run 10 kilometers or by trying to tackle Bring up the Bodies. But I still want to read (it is a very rare day when I don’t read anything) and so then perhaps (especially given my previously-discussed tendency to re-read old favourites) it is time for one of Sharpe’s Spanish battlefields.

I especially like these things when I am tired, or upset, or sick. I just want something I can get some enjoyment, perhaps some distraction, from and not need to work very hard at getting it. Sometimes I just need a reminder (or the illusion, if we’re being cynical) that good can triumph over evil and that there is such a thing as a happy ending. So in many ways these books are the ones that have been with me when I have been at my worst and have helped me feel better, so I really should be as kind to them as they have been to me.

It’s a reminder about the power of story (for some people at least) that things like this can make one feel a little better during our low points. I think stories can do all kinds of amazing things, and this is one of them, at least for me. Really, a story that provides comfort or inspiration or amusement to a person who is in need is pretty darned good, which is another excellent reason not to throw a negative label on them.

Essentially I think I need another term for the kind of books I enjoy at those times when I just want to sit back and be amused. In some ways those are my favourite ones and I don’t want to malign them. Anyway, I promise not to call them guilty pleasures any more.

Late last week I got to see early sketches of book cover designs for The King in Darkness. Having another artist produce something (even if it was only sketches) for a story I wrote was very exciting. Things are moving ahead!

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