From The New York Times:
As we move into the summer season of beach and hammock reading, many of us reach for books that we describe as “guilty pleasures.” This notion has become an important category in our thinking about literature. Two prominent examples are NPR’s regular feature “My Guilty Pleasure” and Arthur Krystal’s recent New Yorker essay, “Easy Writers: Guilty pleasures without guilt.”
Reading Krystal’s subtle and savvy piece, it struck me that our talk of guilty pleasures involves two controversial assumptions: that some books (and perhaps some genres) are objectively inferior to others and that “better” books are generally not very enjoyable. Combined, the two assumptions lead to a view under which, to pick up Krystal’s metaphor, we think of books the way we often think of foods: there those that are “good for you” and those that merely “taste good.” Here I want to reflect on the viability of these two assumptions. Are some books objectively better than others, or are literary preferences ultimately just matters of subjective taste? In our democratic society, many take a relativist position: you can’t argue about taste, because there are no standards that allow us to establish higher quality as an objective fact. If I think that Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” is a magnificent probing of the nature of time and subjectivity and you think it is overwritten self-indulgent obscurantism, we both have a right to our opinions. So doesn’t it follow that each opinion is only relatively right (right for me, right for you)?