091. Guilty Pleasures with Dr. Arielle Zibrak
"Guilty pleasures," or is the guilt what we find pleasurable? This is the question Dr. Arielle Zibrak asks in her book, Avidly Reads Guilty Pleasures (NYU Press). Arielle joins me to explore just some of the thought-provoking arguments made in her book and coach me on letting myself enjoy imperfect media. It's not a book about romance novels (although they're discussed), but the topic is highly relevant for any media that is coded as "femme," especially stories about love.
"Guilty pleasures," or is the guilt what we find pleasurable? This is the question Dr. Arielle Zibrak asks in her book, Avidly Reads Guilty Pleasures (NYU Press). Arielle joins me to explore just some of the thought-provoking arguments made in her book and coach me on letting myself enjoy imperfect media. It's not a book about romance novels (although they're discussed), but the topic is highly relevant for any media that is coded as "femme," especially stories about love.
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Guest: Dr. Arielle Zibrak
Arielle is reading/watching:
- Animal by Lisa Taddeo
- The Bold Type
Andrea Martucci: [00:00:00]Hello and welcome to episode 91 of Shelf Love a podcast that unpacks romance novels with nuance. In conversations with scholars, readers, and other experts, Shelf Love contextualizes, the popular romance genre within the broader critical discussion of identity, culture, and love.
I'm your host, Andrea Martucci and on this episode, I am joined by writer and professor Arielle Zibrak. Dr. Zibrak is a culture critic, writer, and associate professor of English and Women and Gender Studies at the University of Wyoming. Thank you for joining me today, Arielle.
Arielle Zibrak: Thank you so much for having me.
Andrea Martucci: So today we will be talking about your book, Avidly Reads Guilty Pleasures, which was recently published by NYU Press in a series called Avidly Reads, which are brief books about how culture makes us feel. Can you give a little bit of a background on how this project came to be and what you wanted to explore?
Arielle Zibrak: Sure. Avidly is actually like a vertical on the LA Review of Books website edited by two 19th century scholars, Sarah Mesle and Sarah Blackwood.
And I first started writing for them, I think in 2015. And increasingly I wanted to write about TV and popular women's culture. And I actually wrote an essay about the gender dynamics and sort of sexual politics of what was then the most popular movie on Netflix. And that was called The Kissing Booth.
I don't know if you're familiar with it.
Andrea Martucci: I have not watched it
Arielle Zibrak: It's pretty wild. So it's like a teen rom com, but the hero is really like retrograde. He's kind of a rage monster. There's one scene where he like screams at her, "get in the car" and like bangs on the hood of the car and she gets in the car and like in the next scene they're having sex.
So I'm like, what is this movie? Why is it so popular right now? Like in this day and age. And I wrote a piece about that and it was right after #metoo was happening and Harvey Weinstein and I was just really feeling like, this is really great that we're acknowledging this dysfunction in our culture and this violence against women and the way that women's voices are discredited.
But I think that another half of this that is not really being addressed in the very deserved calling out of sexual abusers is the fact that our culture is just so mired in these kinds of power dynamics, like these gendered power dynamics. And especially in stories about love. And so I was just interested in writing a piece that called on us to think about what do we do with problematic desires or what do we do when we're drawn to fictions that are at odds with our politics?
And so I started talking to, I call them the Sarahs, my two Sarah editors, I started talking to the Sarahs about it, and they were just starting this book series. They had just gotten the completed manuscripts of the first books in the series. And they were like, why don't you write a whole book about it?
At first the idea was around women's culture. And I had worked as a romance editor. I do love girly TV and movies, so it was going to be about [00:03:00] that. And then the more we talked about it, the more I realized that I was really drawn to theorizing this term "guilty pleasures".
And so part of what I do in the book is offer an alternative definition of what "guilty pleasures" are for me. And then I structured the book around sincere questions that I had.
Like the first chapter is called Rough Sex. And it's about why are so many women's fictions surrounding plots of the dark hero or sort of violent sexualities. The second one is called Expensive Sheets and it's about why do we watch so many and read so many fictions about really rich, really white people? When, so few of us are really rich and really white. And then the last one is called Saying Yes to the Dress and it's about the kind of conflicted relationship that I think most women living in this year of our Lord, 2021 have to the patriarchal pomp and circumstance of the wedding ceremony. There's a lot to hate about it, but there's also a lot to love about it. And so many women that I am so close to and who really identify as like diehard feminists have broken down about wedding dress selection and have become like the stereotype of the Bridezilla.
