Don’t be ashamed, you readers of “Twilight,” you fans of Michael Bay, you watchers of “The Big Bang Theory.” You’re part of a great American tradition.
“There is this idea that American things can be fascinating without being refined,” says Hugh McIntosh, author of the new book “Guilty Pleasures: Popular Novels and American Audiences in the Long Nineteenth Century.” “You can be really important without being really well done.”
That idea started to emerge long before JWoww and Snooki hit the Jersey shore. Beginning in the mid-19th century, the mass production of books in America made the onetime luxury item available to, well, the masses. That coincided with rising literacy rates, and the best-seller was born — except most American best-sellers weren’t considered literature.
“There was definitely a classist, elitist idea that anything ‘the people’ were reading was inferior to what they were reading at Harvard,” McIntosh says. “At the time, literary study was still focused on the classics,” such as “Paradise Lost,” “The Odyssey” and anything Shakespeare.
The thinking was: If the majority of people are reading and enjoying a novel, it must not be worth studying.
“Guilty Pleasures,” which McIntosh will discuss at Politics and Prose on Sunday, looks at the commentary and criticism that surrounded popular American novels of the mid-19th century. The conversation around works like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ” — now considered landmarks, but then viewed as the kind of guilty pleasures McIntosh writes about — reflected a uniquely American belief that something doesn’t have to be of the highest quality to have value.
“This idea kept coming up again and again that an American book didn’t have to be great to have an important impact,” McIntosh says.
The dismissive attitude of popular culture is less prevalent today, but it still lingers.
“Reality TV is certainly on the list of guilty pleasures for a lot of people these days, but at the same time, no one’s really hiding the fact that they watch the Kardashians,” McIntosh says.
Some of the most popular TV shows or movies today may not be considered high art, but what we consume and how we talk about it provide clues to our culture at large.
“I think in 50 years, if you go back and look at a Reddit chat room about the Kardashians, you’ll be able to find some really interesting conversations,” McIntosh says. “And I hope people read all those Reddit chat rooms and write books about what they find.”
Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW; Sun., 3 p.m., free.