The "guilty pleasure" has come under beady-eyed scrutiny from critics young enough to be incredulous at the class insecurities that underwrite the whole notion but historically aware enough to know there was a time, not so long ago, when the battle lines were drawn between highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow—between men who wear ascots and guys who think a toothpick is a fashion statement; between The Great Books and comic books; between the ability to make cocktail-party badinage about Whitehead and Russell's Principia Mathematica and not knowing what "badinage" means, or what a Whitehead is. In other words, between cultural literacy and the Decline of Civilization As We Know It. (Just who "we" were went unexamined since, as everyone patrolling the borders of elite and mass taste knew, "we" were People Like Us.)
Chuck Klosterman led the charge in 2004, in his Esquire essay, "Why Your Guilty Pleasures Matter (And the Curious Etymology of a Phrase Gone Wrong)," arguing that "the only people who believe in some kind of universal taste—a consensual demarcation between what's artistically good and what's artistically bad—are insecure, uncreative elitists who need to use somebody else's art to validate their own limited worldview. It never matters what you like; what matters is why you like it." (Klosterman, be it noted, is a Cocoa-Puffs populist, a scruffily bearded heavy metal guy from North Dakota who wears his proletarian politics on his sleeve. Which is, inevitably, attached to a T-shirt, typically emblazoned with a—knowing—slogan like "Take drugs and listen to Black Sabbath.")
In 2013, Jennifer Szalai drove another nail in the coffin with her New Yorker essay "Against 'Guilty Pleasure.'" Szalai doesn't like the ass-covering irony implicit in the term, the have-your-elitism-and-eat-it-too disingenuousness of its function "as an indicator that one takes pleasure in something but knows (the knowingness is key) that one really shouldn't." For her money,
the term exudes a false note, a mix of self-consciousness and self-congratulation. Aside from those actively seeking out public debasement, if you felt really, truly ashamed of it, you probably wouldn't announce it to the world, would you? The guilt signals that you're most comfortable in the elite precincts of high art, but you're not so much of a snob that you can't be at one with the people. So you confess your remorse whenever you deign to watch Scandal, implying that the rest of your time is spent reading Proust. … [T]he guilty pleasure seems to me the distillation of all the worst qualities of the middlebrow—the condescension of the highbrow without the expenditure of effort, along with mass culture's pleasure-seeking without the unequivocal enjoyment.
Of course she's right that, too often, the phrase masks intellectual cowardice with glib irony. Typically, we reach for it when we want to have things both ways, holding what we claim to love at arm's length while pretending to embrace it, like an air kiss between frenemies.
But Szalai's inability to conceive of the guilt in our guilty pleasures as anything but the devil's mark of elitism, or to imagine that anyone "who felt really, truly ashamed" of, say, liking "Miracles" by Insane Clown Posse "probably wouldn't announce it to the world" tells me that she hasn't pushed the needle of her own tastes far enough, past stuff that's either unequivocally likable or unlikable; past the unambiguously ironic pleasures of kitsch and camp; into the mortifying cringe comedy of things you like and dislike, stuff that attracts you and repulses you, stuff that embarrasses even you, yet you can't resist.
Guilty pleasures are all about cognitive dissonance. When I say Thomas Harris novels like Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon are one of my guilty pleasures, it's not because I'm a holdover from a bygone era when People Like Us believed "in some kind of universal taste" or because I'm a closet snob who's secretly "most comfortable in the elite precincts of high art"; it's because I'm genuinely ambivalent about Harris. I want to nuance my affection, locate it somewhere on the grayscale spectrum between the black-or-white binaries of love and loathing.
I love the cut-and-thrust of the serial killer Hannibal Lecter's philosophical dialogues, in Silence of the Lambs, with the FBI agent-in-training Clarice Starling. There's something in them of the Socratic dialogue, of Jesus parrying the Devil's cross-examination in the Book of Matthew, of the high-stakes poker of noir-movie repartee. The atheist in me is especially taken with Lecter's meditations on the nature of evil and what theologians call the theodicy—the knotty problem of why evil exists in a world overseen by an omniscient, omnipotent God Who So Loved The World That He Gave His Only Begotten Son, etc., etc.:
I collect church collapses, recreationally. Did you see the recent one in Sicily? Marvelous! The façade fell on sixty-five grandmothers at a special Mass. Was that evil? If so, who did it? If He's up there, He just loves it, Officer Starling. Typhoid and swans—it all comes from the same place.