And I was just curious about exploring what I see as like points of conflict or interest. And so that's really how the book came to be and what it's about.
Andrea Martucci: When I heard about this book, NYU's publicist actually reached out to me and I had already listened to you on a podcast at that point. And so I was like, Ooh, like this is so cool. And immediately was like, yes, send me an advanced reader copy. I am all over this. This is something that we've been exploring on Shelf Love. Not just problematizing, but really trying to figure out like why we love these things that as you said, are at odds, why are we finding pleasure with something that is at odds with intellectually what we believe we should want or we want to want.
So I was really excited about this. Before we dive too much into the content of the book, so you mentioned you worked as a romance editor, so of course I have to ask about that. When, where, how, what was it like?
Arielle Zibrak: It was great. I had a wonderful boss. Her name was Linda Marrow. And for a long time, she was sort of was romance at Ballantine Books. She had started at Pocket Books. And she hired me like fresh out of college. I had interviewed all over publishing for all different kinds of positions. And honestly, at that time I was not a huge romance fan.
So I came into her office, not really knowing what to expect. I was like, a fresh young English major. And I loved Virginia Woolf, and Gertrude Stein. And I was a little bit snobby about romance to be quite honest. But then once she showed me the ropes she gave me a copy of Whitney, My Love, and she had an amazing list at that time. We were working with Laurell K Hamilton and Barbara Samuel uh, and Suzanne Brockman was one of our big authors. And so I just worked under her for a couple of years. And then I became an assistant editor and I had my own list. And actually the first writer that was my very own writer was Tracy Warren. And I bought The Trap [00:06:00] trilogy. I don't know if you're familiar with those books, but they're really great. The first book is called The Husband Trap and it's like a classic twins swap novel. Yeah, and they were, I remember the editorial meeting and they were like, why should we buy this book? And I'm like, everyone loves reading about twins.
And they were like, true, actually, that's true. And I really loved working in that community and going to RWA and discovering new writers and I was having a blast. But I think at a certain point, I realized that it was too like office job-y for me. And I've always really loved teaching. So I wanted to do something where I could teach more.
So I actually left Random House to go back to grad school. And so I went to grad school at Boston University to study 19th century literature. And I focused really on 19th century American women writers who were the foremothers of the romance writers that I was editing at Ballantine.
I still have connections to that world and friends from that part of my life. And I look back on it really fondly, but I think that ultimately like living in New York and going to a giant office building every day, is just not my lifestyle. And that's the main reason why I left,
Andrea Martucci: And you're in Wyoming now. So you left the Northeast and first podcast I listened to you were talking about like the wide open spaces and how it opens your mind.
And that's just a whole different world from the claustrophobia that is New York City or even Boston for that matter.
Arielle Zibrak: Yeah, it's absolutely true. I think it would be really hard for me to go back to living in a big city, but especially on the east coast, like I love going there to visit. But there's just so much beautiful nature here and exploring to do and peace and quiet, which I think for someone who loves to read and think, is really important.
Andrea Martucci: And so when you were a romance editor, do you think that is one place you found yourself thinking about, the why? Why readers are drawn to certain elements in romantic stories, in romance novels cause you know what you just said about, everybody loves a twin story.
How much do you feel that reader's desires and these sort of these weird things that we're drawn to, how well understood and articulated do you think those are within the romance publishing industry? Or is it one of these like just gut feelings? Some people have really good gut feelings about it, even if it's not articulated?
Arielle Zibrak: Yeah. I think it's probably more gut feelings and I think it's not so much that it's not articulated, I would say it's not theorized. So there are certain tropes that are very attractive to a lot of romance readers and writers. And I think everyone in the romance community is aware of those tropes and people have their own preferences, for what kinds of plot patterns they're drawn to, whether they like to see the hero and the heroine get together towards the beginning or that needs to happen at the end, how they feel about other kinds of sexual couplings just throughout, you know, all of these questions that come up in romance, I think are they're what creates sort of subcategories of romance readers.
And I think that [00:09:00] the industry is very sophisticated when it comes to those things. I don't think a lot of time is spent in introspection trying to get at why those things are popular. I think it's more just taken for granted that they are
Andrea Martucci: Billionaires sold. Let's get more billionaires, not what is the root cause of why readers are attracted to this? Which is something that you really get into in the rich white people fantasies.
