Welcome to Reading for Pleasure, a project that explores the intricacies and complexities of escapist, pleasurable reading. Using two popular genres that cater to and create readerly pleasure—the romance and the detective novel—this project makes visible and explicit the ways that the popular novel and its readers make meaning together. This project moves beyond the realm of guilty pleasures and indulgence to argue that pleasure offers a unique and productive way to think about the ways that popular narratives work as narratives and the reasons we love to read them.
Reading is a learned set of strategies that develop and adapt over time. Reading for pleasure requires a different set of skills and practices, however: a set of skills, strategies, and negotiations that I make performative here. I want to show the kind of reading and thinking that these novels require.
The conversations about popular fiction align with one of two lines of thought: the first involves the dismissal of these traditions as pure escapism, a comfort food without lasting nutritional value. The second is the voracious defense of genre fiction—it's not escapism, it engages with and articulates popular ideas of sexuality, gender, race, violence, and power, it's important. I take a third posture. I argue that these genres are escapism—they're a fun and delightful reprieve, a twisty and adrenaline-soaked thrill ride—but that the pleasure, relief, and fantasies they inspire within us doesn't negate the important work they do, whether they articulate women's desire or express public fears and anxieties.
Pleasurable reading offers readers opportunities to think about what they find appealing (and why), to consider the way pleasure changes, enhances, or complicates the way they interact with these narratives. It gives us the chance to ask questions like,
❝What makes reading pleasurable?
How can we track and analyze pleasure?
How does pleasure change the way we read?❞
How to Use the Site
I've annotated five pages from five novels—two romance, three detective—to explore the questions articulated above. I offer to you a physical manifestation and demonstration of the way that I read for pleasure. I use my own reading experience to try to get at "the reading experience," making myself a research subject of sorts, whose habits and thoughts and inklings I observed with a keen eye. I observe the things I love, the things I hate, the devices and tropes and characterizations I've come to intimately know, the moments when I can sense a narrative doing its work on me. The annotations are both reading and reactions. The readings help situate a text in larger conversations about narrative, gender, and genre, while the reactions offer a more subjective argument about narrative, gender, and genre. This blends formal analysis of a text and cultural readings with the very complex ways that readers respond to texts as they read them.
Narrative theorists and scholars aim to expose the power of storytelling, to expose narrative as pervasive, peculiar, and in process, to demonstrate how stories work. This project is inspired by that tradition and aims to test the hypotheses put forth by cultural critics who like to discuss the influence and affect of this kind of reading without showing us how this reading works. This project fills that gap.
Everything is clickable. Clicking on the handwritten notes in the margins gives way to essays and thoughts of varying lengths, some of which explore the mechanics of the narrative while others analyze the divergence of pleasure and politics in certain scenes.
Furthermore, each annotation is color-coded to allow a more purposeful exploration. For example, if you are interested specifically in annotations that explore gender in detective novels, search out annotations marked by yellow. Many annotations explore more than one idea, as pleasure, convention, gender and genre intersect, mutually construct, subvert, and challenge each other throughout the process of reading genre fiction. Clicking on the color(s) will take you to a legend that defines the code and the terms. The full version exists only here—return to it anytime, but there is an abbreviated version on every book's page.
Pleasure is the bubbly feeling of excitement, triumph, or catharsis—it is the moment when you have to put down the book and just smile to yourself for a second. It is the thing you keep coming back to though you may not be able to explain why.
Roland Barthes defines pleasure in opposition to jouissance. The text of pleasure is a comfort and, according to him, a confirmation of the culture from which it comes. The text of jouissance is blissful and transgressive and often discomforting. Others argue that pleasure is necessarily transgressive because it defines convention and conformity, because it privileges enjoyment rather than arbitrary, imposed qualifications of literary merit. Regardless of whether pleasure conforms or transgresses (I think it does both), it is marked by those feelings of satisfaction, gratification, fantasy, and entertainment.
I take the idea of convention from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who wrote about the conventions of the Gothic novel. In doing so, her goal was to make these conventions so ubiquitous that readers might scribble "Gothic" in the margins of their texts when they came upon an abandoned, haunted manor; an evil monk or bleeding nun; a frightened, overexcited heroine, because they were the techniques of the Gothic narrative, the devices that aptly conveyed certain moods, characters, or feelings within the reader. These were all Gothic tropes that referred to each other and carried a significant meaning within that genre.
Convention might also be defined as the way things are usually done—the plots and characters that drive and populate these genres because they are effective and well-known. They are recurring, referential themes and motifs.
Gender encompasses the lived, material realities of the way one presents and articulates their bodies in a world that privileges certain presentations. I am influenced by Robyn Warhol, who examines narrative and narrative theory with an awareness of the "gendered body that writes or reads every text." Gender affects the way stories are told and read. Gender constructs the telling and reception of a narrative, and narratives represent gender, gender-related oppression, and the means of dismantling that oppression.
Gender is especially relevant to any consideration of the intersections between the romance and detective novel; many would argue that the detective novel is the romance for men. Instead of a battle of wits between two well-matched, beautiful and brilliant people who fall in love at the end of the romance plot, the detective novel is about a confrontation with evil, often ending with a showdown between two well-matched, brilliant people who vow to destroy each other. Gender is a crucial lens through which to consider the pleasures and readerships of these two genres.
Genre is a critical and analytical term that describes a text's relation to a larger body of work with similar themes, questions, and styles. It means kind or class. It's a term that groups—the language of genre gives us the opportunity to discuss texts in relationship to each other. It is also the means by which readerships are often created and sustained—readers are more willing to take a chance on an unknown author or book if they are assuaged by the promise and classification of genre.
There are, of course, differences within genres, with dynamic forms and functions that change both over time and according to the rules of various subgenres. Readers take their genre classification very seriously—it is both disconcerting and disruptive to begin what you think will be a romance only to have it end in tragedy.