According to Apuleius, Pleasure is the daughter of Cupid and Psyche – of Love and the Soul, that is, a sufficiently elevated pedigree, one would have thought. Yet the British still put up a strong resistance to the idea that pleasurability might be a valid criterion in the response to literature, just as we remain dubious about the value of the ‘decorative’ in the visual arts. When Graham Greene made ‘entertainments’ a separate category from the hard stuff in his production, he rammed home the point: the difference was a moral one, a difference between reading to pass the time pleasurably – that is, trivially – and reading to some purpose.
The ‘great tradition’ does not brook even the possibility of libidinal gratification between the pages as an end in itself, and F.R. Leavis’s ‘eat up your broccoli’ approach to fiction emphasises this junkfood/wholefood dichotomy. If reading a novel – for the 18th-century reader, the most frivolous of diversions – did not, by the middle of the 20th century, make you a better person in some way, then you might as well flush the offending volume down the toilet, which was by far the best place for the undigested excreta of dubious nourishment.
The great Angela Carter