Arielle Zibrak: A lot. Yes.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah. Just to kind of go into my experience, reading the book. So I first read this, I think I must've gotten it back in April. And I read it like in a day and I think highlighted 20% of the book. I know this because I exported my highlights and I was like, oh wow. And we're going to do this actually about a month ago. And then I asked to reschedule because I was swamped with like getting ready for PCA because I was doing everything last minute. Thank you for letting me reschedule.
And so, it had been a while since I read it and I went back to brush up on the details. And I think that upon second reread I was trying to actually curate what I had highlighted.
I was like, no like, what do I really want to talk about here? And was really trying to think about what it was you were doing and why it felt like I was having such a hard time narrowing in, on something or a few things.
And I feel like it's because for such a little book, you cover so much ground and raise all of these different intriguing points that, on second read, I had the pleasure of rediscovering, but also got me thinking about how, academia, in my experience talking to people in academia, tends to push scholars towards defining these topics in like a really narrow slice so that they can cover them really thoroughly.
And that means that there's a resistance to like opening these cans of worms that can't be tied up or closed back up by the end. But I think those cans of worms are the questions that consumers, readers, et cetera, really want to understand better.
But then there's I think this frustration as the reader of your book, is managing the discomfort of having to sit with these big questions that don't have neat answers or solutions.
So I really appreciated your willingness, not only to discuss these big topics and I think that you do a fantastic job of proposing multiple angles. Like it felt like you came in with the this is why it feels pleasurable. Now here's a more critical perspective on that. And now here's a way of maybe trying to reconcile those, but also not reconciling those complications.
And so for even on reread I had these moments of discomfort where I was trying to work out how I felt. And sometimes I was like bristling a little bit. But I don't think your goal was comfort.
Does that ring true for you?
Arielle Zibrak: Yeah, that was beautiful. Your account was like the ideal reading experience I would want anyone to have. And I think a lot of that comes from having spent the past 15 years of my life in a college classroom with students. And I think if my students are comfortable, I'm not doing my job. Because when you're comfortable, you're not learning. And so I'm actually just curious, like what, were some of the things that made you feel uncomfortable?
Andrea Martucci: Great question. (Arielle laughs) Probably like the [00:12:00] first, like, how, how are we going to resolve this?! Was defining early on the audience of who you were talking about having these guilty pleasures. You know, you talk about the "by women for women" aspect, and I know that you create a broader definition of the femme identity. You propose a broad definition of femme identity, but then I was like, but what about other oppressed identities? What about an intersectional? Like what about Black men? Or do you know what I mean?
First of all in the romance genre, there's the tagline, right? Like by women for women, which a lot of people have started rightly pushing back against, because it is exclusionary, particularly to gay men, let's say who are maybe not significant population of writers, but would be excluded by that definition of writers.
Arielle Zibrak: Yeah, I mean, I think that's a really good point and I would also say that not all women, I would say, identify as femme or like to consume femme media or fiction. And so I think that basically the way, I mean, and maybe this sounds tricky to you and I can be less cagey in explaining, but I would say that the way that I define who my book is for is if you're reading it and it feels like it's for you, it's for you. And I think that's true of most media where we don't necessarily understand why we're drawn to the media that we're drawn to, but we know when the media that we're drawn to is for us, is speaking to us.
And I find I've had a very privileged life wherein I get to meet a lot of the people who write the books that I love and the books that I really truly love, when I meet those people -and I'm sure you've had the same experience- it's like you have a soul connection with them because they wrote these books that speak to you.
So there's something about your psyche that has some kind of overlap with their psyche. And so to me, I've met a lot of people in my life who I think have had these same kinds of thoughts and feelings, but don't necessarily share the same suite of like racial and gender and class identities as I do.
But nevertheless, there is something about their psychology that I share with them and these texts speak to them in the same way. It was really important to me to also write a book that was inclusive of these kinds of desires for whoever might have them, whether they are cis women or trans women or cis men or trans men, or white people, people of color.
Like I think that in different ways I don't think my book is for everybody and I don't think it's about everybody, but I think it isn't about a specific kind of person, the kind of person that it's about is the person who is drawn to these plots of really what I think about as secondariness. And you know, in the beginning I talk about how I take that from Simone de Beauvoir which, The Second Sex, obviously, a very foundational sex -text
Andrea Martucci: Freudian slip! (we laugh)
Arielle Zibrak: Yeah. And I think that, people who are interested in plots about love are interested in love, but are also really motivated by how they are impacting other people, how other people [00:15:00] feel about them. And I think that who my book is not for or about, is people who are not motivated by love and who do not place some kind of primacy on the way that they impact others or their shared experience.
