chapter  36
10 Pages

Pleasure

Whether in a seminar or at the pub, often the first thing that gets askedabout a book is: Did you enjoy it? This is not just a way of making conversation, but also suggests the fundamental importance of pleasure when it comes to reading. In fact, the question ‘Did you enjoy it?’, far from breaking the ice and starting a passionate discussion, is generally followed by a terse ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ and then forgotten. We may talk about things we enjoy in a work of literature – the gripping narrative, the appealing characters, the power of the language, the comedy and pathos – but we do not very often talk about the enjoyment itself, about what enjoyment or pleasure is. There are at least two reasons for this. In the first place, pleasure, enjoyment, emotional and indeed erotic excitement can be surprisingly difficult to talk about. Second, and no doubt related to this, such pleasures tend to border on the transgressive, censored or taboo. But as we hope to show in the course of this chapter, pleasure is crucial to, and even synonymous with, literature itself. This is perhaps why Sir Philip Sidney declares that the purpose of poetry is ‘to teach and delight’ (Sidney 2002, 86) and why, in his 1802 Preface to Lyrical Ballads, William Wordsworth uses the word ‘pleasure’ (and its cognates) more than 50 times, proposing that the ‘end of poetry is to produce excitement in coexistence with an overabundance of pleasure’ (Wordsworth 1984, 609). This is not to construe the literary as ‘mere’ play, as simply hedonistic or self-indulgent. Instead we will seek to describe a sense of pleasure and of literature that may also be disconcerting or subversive.