Above all, you’re terrified that no one will see you. So, when I saw my memoir on a list of recommended books for the summer, I felt gratitude and relief. It wasn’t until a day later that it fully registered that they had labeled my work a “guilty pleasure.”
My book, “Choose Your Own Disaster,” is about the mistakes of my early 20s — eating disorders, heartbreak, abusive relationships and self-doubt. It’s funny — I hope — and I write about sex, but there’s nothing in there that anyone should feel guilty about.
The phrase “guilty pleasure” has become disproportionally attached to women’s works in a way that serves to diminish them. Young adult novels, such as “Anna and the French Kiss” and “The Selection” series, are frequently listed as guilty pleasures; “Outlander” books usually make the lists, as does “Bridget Jones’s Diary.” They are all stories marketed primarily toward women, about women; calling something a guilty pleasure is less often a meaningful descriptor than a knee-jerk apology for daring to discuss something that appeals to women.
We don’t use “guilty pleasure” in reference to the thing itself but in regard to the other people who enjoy it. Note, for example, that almost no one would describe watching football as a guilty pleasure, no matter how many concussions or spousal abuse cases emerge from the NFL. By contrast, a romance novel hurts no one and is probably written by someone trying to create something people will enjoy in their spare time.
So, what does it mean when we call something a “guilty pleasure?” There’s a faux aura of empowerment around that phrase. It’s a way to talk about a something that might not have been talked about at all, to be able to admit we enjoy it, even if that enjoyment comes with ironic quotation marks. But it’s “empowering” only in the same sense that the phrase “not like other girls” is empowering: It’s a way to elevate oneself above mockery or the negative associations people have toward women. Ahhhhh, I know you probably think girls who watch “Vanderpump Rules” are stupid and shallow, but I’m not! It does nothing to dispel the notion that the show or book is associated with stupid or shallow people and simply sets you apart from them.
Author Jennifer Weiner has written extensively about the ways her novels have been denigrated as “chick lit,” denied the kind of meaningful reviews or literary consideration afforded to her male peers. In her essay collection, “Hungry Heart,” she wrote: “Want to make the world holler? Be female . . . then stand up and say, ‘This thing that I created, this thing I made as a woman, for other women, is worth something.’”
I say “essay collection,” not memoir, to describe “Hungry Heart” because, as Weiner revealed to Vogue, “I’ve been told, ‘Don’t call it a memoir.’ I think there’s a certain dismissive tone that people can take when they’re talking about memoirs by women. When men tell a certain kind of story, everybody’s like, ‘Look how brave he’s being.’ When women talk about sex or miscarriage, it’s like, ‘Oh, exhibitionist! TMI over there.’ ”
So it was strange, but not altogether unexpected, to see “guilty pleasure” used to describe my own memoir. I can’t remember ever seeing funny, first-person stories by David Sedaris or Nick Hornby referred to as such. The same applies to the phrase “beach read,” which also seems coincidentally to fall mainly on books by women. (When you Google “beach read,” “The Secret History” — a sweeping novel about a group of classics students at an elite East Coast university by Pulitzer Prize winner Donna Tartt — is one of the first suggestions.) Calling something a “beach read” is backhanded praise, a sickly sweet smile from a teenage mean girl; your book is worth reading — if you’re half-distracted by the sound of waves and a game of beach volleyball a few chairs down. It’s best paired with a fruity cocktail and sunglasses and not with the accoutrements of the serious literary establishment (presumably whiskey and an unfiltered cigarette).
I don’t fault the website for using “guilty pleasure” to describe my book: It is operating in a context where those two words act as synonyms for “funny” and “enjoyable.” I also don’t fault my publisher for choosing a pink cover for my book. The subgenre of women’s memoirs is well-established: The market is saturated with candy-colored covers and self-deprecating, sentence-length titles that sound like Nancy Meyers movies — “I’m Definitely Not Pulling This Hat Off, Am I?” or “A Boy Dumped Me Via Skywriting and other Dating Misadventures” or “Ice Cream Has Calcium!” Books aspiring to be “must-read beach reads” feature blue water and the long limbs of half-obscured bodies of upper-middle-class white women. The publishing industry stays afloat by slotting things into categories that it understands to be already profitable. Meanwhile, cultural stigma has become so pervasive that the un-literariness of books by women and marketed toward women is a foregone conclusion.
That idea, that words such as “feminine” or “popular” are antithetical to literary greatness, was at the forefront of the famous feud in 2001 between author Jonathan Franzen and Oprah Winfrey, when the former balked at his novel “The Corrections” being chosen for Oprah’s Book Club.
In an interview with NPR, Franzen said, “I had some hope of actually reaching a male audience, and I’ve heard more than one reader in signing lines now in book stores that said, ‘If I hadn’t heard you, I would have been put off by the fact that it is an Oprah pick. I figure those books are for women and I would never touch it.’ Those are male readers speaking. So, I’m a little confused about the whole thing now.”
Never mind that a book being selected by Oprah is a godsend for a writer in terms of achieving sales and a larger audience. Although Franzen later apologized for his comments and appeared on Oprah’s show, it was clear that in his mind, being associated with women — and, thus, frivolity — took away from the book’s literary merit and made it less appealing to a male audience. An Oprah sticker was akin to the book having a pink cover.
For the record, I love my book’s pink cover. I think it helps to communicate exactly what I wanted: that this is a story about a girl reckoning with what it means to become a woman. I just wish other people didn’t see that as a bad thing.