I teach 19th century literature and I love to start teaching these kinds of texts that we're in the 19th century by women writers. I love to start with Ralph Waldo Emerson actually, because I think he's one of the great theorists of male individualism. see that in opposition to what I'm doing here or talking about here, where like the reader of a romance novel or the watcher of a romcom is not so much interested in like rugged individualism and bootstrap ism and all of those things that we associate with, especially American masculinity.
And I would say white masculinity they're interested in like sociality and community and acceptance. And I think that we are taught to feel very ashamed of those kinds of desires and emotions. Like the rugged male individualist is cool. The cowboy is cool, the fainting Southern Belle is not so cool.
But there's a reason why we're drawn to her and why we want to read about her and care about her. And so I guess I'm interested in those reasons and I'm interested in those people and that's really my audience. And that's also, really me in a way, not that I'm a fainting Southern Belle, but I'm interested in female energy and femme energy and community and relationships and love.
Andrea Martucci: I think that was a really satisfying answer for me and I was struggling a bit to articulate it because I think actually over the course of the book, it's like I went back and forth where it was this bristling of but wait, why not all marginalized people? But then I think that you do through the course of the book, actually make a very solid case for some of these things being very specific to heteropatriarchy and how these things impact people who are disempowered in the hetero patriarchy specifically.
I think one text, it is impossible, especially in the slim volume, a tiny little, very pocket-sized, it's very cute. I love it. Like this is not an 800 page tome, right? Like you kinda cannot cover everything.
And so early in the, the book you say, "this book tells the story of the libidinal and base desires that guilty pleasures help many femmes experience.
I was wondering if you could talk about the relationships that you're exploring here. So the ones I drew together, I think these are like the three relationships you were hitting. So guilt as pleasure, femme identification as shame and desire's relationship with humiliation.
Arielle Zibrak: Yeah, totally.
Andrea Martucci: I guess the question there is like, why do you feel like those things are tied together? What is the relationship between those things specifically?
Arielle Zibrak: Yeah. And this sort of answers your question about oppressed people too, which is I'm sorry. I keep complicating everything.
Another thing I want to say to clarify this, I think that might help structurally is just [00:18:00] like when you're in a position of oppression, it forces you to be other identified or like other focused, because you are aware of the fact of your existence being judged and measured by the standards of someone else, that don't necessarily apply to you.
So if you're a little girl, as I talk about myself being in the book, who is taught history from a very male perspective, you are by definition other focused, because you realize the world does not belong to you. The world belongs to these people who look different from you and are different from you, and it will never be you.
So you're living your life. You're not the hero of your own life. You're living your life along a map that someone else has drawn for you. And I think that is a similar experience that people have in relationship to power along a lot of different axes. And my partner is a cis Black heterosexual man. And he was reading the book and he's like, I think that I'm femme, and I'm like why do you say that? And he's like, because when you talk about how women are so adept at reading the world, that has very much been my experiences as a Black man, because you walk into a room and you have to try to understand what is expected of me? How can I meet or defy those expectations? How is this structure created in such a way that I'm going to need to respond to it in order to survive or be productive.
And I think that female identified people are often placed in those positions at a very young age as well. Which is like, know, that you need to be a certain way in order to be pleasing to others, which I think is a way that we socialize young girls quite a bit. Smile, look pretty. All of these sort of cliches, but also I think that it's not so much that we're just trained to be those things in order to be seen as acceptable.
It's also that becomes entrenched in the structures of our desires, or it's it's not something we have to do. It's something we want to do. We want to be desirable. And I think that the unique position of female identified people who are in romantic relationships with male identified people, is that you cannot turn away from the oppressor because you also desire the oppressor.
(Andrea hums thoughtfully) And so like part of the hornet's nest that I'm working through in this book is thinking about what does it mean to be really aware of the heteropatriarchy and be a woman who is in a relationship with a man when like men benefit from all of this privilege that you're not able to access. And also, to some extent, are responsible or complicit in the very fact of your own oppression.
And so that's the heart of it and it spins out from there. But I think another piece of this that I'm really interested in is the ways in which these power structures shift.
So like a part of the book actually that I took out for length in the second chapter, I talk about it a little bit in the second chapter, but I talked about it quite a bit more in an earlier draft, was just about how whiteness, and I think the gender functions in this way too, is not like an either or thing [00:21:00] so that in some circumstances one person might be the whiter person. And in another circumstance, they are the less white person. And scientific studies and psychological studies have backed this up in the sense that, it's been shown that even among white people, if someone has darker skin, they make less money or are taken less seriously in professional contexts.
