What’s the difference between these two books? Is one a “guilty pleasure” and the other “highbrow literature”? And if so, why? The New York Times asks a philosopher whether these labels hold up to scrutiny.
Seemingly more plausible is the idea that serious fiction is not enjoyable because it is difficult, requiring intellectual effort to untangle complexities of plot and syntax, to appreciate obscure allusions, or understand deep philosophical themes. Literature of previous centuries is likely to pose problems simply because of unfamiliar modes of expression or cultural contexts; and more recent literary fiction—beginning with the great modernists like Proust, Eliot and Joyce—often seems deliberately constructed to be hard for readers.
But why should we think that what is hard to read is not enjoyable? Here there is a striking difference between the way we regard mental and physical activities. Running marathons, climbing mountains and competing at high levels in tennis or basketball are very difficult things to do, but people get immense enjoyment from them. Why should the intellectual work of reading “The Sound and the Fury” or “Pale Fire” be any less enjoyable? If I take pleasure only in the “light fiction” of mysteries, thrillers or romances, I am like someone who enjoys no physical activities more challenging than walking around the block or sitting in a rocking chair. Vigorous intellectual activity is itself a primary source of pleasure—and pleasure of greater intensity and satisfaction than that available from what is merely “easy reading.”