Maybe I’m just a pedantic stickler — hey now, you don’t all have to pipe up in a heartfelt chorus of ‘fuck yes you are’ — but when people try to redefine a word or phrase to let themselves off the hook for something, it bugs me. It really does. Maybe it’s because I have a degree in ‘English Literature and Creative Writing’. (For the low, low price of fifty thousand pounds in student loans, you could have this lucrative-opportunity-flypaper too! *jazz hands* Be careful you don’t trip over sprinting to your local university’s enrollment office! Please! Form an orderly line!) Now, I know most people wouldn’t trot out an undergraduate degree, let alone in the dreaded… humanities, as a justification for anything at all. I must admit, I see the self-aware wisdom in that reluctance. But bear with me for a second here. Because I want to tell you that getting that diploma was kinda like going to a seminary for three years. Where instead of worshipping some absentee-dad in the sky, you learn to worship meaning-laden squiggles on a page or screen. And one of the tenets of that reverence concerns the permissible and impermissible ways in which one may abuse the words themselves. Maybe you previously looked at that line in the sand askance. Well, no longer. You’ll gain a quaint sort of squeamishness when it comes to any flagrant disregard for it.
With all this in mind, let me start by saying that a ‘guilty pleasure’ ought to be essentially innocuous. Here are some examples which fit the bill:
- Waking up in the middle of the night and blearily traipsing over to the kitchen to snarf down chocolate whilst half-naked, half-asleep and bathed in that harsh refrigerator light. (I can cop to this one. Hard.)
- Rewatching Friends on Netflix for the 78th time. You now not only know it word-for-word — such that you could nearly stage a one-man table reading of any given episode’s script from memory — but you also know the notable mannerisms each actor performs in each scene. (My girlfriend has to raise her hand for this one.)
- Begrudgingly listening to pop songs you don’t even like, because they’re so precisely and expertly engineered to be earworms that you just can’t help but give into the craving to hear them again. (Unless a species-wide firmware patch is someday applied, fixing this exploitable bug in human psychology, I think everyone is unfortunately stuck with this one…)
You’ll notice that in these cases, and all other applicable ones, ‘guilty pleasure’ is really somewhat of an exaggeration. You don’t really need to feel bad about doing these things. They’re not ideal, perhaps. And you may wish that you made smarter or healthier or more productive choices in their place. But they’re still not anything which reflects poorly on you as a person.
So, how about when people, as you’ll notice they often do, argue that making a habit of gleefully mocking ‘bad writing’ and the writers who produce it is also merely a ‘guilty pleasure’? Yep, you guessed it. That’s just a self-serving misnomer. Because it actually is something one should feel guilty about. And using that phrase to semi-ironically, faux-abashedly acknowledge it as shitty behaviour doesn’t change anything, doesn’t somehow render it harmless fun. Words cannot be used as a magical talisman, waved about to exculpate oneself from any responsibility or blame.
I started thinking about this when I got a glimpse of how many subreddits there are dedicated to ridiculing, for one reason or another, what they consider to be ‘bad writing’. And I’m sure that other sites with this purpose undoubtedly exist elsewhere on the internet too. (Moreover, various ‘awards’ even exist, given to whatever is deemed to be the year’s worst offender in a particular category. Which one can’t help but feel says so much more about those doing it than those being shamed by it. For they have the schoolyard-bully’s love of inflicting elaborate, ritualised humiliation.)
If you would like to visualize what goes on in these online communities, I’ll paint you a picture. Imagine thousands of people sat in a very large auditorium together. They’re all gawking at a highlighted section of a single torn-out page from a book they almost certainly have not read. Without knowing what irony or subtext might lurk in that section or how it ties in to the work as a whole, they’re laughing at how embarrassingly bad they consider it to be. And taking it in turns to shout out ruthlessly scathing criticisms of it, each person trying to be crueler and funnier then the last, to amuse the others. Sometimes they’re patted on the back by them for how well they do at this, and even take pride in the specific (and publicly displayed) number of these attaboys they receive.
The words bizarre and grotesque spring to mind…
However, that’s the real life equivalent we’re talking about. And I guess it is quite unfair of me to bring that up. Because this all actually just takes place on a website. Where everyone is hidden behind a pseudonym. Naturally, this makes things very different and soooo much more innocent.
Because… uh, reasons. One supposes.
Personally, I think that the venue/medium makes no real difference. And, more importantly, that learning to enjoy the habit of being recreationally cruel to others will inculcate that cruelty inside oneself. If you think that antibiotic-resistant infections are hard to get rid of, just wait until this proclivity worms its way inside the deepest recesses of who you are. MRSA will suddenly seem like a flighty houseguest — keeping their finger hovering over the Uber app icon as you show them to their room — in comparison. And no, I’m not kidding. Sadism is an acquired taste you will eventually long very dearly to dis-acquire. But to no avail.