And so even though we would readily identify that person as white, they're still functioning within a kind of system of colorism that disenfranchises them in comparison to their whiter colleagues or counterparts.
And the same thing of course is true among non-white peoples where someone might feel like the less white person or the blacker person or the browner person in one circumstance, but in another stance, not so much.
And because race is not a biological phenomenon, but a system of power it's relational. And so I think that like this condition of occupying the position of the femme subject is also one that while we might like consistently be drawn to media that speaks to our own femme subjecthood. In some cases we might feel more femme than in other cases.
And I think that part of what I try to communicate, and in the book I really attempt to do this through talking about my own life and experience is, that sometimes I feel very femme and very secondary. And sometimes I don't! And like, there've been different moments in my life when I felt that more or less.
And I think that that's just an important thing to notice and think about not only in so far as it structures our own desires, but also in so far as it structures our relationships with other people. And so I think it's really important to recognize when you're in a circumstance of structural power over somebody else, not for your own choices, but just because that's the world we live in and when you're not. And women are a category of like a very broad category of people that experience this in lots of different kind of ways, because, white womanhood has been so called into question lately because the history of white feminism has been so oppressive to people of color in so many ways, but at the same time, women continue to be subject to their own oppression in certain kinds of circumstances as well, whether they be white or not.
And so I think that it's just important for me to shift to an understanding of oppression as a phenomenon, rather than like an identity, like I'm an oppressed person or I'm a privileged person that it's like something that happens to us rather than something that we are.
Andrea Martucci: And I loved this sentence. "What's a revolution but a jockeying for who gets to be the whipper and who the horse -pun intended-" because also this was in a section where you were talking about like horse girls and there was a lot of horse talk. I loved it. And I was thinking about that phrase in particular, because first of all, it really gets to power imbalances.
And what's so interesting about romance novels. And so we think specifically about relationships between a cis man and a cis woman where there is a societally-created power imbalance there. And let's just for simplicity's [00:24:00] sake, a white man and a white woman. There's the power imbalance there and the stories are trying to enact these larger power battles through this relationship.
And in this relationship they reach a place of equality maybe, or at least they manage that power dynamic in some way or mitigate it somehow. And I'm going to tie this in then to these questions I've been exploring on the podcast about problematizing, where I spent a lot of time thinking about this sentence because I was like, what about a revolution where we try to break the whip? Like I think that's where I'm starting to really struggle with my relationship to romance texts where there's this sort of like, we're going to solve these big issues, but just in this one little relationship where the, the woman in this hypothetical relationship we've been talking about, she gets to win, but we haven't actually, nor could we, actually resolve the larger issues. And we've really just worked within the same shitty power structure where women have to deal with this shit. And we haven't really addressed the systems of oppression that have created this situation. And like, I know that I'm being so unfair when I have these questions to like what these stories are trying to do and I'm being so unfair on so many levels, but this is where I'm like really struggling with it is because of that: is that the right revolution?
Arielle Zibrak: Yeah. I'm curious why you're saying unfair. Like why do you think you're being unfair?
Andrea Martucci: Because. So first of all, one individual human being, even a fictional one is pretty much unlikely or unable to solve the larger power structures, of the world in one story. So if you think about these like more mundane stories where, you're not dealing with revolutionaries within the text, I think it's like really unfair to expect that narrative or to expect like individuals to sacrifice their pleasure, their happiness, because they're unable to change everything for everybody.
Arielle Zibrak: Yeah. I think a lot of things. So the first thing I want to say is what you're saying is, basically this great statement that Audre Lorde made where she said "you can't overthrow the master's house using the master's tools."
And so I think your impulse to say let's get rid of the whip is totally right in this like broad, theoretical universe. But I also don't think that literature has any responsibilities. So while I love to see more representation in texts, while I love to see plots that imagine different kinds of worlds, and while I fantasize at the end of the book about what kinds of plots or stories would be beneficial to us as individuals, I would never say it is the responsibility of literature or culture to do political work. And in [00:27:00] fact, I think that when we get that confused, we sometimes forget to do political work.
So it's not enough to write a book that has a representation of the kinds of characters or relationships that we'd like to see in the world more frequently. You have to also be marching in the streets, go vote, maybe run for office. Like, I mean, I think that political activism is its own thing that needs to be done on its own grounds.
I'm not saying that I don't think culture has an impact on politics or the social world. I'm just saying that. If that becomes the ruler by which we measure fiction, then we stand to lose a lot, I think.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah.
