This set of posts will follow the process of undertaking research to create an article for The Artifice.
The topic for this article is: the concept of the guilty pleasure in reading.
The research questions will be: what is a guilty pleasure in reading? Why do we consider some books guilty pleasures? Is there really such as thing as a guilty pleasure in reading?
I have a number of process steps when gathering information to write about a topic.
STEP ONE: Defining my terms and brainstorming.
What is a guilty pleasure? Often in popular culture we use terminology that has connotative meaning, as in it has meaning that is commonly understood. When we are talking about a guilty pleasure we mean it as something that is engaged in that brings us the contradictory experiences of guilt and pleasure. So what do these terms actually mean?
I have a love affair with the Oxford English Dictionary database, however, unfortunately unless you are affiliated with a university that has a subscription it is not a cheap site to access. The OED provides not only a definition but also a historical background of the progression and use of a term.
Guilty: “That has offended or been in fault; delinquent, criminal. Now in stronger sense: That has incurred guilt; deserving punishment and moral reprobation; culpable” (“Guilty,” OED, 2018, para. 1).
What this gives us is a general definition and an age range for the use of the word (circa the early 1000s), and nope nothing really there that we didn’t think about, but it has given me some ideas – for instance the word criminal leaps out to me. So one idea I will take down into my brainstorm will be the literal interpretation of guilty, books that are considered criminal – or illegal in different places and why.
The OED expands on the use of the term in many forms, most that I am not interested in, until I scroll down to number two and then as a subsection of c is this:
“In playful of ironical use” (“Guilt,” OED, 2018, para. 5). Indeed. This could yield a few new ideas that include the type of literature that one would feel guilty engaging in a playful manner. That Shakespeare is at the top of the list having used the term in a playful way gets me thinking about the fact that during its time Shakespeare’s plays were for the common people – they were popcorn plays, and some more than others.
Okay, let’s have a look at the word pleasure now.
Pleasure: “The condition or sensation induced by the experience or anticipation of what is felt to be good or desirable; a feeling of happy satisfaction or enjoyment; delight, gratification. Opposed to pain” (“Pleasure,” OED, 2018, para. 1).
Interestingly the use of the term is much later than guilt, believed to have entered around 1393 – 1450. Then as the next definition, part b but still part of the first definition, was this:
“The indulgence of physical, esp. sexual, desires or appetites; sensual or sexual gratification. to take one's pleasure: to have sexual intercourse” (“Pleasure,” OED, 2018, para. 2).
This second definition offers a connection to the fact that most often when talking about guilty pleasure literature we are alluding to romance novels or soft-erotica. However, both link to important emotional states of happiness or desire, but each is framed as an indulgence, versus guilt that carries a much more negative connotation to the term. The combination of the two terms together then implies a fairly negative perception of a personal fulfilment – not unalike the way in Western society we still treat the concept of sex. So it looks like the terminology is actually quite accurate to the actual connotations that surround the idea, which is not often true and when it isn’t can yield some really interesting analysis.
Next, considering now the terminology and my own general thoughts on the topic I begin to outline my ideas in a general brainstorm.
I have tried to group a number of my concepts as they have emerged. This is an important stage as it begins to frame the response I am thinking of putting together, but it also starts to give me some great search terms for research. Note also that every step of this process, even if I wasn’t posting it online, would be recorded in a word document in the order I have progressed. This allows me to go back and chase up threads that I may not initially think are useful.