Now, to be clear, there is writing which I’d evaluate to be very poorly conceived, or very poorly executed, or some unpleasant to behold mix of the two. No doubt about it. And if asked, I would even say as much. But I think that routinely seeking to derive enjoyment from labelling it as such, from insulting it and its author as creatively and harshly and comically as possible, is another thing entirely. That’s a crucial distinction, right there. And perhaps all this just sounds like holier-than-thou high-horse-mounting. In which case, let me make two rebuttals. Firstly, that can’t be true because I distrust even the very concept of holiness and I’m also scared by how easily you can get paralyzed while horse-riding. Secondly, I’ll state the painfully obvious: I have not unerringly hewed to the above-mentioned moral principle in the past. Not even fucking close. But I do fully see the shittiness of getting one’s kicks from this sort of thing now. And I am trying to be better, by hopefully leaving it in the rear mirror. That’s all.
And, hell, you know what the other thing about it is? I would infinitely prefer the company of someone who writes, say, ‘bad poetry’ than those who merely spend their time mocking and savaging it. At least that person took the risk of putting themselves out there. At least they tried to produce something of worth, tried to express something with meaning and substance. They took a swing at a difficult goal and, sure, maybe they missed. Maybe they even missed by a country mile. But who gives a fuck? That’s just how it goes sometimes. And yet, those who delight in ridiculing ‘bad writing’ act like it’s some kind of implicit affront that an inept scribbler should offer his or her work to the world. As if it’s just the symptom of blithe arrogance. Or as if it’s meant as an insult to the reader, like serving rotten food to someone. Basically, because the writer in question was so stupid/oblivious/rude/conceited as to ‘inflict’ their sub-par prose or verse on everybody else, these people seem to subconsciously believe that it invites and warrants them being laughed at and denigrated.
When of course the simple truth is that every writer is a bad writer at first, and generally for quite some time after that too. Such is life. Barring some spectacular innate talent, there’s just no miraculous way to leapfrog the milestones of progression. It’s a linear path. Where each step requires a huge investment of time and effort. You start off bad, then you progress to okay, then perhaps you’ll get to good, and if you’re very, very committed there’s a small possibility you’ll one day get to great. (It goes without saying that that’s an extremely oversimplified version of how it works, but I’m sure you get my point.) And while you’re in that first unhappy stage, through no fault of your own, there’s not much you can really do about it. Complaining is futile. Denial is futile. Pretense is futile. Your only real solace is hoping that each crappy piece you write gets you one step closer to noticeably improving. Which is thankfully the truth. Still, you shouldn’t have to pretend that what you’re writing doesn’t exist just because shitheads with a love for belittling are going to try and tear it to shreds. But, alas, that’s unquestionably their effect.
It should come as no surprise that many of those who engage in this behavior conspicuously do not create anything themselves. Possibly because they cannot — i.e. they’re lacking any requisite aptitude or imagination — and possibly because they will not. Or sometimes it’s instead the case that they do not dare present what they create to the world. Because they do not have the courage. Exhibiting one’s work entails vulnerability (to some varying degree). This frightens some people to their very core. Especially when they often partake in the mocking of those who have made something, who have shared a part of themselves. Because the more they do it, the more the panicked thought ‘holy shit, I don’t EVER want that to happen to me!’ echoes in their mind. And so they content themselves with melting into the safe anonymity of the jeering crowd. Even amplifying the intensity of their mocking to redirect and vent their own anxiety about potentially one day becoming the target. It’s a vicious, self-reinforcing cycle. And it’s the exact same reason why people who are the most insecure about their appearance are also the most mercilessly cruel in the jibes they utter about others’ supposed ugliness when they’re out of earshot. This is a very sad, very old ploy. Keep the wolves at bay by dressing up in a wolf-costume and feeding them someone else, emphasizing that poor bastard’s tastiness all the while.
And what is there left to do when you’re too deathly afraid to show everyone who you are via your work? Shit, no worries… you can just carry on eking out some childish satisfaction from mocking the work of others. Because the easiest thing in the world is to mock something. In fact, even the actual quality of the targeted art makes very little difference when it comes down to it. Any halfwit can point to some classic, well-revered novel and say ‘lol, self-important and verbose much?’ It takes nothing. It expresses nothing. It is nothing. This is why people who cannot create, or are too fainthearted to, derive such great pleasure from sarcastically and vapidly trying to diminish what others create. They feel as though it somehow puts them on a level-pegging. “You can make things, yes. But with a sneer and a nonchalantly tossed hand-grenade of scornful derision, I can tear them down. We, therefore, are equal.”
If you are able to feel only pity for people like this, you’re a better, more charitable, more compassionate person than I.
Teach me your ways.