Arielle Zibrak: Because fiction needs to be this space of play for me. And I think that, I have a five-year-old and there are some games that he plays that I think are good for him to play. And there were some games that he plays that I'm like, we don't like those kinds of games because I think they enforce bad values. But at the end of the day, play a play. And you couldn't come up with some kind of moralistic set of rules for what your child is allowed to play and what they're not allowed to play. You can have some no-nos. And I think the same is true of literature where this is an imaginative space where we play.
And so once you start like becoming overly moralistic about it, then you're robbing a lot of people of an outlet that I think would be really important for them.
And it's interesting, like how this has impacted the way that we've recovered the history of women's literature in this country, because in the middle of the 20th century, when many of these 19th century women writers that I really love and whose sexual politics might seem to us to be retrograde were getting recovered, when people were starting to read these texts once again and publish new editions of them, the ones who got recovered first and the most enthusiastically were the ones whose politics we could really get behind. Everybody was like Charlotte Perkins Gilman. She was against the rest cure, like bad-ass Kate Chopin, her characters are all about like sexual liberation. Awesome.
It turns out that like, A, Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a eugenicist and maybe that's not so great either. Kate Chopin supported the Confederacy. Maybe that's not so great either. But I think that we were really looking for who can our heroes be? We need intellectual heroes and women who are championing our cause and whose politics look like ours.
And I think that now what's happening in those kinds of academic circles that I think is really beneficial is people are looking at more complicated figures and just trying to figure out what were people thinking and feeling, not create some kind of like linear argument about women's rights or liberation, that's like, here are our foremothers and all of the awesome things that they fought for.
And I think that, like, when you try to lionize a text, or a person from history, you are losing a lot of that richness and complexity of the human experience that is what I think literature does so well. So if literature starts just marching in the army of progress all the time, then you lose that like nitty gritty [00:30:00] of the actual human experience, where we are human beings who have ideals and values and morals and think one thing, but then sometimes feel or are drawn to another thing.
And I think that denying that or shaming that is another whole kind of oppression where it's, we've been sitting in this stew of the patriarchy our whole lives. So to expect us to only want to consume things that have like super positive messages about female empowerment, I think is tough because maybe that's not always the most cathartic thing to do.
And I will add to that, just that, even like great stories of liberation and texts that are explicitly political or theoretical whose politics I agree tend to make the same points over and over again, and call for the same kinds of changes that never really seemed to occur. And so I think that what they're doing is a kind of intellectual catharsis that is like the handmaiden to the kind of, I want to say affective catharsis, which is like a kind of emotional catharsis that carries with it the sense of embodiment as well.
Because I think that a lot of the catharsis to be found in romance novels and in female fictions of other kinds is like an embodied one too. That really gets into both the shame and the pleasures of being in this body that has been socialized as secondary.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah. I mean, in thinking about the socialization aspects of it - and I'm obviously very conflicted about all of this where it's like, it's like, I'm like,
Arielle Zibrak: I love it!
Andrea Martucci: What is a better way? Because I think about something that Katrina Jackson, editorial advisory board member, talks about doing a lot where she thinks about the media that she consumes and is really intentional about who is represented in that media and really recentering marginalized peoples' stories in the media that she consumes.
I think about that a lot in the sense of how media becomes a socialization input and in how the stories that we see told repeatedly, especially in certain genres, on the one hand -so you make this point early on: "while there's undoubtedly something wrong with the culture that produces these desires, there's absolutely nothing wrong with the person who experiences them, even rebels in them."
And so I was thinking about that with yes, like I understand the catharsis. You are raised in this culture, the catharsis one feels there, but then if we repeatedly go to those stories and perhaps the key point here is, almost exclusively consume those narratives, are we not then reinforcing the same cycle.
In that sense, I think I'm thinking specifically about a single story, a fiction, a fantasy that is a fantasy, but it's like the same fantasy. And I think that's really what you get into in the rich white people. Sorry. Did you call them fantasies? Rich white people fantasies,
Arielle Zibrak: fictions but yeah.
Andrea Martucci: Sorry.
Arielle Zibrak: I think that's right. Or [00:33:00] fantasies. Yeah.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah. Where it's like the repetition. Does that not then just reinforce that's what we should find desirable? And I think, I focus almost exclusively on romance novels as a genre, the genre has calcified to a certain extent, right?