For that very reason, I loathe Harris's reduction, in Silence's sequel, Hannibal, of the magnificently perverse Lecter—a civilized cannibal to whom rudeness is anathema; a moral philosopher in the Sadean mode—to cheesy self-parody. In Hannibal, Lecter is a depraved aesthete, chewing the scenery in the best Hammer Horror manner. He's gone camp and, worse yet, doesn't know it. Even more embarrassingly, he's a middlebrow's idea of highbrow, an aristocrat sporting an ascot borrowed from Vincent Price, well-versed in the fine points of preparing brains—human brrrainnns, of course—in beurre noisette. In the manner of B-movie villains from the Phantom of the Opera to the Abominable Dr. Phibes, he works out his issues in florid flights on the keyboard (the harpsichord, in Lecter's case).
I love Harris's pitch-perfect ear for regional accents and idioms and slang; his tough, spare syntax; his gift for summing a character in a single, unforgettable detail: "Starling knew without thinking about it that the shine on [Dr. Chilton's] extended hand was lanolin from patting his hair. She let go before he did." And I hate the way he throws those gifts away in Hannibal, lets his muscle turn to fat, his prose go soft in precious mannerisms and schlocky, Harlequin-romance imagery ("He…bent to her coral and cream"—Harlequinese for nipple and breast—"in the firelight with his sleek dark head") and the sort of groan-inducing puns favored by campy villains ("All we ask is that you keep an open mind," Lecter quips, as he removes the dome of his victim's cranium, revealing the man's brain).
So when I say Harris is a guilty pleasure, it's my way of pushing back against middlebrow snobbishness that can't see past his bestsellerdom while, in the same breath, acknowledging that I'm not unaware that some of his stuff sucks the chrome off a trailer hitch.
Guilt, it turns out, isn't always the disapproving voice of the societal superego, internalized; sometimes, it's a legitimate expression of the tug-of-war between the better angels of your nature and the part of you that will defend, to the death, The Last Airbender. Which makes me realize that we need an adjunct phrase: "shameful pleasures." Because the feeling in question, more often than not, isn't so much guilt as shame. Rooted in religious beliefs or social mores we've internalized, guilt is a deeply interior emotion, an intimate torment inflicted by something we've done; shame, by contrast, is inescapably social, the unbearable awareness of society's disapproval or—even worse—snickering contempt at what, in the realm of culture, are often innocent pleasures, victimless crimes.
The guilt in guilty pleasures feels as if it comes from within, whether it's an unhealthy guilt that arises from our osmotic absorption of status-quo values (a guilt Klosterman and Szalai vigorously condemn as having no place in our nobrow culture) or whether it's what I'm arguing is a more useful guilt, the guilt that springs from our honesty with ourselves, an honesty that says, "I can't not like this thing, but even I have to admit itkind of sucks." The shame in shameful pleasures feels as if it comes from without and, as important, typically attaches to pleasures about which we have no ambivalence; in other words, our love of the thing is utterly unequivocal, as we'll happily admit to ourselves, but we're painfully aware that the world will never understand that love.
(It's crucial to note that "the world," when it comes to shameful pleasures, consists only of everyone within earshot; the shame in question is entirely context-dependent. The Deadhead who lets slip, in a roomful of Morrissey fans, his devotion to the tie-dyed pariahs predictably calls down a shitstorm of opprobrium, whereas the same admission at, say, the Kombucha booth at a Portland farmer's market would go unremarked on, if not fist-bumped.)
To review, a shameful pleasure is one that's always dogged by the dispiriting awareness that, if you were rash enough to confess it, you'd find yourself leaning into the gale-force winds of mockery. As I've argued elsewhere, an undisguised partiality to Jethro Tull is, for me, the textbook example. Equally likely candidates include the poetry of Rod McKuen, Thomas Kinkade Painter of Light™, historical reenactment, prog rock, Crocs, Renaissance Faires, Carlos Castaneda's "Don Juan" books, steampunk, and studio portraits of you and your family wearing matching outfits. (Don't get too smugly complacent, though; none of these verities is eternal. If the New York art-critical elite can rehabilitate Norman Rockwell, who's to say Thomas Kinkade is beyond hope? Could Rod McKuen be the next Leonard Cohen?)
By contrast, the guilt in truly guilty pleasures is just intellectual honesty, an owning-up to the truth that we're of two minds about a thing, as I am about Thomas Harris novels. Of course, splitting hairs is a ticklish business. The guilt in guilty pleasures may partake of the internalized snobbery Klosterman and Szalai denounce and it may reflect your own awareness of the rotten spots in the apple of your eye. Likewise, you can never give yourself over entirely to the pleasure of a shameful pleasure because you can always hear the laughter behind your back. But, at the same time, your own giggle is the loudest in the crowd because any pilgrim at the gates of Graceland knows, better than anyone who thinks Elvis was just a Macy's float version of Bubba, what's not to love about The King. Contrary to what Klosterman and Szalai argue, censure isn't always imposed from above; sometimes, it comes from the our own critical intellects, not some Voice of Authority. Confused? "Life's too slippery for books," Dr. Lecter reminds us. "Anger appears as lust, lupus presents as hives."