I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. Six years of studying literature at the university level taught me many things, and perhaps the most important thing it taught me is something that seems obvious in retrospect, but that most people have difficulty applying in their daily lives: not everything you like is good, and not everything you dislike is bad. We don’t need to feel guilty or ashamed because we like something we know is not necessarily of the highest quality. Still, most of us, myself included, fall into that trap from time to time.
For literary folks, especially here in Canada, guilty pleasures often come in the form of genre fiction, like romance, science fiction, or fantasy (though, strangely, mysteries tend to be pretty accepted). When our writers produce works that would fall into those categories, our inner snobs emerge to label them “dystopias” or “magic realist” or some other such bullshit. Code words for the literati, for the most part. We don’t want to be mistaken for the kind of people who read books with airbrushed paintings of dragons on the covers, do we? Hell no. Some of my best friends read books with airbrushed dragons on their covers. I’m not sure how this plays out in other jurisdictions—perhaps its a matter of geek community politics; I’m okay with being a book geek, but I don’t want to qualify for Beauty and the Geek—but I think here in Canada it has a lot to do with wanting to be taken seriously. Being taken seriously is a national obsession for us even outside the book world, and as Brian Busby has noted, we’ve been pretty good about deliberately marginalizing pulp and genre publishing in this country, Harlequin being among the few notable exceptions. Why we think this makes us look good is beyond me, but then so many things are.
I’m not falling into that trap anymore. Here it is, for all the world to see: I read books by David Eddings, China Miéville, Neil Gaiman, Ursula K. Le Guin, R. Scott Bakker, Phyllis Gotlieb, Raymond Chandler, Ian Fleming, Bernard Cornwell, Patrick O’Brian, Phillip K. Dick, William Gibson, Alan Furst, Guy Gavriel Kay, H.P. Lovecraft, Douglas Adams, Neal Stephenson, John MacLachlan Gray, Simon Scarrow, Frank Herbert, Arthur C. Clarke, Jack McKinney, Robert E. Howard, Robert A. Heinlein and Harlan Ellison, and I enjoy them, even with the odd airbrushed cover. But, you say, with newspapers now covering comic books (oops, sorry, graphic novels—can’t actually call the damned things by their true name), an admission like this, that includes some pretty famous, respected names, isn’t so big a deal. You’re probably right. Let’s talk TV.
I watch a lot of television, and if you’re keeping track of folks in Canadian publishing via Twitter, you’ll know that so do a lot of “book people”. From what I can tell, the programmes they watch tend to come in two categories. They either watch the new breed of high-budget, critically acclaimed dramas like True Blood, Mad Men and Dexter, or trashy, low-budget reality television like American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance, and Canada’s Next Top Model. I suppose this is progress. A few years ago, before programmes like The Sopranos and The Wire brought television drama to a new level of quality (or, rather, got it more attention—there were a handful of shows before them that came very close to the same quality), I think you’d have been hard-pressed to get a lot of die-hard book people to talk TV around the water cooler. I can’t imagine them being excited to talk about last night’s episode of Fraiser, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, or LA Law.
What I wonder about is why there’s so little discussion of trashy television drama. There are a number of shows on right now (Legend of the Seeker, Spartacus: Blood & Sand, Burn Notice, Leverage, White Collar, Castle, Eureka) that may sometimes have decent budgets, but where the writing and acting aren’t quite up to the level of something like Deadwood. (And then there’s shows like Supernatural, which started out as a monster-of-the-week dramedy, but over the last four and a half years has morphed into one of the smartest, funniest, and best-executed things on TV, though nobody seems to be watching it.) There’s still some folks who don’t watch television at all (like Rebecca Rosenblum, who seems to be one of the few people who can say that without sounding like a hipster snob—which I can assure you she is not), but what really interests me is why there are so few people who watch—or will admit to watching—those trashier dramas. Is there a stigma attached to them? Does watching trashy reality TV seem so much like a guilty pleasure that it’s excusable, while watching, say, Spartacus (like Legend of the Seeker, it’s from Sam Raimi, the man behind Hercules and Xena) might be mistaken for something you would watch for genuine, non-ironic enjoyment?
I think that it’s good people are more open about the television they watch these days, because the medium has come a very long way in the last decade, to the point where I think a lot of the lower-quality dramas are now as good or better than many of the higher-quality dramas from only fifteen or twenty years ago. So to give some love to the trashy dramas, I will admit: I watch Legend of the Seeker (and apparently so does Amy Jones; the leather, it creaks), Burn Notice, Eureka, Leverage, and pretty much every show I’ve mentioned in this post (except the reality TV; for some reason the closest I can come to watching reality television is Mythbusters and Top Gear, which don’t really count).