There's these like really strict boundaries around what these stories look like and how they're marketed and the tropes and the archetypes and all of these things. And yes, there's a little bit of broadening to allow other people to tell their stories within there, people who aren't just white, cis, het, allo, able-bodied, neuro-typical neuro-typical the list goes on and on okay. We're letting other people in here. (This last bit is said sarcastically, specifically the "letting")
But one thing I think is created within the structure of the romance genre, if you think about it really strictly, is that there is this expectation that what we see on the page is like something we should desire.
And so it's a little bit different from maybe other forms of fiction, where, there's maybe like less of an explicit expectation that you're supposed to want those things. Like it's a little bit more, open-ended yeah, these people make decisions. And as long as we understand why they make those decisions, we're going to kind of roll with it and, we're gonna follow and immerse ourselves in this world.
Whereas I feel like there's something very specific about the romance genre, where the stories do have a point of view on what is considered desirable and what do audiences find desirable? Plug into these existing desires. I'm not saying exclusively. There are books particularly in indie publishing that are exploring these things, but like telling other stories of like other things, other fantasies, other desires.
Arielle Zibrak: Yeah. A hundred percent. And I think that, you know, you're totally right. It is not, I think, psychologically or socially beneficial for anyone to consume media that represents only a certain kind of person. But I will also say that I don't think that romance novels represent people's actual real-world desires.
I think that most readers of romance novels would be horrified if an 18th century Scottish Highlander showed up in their house and was like, do you want to get busy? I think that would be a nightmare situation for people who consume those novels all the time. I think that's what they desire in fiction.
That's the kind of fiction that they desire to read. I don't think that's what they desire in life. And I think that, from my time working in romance and meeting so many romance writers and readers, they have very different kinds of lives. And they're not as, as is the stereotype, like bored housewives fantasizing about the kind of sex that they wish they could be having.
I think that it is a space of fantasy that bears maybe some psychological relation to their real life desires, but it's not literal like that. I don't think that we read plots that tell us what to desire. I think that we have desires that plots speak to, but in oblique way, not literal ways.
And maybe that's not true of everyone. Maybe there are some people who really do want to meet someone who is an 18th century [00:36:00] Scottish Highlander, but I think that's,
Andrea Martucci: but is he a laird? It depends on if he's a laird or not.
Arielle Zibrak: Secretly
Andrea Martucci: yes.
Arielle Zibrak: Like in the end he turns out to be, but on the onset he's, I always think about what did these people smell like?
Andrea Martucci: Probably pretty awful. But he's the one who bathes. Everyone else doesn't bathe, but he's the one.
Arielle Zibrak: Yeah, that's true, but it's still the 18th century. So what is the extent of that bathing? And he's like field processing his game. There's a lot of stuff going on.
Andrea Martucci: It's just like bloody feathers, like stuck to his tartan.
Arielle Zibrak: Yeah. So I, I got my PhD in 19th century literature and I learned a lot of 19th century history during that time and you know, 19th century life was disgusting. And I think about all the time, like if romance novels that were set in these earlier periods were actually like realism or very accurate, all of the desire would be sucked out of them because
Andrea Martucci: right.
Arielle Zibrak: Life was very difficult and disgusting and not romantic or fun at all. And so I think that is also part of it, where it's like, I love 19th century regency-set romance novels. That they're set in a different time helps us to create a space of fantasy that is very distanced from our own lives.
I just want to underscore that point where it's like, it would be very different to read a romance novel that is set now and is about some plot like The Office where it's like in the work-a-day, like mundanity of our own lives that actually resembles our own lives. I feel like it's not that that doesn't exist, but that's a completely different genre.
And I think that politically, I would have a different relationship to that, but I think that once you're marking your territory as being like, this is a not very accurate representation of a completely different time. And like elements of the plot are completely unrealistic, which we all adore. I think that's very freeing.
And that also like clearly confirms it as a space of fantasy rather than a space- I mean, I guess I do actually do this, but I was going to say, it's like, when you're watching like a scifi or a fantasy and it's set in a different world completely, you're not typically like critiquing the politics of that world. You're more just immersed in it as a fantasy, but sometimes you do.
Andrea Martucci: Well. So that's actually a great example cause like, and I want to be clear. I was not doing the like romance must be realism. Perhaps I was gesturing more towards the larger point and I'm going to tie this to scifi in a second.
