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My Guilty Pleasure

I heard on NPR recently a segment called “My Guilty Pleasure,” which features writers talking “about the books they love but are embarrassed to be seen reading.” I wondered: What is my guilty pleasure? And I came up with only one answer: ANYTHING by (British writer) Margery Sharp.

My all-time favorite of hers is a novel called Cluny Brown, which came out in 1944 with Little, Brown and Company and became a 20th Century Fox Film in 1946. I loved it back in high school, and I love it still. I re-read it at least once a year, I’m sure.

This summer, for the first time, I read a few more Sharp titles: The Nutmeg Tree, The Stone of Chastity (which is actually about a folklorist/professor-type who comes to a small town in order to investigate the origins of a so-called stepping stone in a brook that causes unchaste women to topple into the water and allows virtuous women to bounce lightly across to the other bank–under the eyes of their husbands or husbands-to-be), Britannia Mews (which got pretty dark there for a while and lent me a new respect for Sharp), and Something Light (about a woman who was once an orphan apprenticed to a photographer). All in all, pretty good. But still: not as good as my old standby, Cluny Brown, which is just, I don’t know, delightful. Rompy. A feel-good kind of story.

But just now, as I was Googling Marjery Sharp in order to write this post, I discovered something new. Sharp wrote children’s books. She wrote The Rescuers, and Miss Bianca, and Miss Bianca in the Salt Mines, and Miss Bianca in the Orient, and Miss Bianca in the Antarctic, and Bernard into Battle, and Bernard the Brave, and The Rescuers Down Under.

I remember little orphan Penny. I remember because I was a little orphan, too. And I remember Penny’s teddy bear. The first thing I ever got, upon arrival to America, was a brown teddy bear. And I remember the diamond that the evil Medusa hid in Penny’s teddy. Mine did not have a diamond in it. And although I did not have little British mice friends, I often wished I had.

I think there couldn’t be a better end to this post, a better end to my summer of guilty pleasures, than to discover that my favorite feel-good novelist also wrote my favorite feel-good children’s story, which, as soon as I can, I will read (rather than watch).

So now it’s your turn: What’s your guilty pleasure?

33 thoughts on “My Guilty Pleasure

    1. What?! Graham Greene is totally awesome! He’s a great writer—hold your head proud, Davis!

      I’ve read every Michael Crichton novel (except maybe the last one or two). But I don’t really believe in guilty pleasures. I like what I like, end of story.

        1. Yeah, exactly. Just like what you like, and don’t like what you don’t like. I don’t see what’s complicated about it.

          I read The Da Vinci Code last Christmas. The prose is execrable, its morality feeble-minded. But it’s also great fun, and fairly suspenseful—”a real page-turner.” I had a ball reading it.

          It was so much better than anything by Cormac McCarthy!!!!!!!!!!!! (is what I would say if I wanted to be provocative, which I don’t want to be, so I won’t say it)


              Adam Jameson: You have broken the world record for twelve exclamation points behind Cormac McCarthy’s name (the previous record was ten, held by you, attained three weeks ago).

              Please stop Adam. Would you please stop Adam.

              Stop Adam…

              Would you…

              Daisy, daisy, give me your answer…

    1. I want to see the movie! Except I read there’s something about a window and a fall and a pregnancy at the end? That doesn’t happen in the book!

      1. I haven’t read the novel, so I don’t know if it’s different. As for what happens in the movie…people should watch it and find out! It’s a real gem. Not Lubitsch’s best, but the man never made a bad film (not that I’ve seen).

        The only thing wrong with Cluny Brown is that it was Lubitsch’s last movie.

  1. Graham Greene is awesome, I agree, but the work comes across as equal parts profound and puerile.

    There’s a popular quality to his writing which moves the work–the best ones anyway–with such furious momentum that I can’t help but at times wonder where the intensity draws from: well-intentioned but problematic depictions of the non-British.

    He’s not Rudyard Kipling, of course, but there is something so smug about the facility of his portrayals and something so easy to fall into as the reader that the reader loses a sense of the critique. “British we are, British we stay,” etc, overwhelms the other qualities and I think this derives from the thriller aspects–from the aspects his texts share with someone like Ian Fleming, etc.