Step out into the light, Book People. There’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure, no matter how many people deny that The Year of the Flood is science fiction. You don’t need to hide anymore! Now that I’ve opened the floodgates, you can expect posts about television programmes in this blog’s future.
Great post, August. It’s pretty well documented that I love TV (including those trashy dramas, and yes, Legend of the Seeker) and I might be one of those rare people who fall into both categories — I love critically acclaimed HBO shows as much as I love trashy reality TV (I also enjoy genre fiction, although mostly of the mystery/detective variety, which as you point out, seems somehow more acceptable). I don’t know whether people will agree with me about this, but it seems like in our quest to be “taken seriously,” to attach meaning and significance to every last thing we do, that we’ve forgotten that things like reading and especially television should be, well, fun.
August, I actually totally love tv as a medium, and if you want to talk about any sitcom that was on in the 90s, I’m your girl. I do *not* think that those shows were a waste of time at all (NewsRadio! Sports Night! Dharma and Greg…ok, maybe not Dharma and Greg).
I just haven’t happened to own a functioning tv in six or so years, or have sufficient free time to miss it. But to disclose fully, I do watch music videos at the gym all the time.
Rebecca: I’ve never seen Sports Night (to be honest, I’m not really a sitcom guy), but NewsRadio is one of those pre-Sopranos shows that really showed just how good television could be. I re-watch the whole series at least once a year.
I have to confess that legal television (a whole 7 channels) comes into my apartment via a sketchy pair of rabbit ears, but I have, ummmm, a more reliable source for ad-free HD content that lets me keep up (I’m at work during primetime viewing anyway).
Amy: I’m open to just about any genre (except romance; frankly I’d just rather jump straight into ‘erotica’ and skip the soft-focus bits), and recently I’ve been making an effort to get into mysteries. I like to start somewhere near the beginning when I approach an author or genre. I wanted to start with Agatha Christie, but finding her early novels in a format I can afford is very difficult, and I didn’t learn about Wilkie Collins in time to start with him, so I went straight for Raymond Chandler, and when I’m done with him I have Dashiell Hammett lined up. I’ve been looking around for some PD James, but she’s another one whose early books are extremely hard to find within my budget.
NewsRadio was great. I don’t really watch much TV these days, partly to save money (even basic cable is damned expensive, so with rabbit ears the only channel I enjoy now is TVO) but also because there’s very little out there that truly interests me. Honestly, I just find reality shows and shows like LOST to be bloody dull. Perhaps it’s my age. I was all over WKRP in Cincinnati and Barney Miller and St. Elsewhere, which will give you an idea of how old I am. And I loved Charlie’s Angels. So there.
Another thing about age. I find that as I get older, I realize that I may very well have lived more than half my life, and that I’d rather be reading a book than watching some lame-ass TV show. But that’s just me.
Regarding mysteries, I would also recommend the books written by Josephine Tey. Excellent stories. She died relatively young (in 1952), so she has fewer titles than Christie, and thankfully never got into the formula style of mystery writing – each story is very different. A great contemporary mystery author is Fred Vargas. She’s a French historian and archaeologist. I’ve never read any mystery writer quite like her.
Ah, Patricia, those are some of the very best shows of their day, though. St. Elsewhere in particular holds a very special place in my heart, because it’s ground zero for one of the most amazing things in the entire history of television, the multiple universes inside the mind of Tommy Westphall. And it was totally unplanned!
At the end of St. Elsewhere, the entire series was revealed to be taking place in the mind of Tommy Westphall, an autistic child. However thanks to a crossover with Homicide: Life on the Street (probably the best cop show ever on television, after The Wire), the world of St. Elsewhere was revealed to be the same as the world of other TV shows. St. Elsewhere and Homicide became the two axes that link at least 282 television series through characters, background information, company names, and so on. Meaning that 282 shows, including some of the most popular dramas and sitcoms ever on television, all take place inside the mind of Tommy Westphall. It was an accident of a few writers and producers wanting to play with the medium a bit, but it still blows my mind.
You can read more about it, and see how all the shows relate, here: http://home.vicnet.net.au/~kwgow/crossovers.html
And thanks very much for the recommendations! I have to admit being drawn to Fred Vargas’ covers, but I’m often reluctant to pick up a genre author I’ve heard nothing about. Now that I’ve heard, I won’t be reluctant anymore. I will try to start with Josephine Tey, though. Right now I find that period very appealing.