    Anyway, I didn’t mean my answer to come across as too cool for school. I really do have a sense of shame mixed with pleasure for Greene.

    1. Also, he’s much better than Ian Fleming (I’d argue). Fleming’s a real thug—and he’s interesting precisely because of that thuggishness—but you really have to excuse a lot in his writing.

      Greene has the faults you note, and he can be smug and pretentious, but he’s also a skilled writer, and a serious one, and much more intelligent than Fleming.

      (But Len Deighton’s the very clever one.)

    2. i don’t know…. take Quiet Amer, which is my favorite of his: you can wonder these things, but you can also easily support an opposing position…… the novels are super complex… and for me, plot falls away as a necessary contrivance…. it has you on first read but much less so on successive ones….

  2. Adam: what’s most interesting to me about your Da Vinci Code bit is wondering what you might say to those who offer the same argument for Inception.

    Will you excuse in prose what cannot pass in film?

    1. The Da Vinci Code is schlock, but it’s fun schlock. Dan Brown actually knows something about the artworks he’s writing about, and making up a lot of nonsense about them. It’s imaginative and cheesy and it knows it.

      Inception is grim and joyless. Nolan takes himself so seriously! And he has very little to be proud about—stealing a few watered-down ideas from Philip K. Dick? Really?

      The Da Vinci Code is “badly written,” but that doesn’t get in the way of the text’s pleasure, really. You skim the sentences, carried along by the suspense, and by the puzzles (which are clever enough). It’s goofy dumb fun, and nothing more.

      Inception provides no equivalent pleasure (for me). It’s just dull and boring, and yet it things it’s great cinema, and profound. (Thus, it’s pretentious.)

      So I’ll excuse “badness” if there’s pleasure to be had elsewhere. I found little to enjoy in Inception.

      …OK, people can start flaming me now.

  3. Well, this is interesting, since Dick is rich in ideas but I find much of his prose unbearable. (I know, I know–and I admit to not having read much of it, and not in many years). I do recall tossing _The Man in the High Castle_ down because I simply could not get through it.

    Forgetting your very interesting 17-point critique of _Inception_, I suppose I found Da Vinci to be a thousand-times less pleasurable for me.

    Yet, I am a snob in nothing except literature. I’ll watch junky TV and listen to ridiculous music, but I rarely ever read a “junk” novel. Perhaps while you are a voracious film watcher you have some of this same feeling–when applied to film–that inflects your view of Inception in the way that my read of the Da Vinci code is inflected.

    Put another way, I could go on and on about why Da Vinci is just plain horrible–in more than 17 points–whereas while I agree with your critique of Inception, I also felt this all in reverse.

    Put another another way, how much of your critique–or mine for that matter–is conditioned by our stance in regards to the various cultural artifacts under discussion? We are playing a sort of game a la Pierre Bourdieu, and our habitus, to borrow his term, conditions our taste–and thus perhaps motivates our critiques.

    This is not to suggest that “taste” is merely the interior quality expressed and justified by argument, but that inner feeling, and thus, articulated argument, emerge from a mass of social and economic factors that position us within a certain plane of consumer activity.

    Put very simply-too simply–you’ve watched a shitload of films. You are someone who knows about film, and given your training and background and upbringing, etc, your feelings about Inception (contrasted with what seems to be a sort-of rough pass for work I find execrable, Da Vinci) could not be separated from the conditions that led you to become someone who has watched all of these films and who comes to Inception with a particular “taste” in film.

    This falls apart because of course you are also extremely well read, but….too tired to finish this in an articulate manner.

    This interests me because I am in the early stages of a project about “bad” books, and very attuned to where taste intersects with the factors that condition taste.

    off to sleep.

    1. Hey, Davis,

      re: Dick, I wouldn’t start with The Man in the High Castle. Many like it, and I think it’s great in its own way, but honestly it isn’t one of my favorites. (I started and stopped it many times myself before I finally finished it.) If you’re looking to read some of his middle-period stuff (which basically starts with High Castle), I’d recommend moving a few years later and reading either The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch or The Game Players of Triton. The prose there isn’t the shiniest, but they’re silly and idea-laden enough to hold one’s interest. I’d argue. (But I prefer my science fiction with aliens and spaceships and laser guns.)

      Me, I like Dick’s prose fine. I don’t think he was ever bad. But the early and middle stuff was pretty quickly written (63 finished pages a day!), so you’re not going to find labored-over sentences.

      But if Dick’s prose bothers you, skip to the later stuff—the books post-1972, AKA the novels he didn’t write in three weeks. They’re the ones his reputation ultimately rests on—the 1960s stuff is brilliant in its own way, but the 1970s stuff is absolute genius. Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said makes an excellent starting point—the prose is pretty good. (The coda is rather moving.) A Scanner Darkly is also a good one to start with, although it’s less sci-fi.

      After that, VALIS remains his utter masterpiece; I’d go so far as to argue that it’s one of the greatest books in the English language (yes). The only problem with skipping right to that one is that it helps if you’ve read a few others first, because it’s essentially a rewriting of his entire career—all of his loopy sci-fi alien invasion novels—as autobiography. By the time he’s finished, there’s no distinction left between science-fiction, religion, and drug use—and what we commonly refer to as reality seems very remote and fragile. I know of no other book that’s anything like it; it’s still one of the farthest-out-there things I’ve ever read.

      …I’m actually probably less tolerant of “bad literature” than I am of bad movies. I’ve long noted this with some curiosity, and think it comes down to movie watching as being more passive an activity, and taking less time than reading just about any novel. I’ll watch just about anything, but I’m much more discriminating when it comes to lit. But bad prose isn’t enough to turn me off; I like other aspects of fiction too much to draw the line there. So I don’t consider myself a lit snob in the usual sense—I’ll read work from any genre, for instance, including mainstream realism and romance novels, etc.—but I do have to find something interesting in it. (This begs the question: what do I find interesting? I reserve the right here to be evasive. And, truly, it is somewhat open-ended.)

      I won’t disagree that The Da Vinci Code is in many ways horrible. I think the question is more whether one can find pleasure in it. I liked Dan Brown’s goofy approach to art history—all the conspiracy stuff he invented. Maybe knowing art history pretty well made me smile at the perversity of it all. It was just so silly! Like when he claimed that the Mona Lisa was called that because it united the masculine and the feminine (I forget his precise reasoning)—well, anyone who knows anything about art knows the painting wasn’t called that until after Leonardo’s death. Etc.—Dan Brown made me chuckle.

      I’ve tried to be very upfront in my criticisms of Inception that I’m very much responding to the response others have had to it as well. For a time I was annoyed that so many people were spending so much time debating the “meaning” of the movie—is it all a dream, etc.?—and ignoring the fact that Nolan is a remarkably anemic filmmaker. (He has, like, zero technique, and he doesn’t do well the few things he does have. This is just basic filmmaking 101.) And so I was responding as much to the conversation surrounding the film as I was to the film. If no one was talking about it, I doubt I’d have felt like criticizing it (except for in my own head). I think criticism always operates this way; one is always responding to the culture, or some aspect of the culture, as well as to the object in question. Indeed, I don’t see how it can be otherwise.

      Similarly, I imagine I feel inclined to praise The Da Vinci Code at Big Other because I imagine most people reading here believe it worthless. I think there’s value to be found in it. But if this were the Dan Brown Fanclub, I would probably attack it. What can I say? I’m a contrarian, always have been.

      (I have suggested to John Madera several times that we rechristen Big Other “The Dan Brown Fanclub.”)

      Put another another way, how much of your critique–or mine for that matter–is conditioned by our stance in regards to the various cultural artifacts under discussion?

      I don’t quite follow this part. What do you mean by stance here?

      Put very simply-too simply–you’ve watched a shitload of films. You are someone who knows about film, and given your training and background and upbringing, etc, your feelings about Inception (contrasted with what seems to be a sort-of rough pass for work I find execrable, Da Vinci) could not be separated from the conditions that led you to become someone who has watched all of these films and who comes to Inception with a particular “taste” in film.

      Well, I do think this is always necessarily true. I suppose I find it somewhat annoying that many of the people I see praising Inception are tripping over themselves to rank it in the Dark Knight/Shawshank Redemption/Usual Suspects pantheon. The thought that those films would constitute anyone’s “Best Ever” list depresses me. Inception is hardly a highlight on my 2010 viewing schedule. I saw The Dark Knight and thought it was…OK? The Heath Ledger scenes were pretty good. But that same year I also saw Jacques Rivette’s Ne touchez pas la hache (The Duches of Langeais), and Bela Tarr’s The Man from London, and they’re both simply exquisite films. I quickly forgot that I’d seen The Dark Knight. (And what was it, like, 189 minutes long? Interminable!)

      Although…to each their own. Snobbery’s a slippery slope—there’s always someone out there who’s better read and better viewed—so I’d rather just put forward the reasons why I like or don’t like something, and let others pick and choose their favorites. And, in the spirit of this thread, I think people should stand up behind their favorites, and not feel bad about them. If people love Inception, I don’t want to stop them, not really. (No, not really.) Who knows why they love it? And it’s good to love a film. I just want to contribute to the conversation about it, and point out why I think it’s rubbish. I did so particularly emphatically because, at the time, I didn’t see many people criticizing it. But now it seems as though some backlash is setting in, and the conversation is becoming a bit more balanced, and I’d rather talk about other things—like movies I genuinely like. Like Tom Carvel’s ice cream cake commercials.

      This interests me because I am in the early stages of a project about “bad” books, and very attuned to where taste intersects with the factors that condition taste.

      It all hinges on what one considers bad. Dan Brown is good at two things: making up goofy conspiracy theories about artworks, and generating suspense (which he does in an entirely conventional and formulaic fashion, but, hey, it works). Everything else he seems lousy at. If a reader happens to like those two things, and not mind his lousiness—in other words, if they’re like me—then they’ll probably enjoy The Da Vinci Code. Otherwise…

      I rarely think a book all good or all bad. Take the Harry Potter novels. Rowling’s prose is mediocre at best, and often weak (although never Dan Brown weak). As someone somewhere snidely put it, she never met an adverb she didn’t like. But I didn’t read all seven Harry Potter novels for the prose. I read them for the three things Rowling is good at:
      1. Generating suspense (I like suspense! I was raised on mystery novels);
      2. Writing sharply-defined characters of type, and knowing when to bring them back “onstage,” and when to exit them;
      3. Creating some of the most intricately Byzantine plotting I’ve seen outside of Larry Hama’s G.I. Joe comics. I mean, seriously, a diagram of the plot of those seven books…it boggles the mind. And yet, as far as I can tell, every miniscule last detail is firmly in place. I find that impressive (and wish I could do it).

      Well, hope this clarifies my eccentric reasoning. For me, it all comes down to finding something to like. I simply didn’t find much to like in Inception, whereas there were a few things I thought well-done in Da Vinci.

      That said, I was happy to experience both of them, because I’m not always watching/reading to like or not like things. I’m often just interested in seeing what’s going on, what people are enjoying. For instance, I never watch television (I simply loathe it, and on principle), but the other day a rather beautiful woman got me to watch the first two episodes of the British version of The Office (a show I’d never seen before—nor its US counterpart). And I was happy to do so, and not just because she is exceptionally beautiful; I enjoyed seeing what it was all about, why people like(d) it, etc. I don’t want to watch the remaining episodes, and I still have very little desire to see any of the US version, but I spring forward into the future equipped with some little knowledge of who Ricky Gervais is, and I’m glad for it.


  4. Adam;

    Thanks for the thoughtful response. This is just to say I have not time to respond in kind just now, nor for the coming days. Semester just started and I take 18 student on a hot-air balloon ride today.

    Anyway, I won’t nit-pick here. I generally agree with you on these points, although the part you remain elusive about–is perhaps the part I’d like to pick your brain on more.

    I don’t know if you’ve read Bordieu and I do not agree with all of his works, but his insights into how we enter and respond to certain fields of art provides a meta-critique of these sorts of critical positions that I think we rarely discuss. Just as you were displeased to find people not talking about the film making aspects of Nolan’s work, Bourdieu might find that we rarely discuss the argument-making aspects of our own cultural arguments.

    Sorry to not spell this out more now. Must get filled with hot air.


    1. re: the part I was evasive on, I’ll quote Karlheinz Stockhausen: “I demand one of two things of a composer: invention, or that he astonish me.”

      …Except I also like it when things are well done (in a conventional sense—when they’re economical, formally unified, etc.)—not as much as invention or being astonishing, but I still like it. And, being a writer myself, I like seeing how those things are done, so that I might learn how to do them.

      Dick falls more on the invention/astonishment side. Brown and Rowling fall more on the well done side (certain aspects of their work). Nolan doesn’t hit any of the three.

      I know a bit about Bordieu—I assume you’re referring mainly to Distinction? I find a lot of his conclusions there reasonable (but it’s been a while since I’ve looked at the text closely). I was born working class, and have become only poorer since then, and I certainly think that it’s true that the aristocracy uses “taste” to define and ensure its privilege. See the comment below about Billy Collins. Once you’re poet laureate, and of the people, you’re no longer good enough for some academic lit journals. (In my experience, academic poets make the best snobs—which is part of why so few people ever read them, and why the poets are actually pleased about that.)

      And yet, at the same time, there is still such a thing as good taste—or, better put, good tastes. I believe in admiring things as widely as possible, and in learning to appreciate what’s good in absolutely everything, but some things simply resist it. We are all God’s precious snowflakes, but, uh, some snow isn’t good for skiing on, and some snow isn’t good for making snowballs—or something like that.

      I mean, McDonald’s is total shit, right? Even if someone enjoys it, they’re enjoying it as shit (which is their prerogative). And there are film equivalents of McDonald’s. Inception is one of them.

      Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

      (Actually, I’m being unfair to McDonald’s. I hear they have salads these days.)

      Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

      No, more seriously, the problem is that appreciating an artwork is, as Bordieu says, a social issue. One often likes things because they’re supposed to like them. If you’re at all well off, you’re expected to have read some Shakespeare, or to at least agree that he’s marvelous. You’d be looked at funny if you said, “I’ve never read Hamlet.”

      But the problem here in the States is that we have something even more powerful than the aristocracy: we have the Culture Industry. Which is run by the aristocracy, but which is beyond even their control. (It’s out of control, literally!) As Warhol noted, rich or poor, everyone drinks Coke, and it’s the same Coke. (Well, except for the high fructose corn syrup thing—but everyone in the US, rich and poor, drinks that HFCS Coke.)

      And that culture Industry dictates and what ye shall like, and not like. And by ye, I mean everybody, rich and poor alike. And the Culture Industry hath dictated that ye shall like Inception, regardless of which class you hail from. See this comment here for more along these lines:

      But what’s so dispiriting about the Culture Industry is that it doesn’t really care what you think about its products—it just wants you to think about them. So go ahead and dislike Inception all you want: as long as you’re still thinking about it, and talking about, and paying to see it twice, the C.I. has won. Fill your days with its nonsense and little else. It’s a tar baby. Which is why the best response is often to just talk about the things one likes; I’d rather encourage people to watch movies by Agnès Varda, for instance. Or to make their own movies, for that matter.

      …Good luck with the semester, Davis! I look forward to hearing more about your “taste test” project…

  5. I’m not sure if I would call this a “guilty pleasure,” but I can’t help myself from liking Billy Collins’ poem “Litany” — or at least the last line of “Litany.”


    This is probably because of my allegiance to lists, and while this poem is certainly not close to my favorite list poems (like Breton’s “Freedom of Love” or Christopher Smart’s ode to his cat Geoffrey), I like how the simple word “somehow” really makes the poem.

    So…guilt? Not really…and it’s not a huge pleasure of mine. But, at the same time, I’ve got some poems coming out in a journal that explicitly states in its guidelines:

    “If Billy Collins has been ‘an inspiration’ to you, do not send us your poetry. Not that there is something necessarily wrong with your poetry, but there is, semi-factually, something wrong with Billy Collins.”

      1. Yeah, guidelines like that are rubbish. I’ll be inspired by whomever I want to be inspired by, and thank you.

        I’ve made my share of snide remarks about Billy Collins, but Litany’s a wonderful poem.

        Still, he should never have reformed the Pumpkins. Not without Iha and D’arcy.

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