The larger point about finding power desirable, not so much finding an 18th, 19th century Scottish Lord desirable. When I was speaking with EE Ottoman, like almost, oh my God, probably over a year ago at this point, I forget what we were talking about. And I said, " you know, I think romance novels are really about gender." And EE said, "I think they're about power." And I was like, yes. Yes. No, you're totally right. And I think that I was using gender, but I was talking about power imbalances in [00:39:00] gender, and I think EE was right to reframe that as power explicitly.
And I think you talk about this a lot in the book, it is about power. It is about mitigating power imbalances. And so when I am thinking about is it reinforcing people with economic power people with born privilege, more like those aspects. And valorizing them as like the people who deserve a happy ending or Well, they're really good people and they mean well underneath all this.
And like, so again I'm not trying to be like, too literal about it, but I'm more concerned about the underlying ideologies of like what were subconsciously finding desirable about these situations to the point where it becomes like shorthand of like, yeah well, I mean, like, of course he's hot, right? We don't have to really explain like, he's big, he's a big guy. He's six, six. He's Jason Mamoa like what's his face in EDEN Southworth's novel, you were talking about, Capitola and
Arielle Zibrak: It's the novel The Hidden Hand?
Andrea Martucci: Yes. So it's I'm more like gesturing towards that. And I think to tie it to Sci-fi where I'm like, sure, like build your world. But if underlying this completely made up scifi world society, there's the same messed up power structures that you haven't re-imagined that are like the same power structures of earth.
Like why did you not reimagine those? Or is the point that these are really just like human - I guess if you're talking about humans in outer space, as opposed to like aliens -but if you're talking about aliens, why would they have the same values, and the same kind of problems we have?
That's where like, I feel like I would start to be like, okay, look, the sci-fi is written by a human person. So at the end of the day, like they're going to be talking about the same struggles that human people are dealing with, but they're just putting it in this fantastical world and romance is doing that same thing in a lot of cases, right?
Arielle Zibrak: Yeah. And I think that you're right. And I think that about scifi, it's actually a reason why I don't love reading Sci-fi is I'm always like, do more, be more, create a world that's more different from why do they have hands? Like whatever it is.
Andrea Martucci: Exactly.
Arielle Zibrak: But I also feel and I think, when you talk about romance as a genre that's calcified, I don't necessarily agree with that. I think that some aspects of romance have calcified, which is in fact to my mind, a good sign, because what that does is the people who don't feel included by those communities or those sort of structures will create their own genres and their own things. And that's, what's always happened in fiction and that's how fiction as a technology proliferates and grows.
And so I feel like, the great thing about fiction and making up stories is we don't have to choose. We can have both. Yes, I think it would be horrible if I only read romance novels about rich white people. And that was the extent of the representation that I consumed. But I don't. And I wouldn't recommend that anybody do that, but I don't think that reading those books or watching those movies or shows is bad is what I'm saying.
That I think that there's like a place for every kind of fiction. I don't support any fictions that [00:42:00] actively promote cultures of hate. I wouldn't teach them, but I also I have a complicated relationship to cancel culture too in that there are some writers who I really love whose values I really hate, but I think they're great writers.
And I think that when I read their work, I enjoy it. But I also have a critical mind to the way those bad values get communicated through the fiction. I wouldn't necessarily teach those fictions, but I don't think I should feel bad about reading them or ban myself from reading them.
I think that, I guess what I sort of advocate for in the book and what I really believe is just soaking in culture and appreciating what speaks to you and thinking about everything that you consume critically. And trying to broaden what you consume all the time. I think it is really important to look at like your Instagram feed and be like, what kinds of bodies or faces are being represented here?
But I don't think that we should never watch Gossip Girl, because it's so white and rich. If you like Gossip Girl, watch Gossip Girl, just watch other stuff too.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah. And First of all, I'm very good at feeling guilty. I grew up Catholic. It was just like, you know, those are the cultures that I was raised in just wallowing in guilt all the time. And I'm glad you brought this back to pleasure. I appreciated that what you were talking about in the book was yes, be critical of these things.
So you were talking about "guilty pleasure texts are like baths for the mind. They're usually cast as mindless or unproductive." And your objection to that was "if you're a thinking person, you can think productively through any object."
And so I wanted to call that out and what you were just saying yes, we can be critical of these things. I was like, yeah. That's a lot of what we're doing here on Shelf Love is trying to be critical of this thing that we love and not to trash it, not to say this is bad.
I think at times I probably sound like I'm being overly critical to the point where I'm like, nobody should read this, but I think it's more I find that incongruence, I'm like, I want to figure this out. I want to find an answer here. Solve this problem. And they're unsolvable problems, and I'm just going to have to sit with that discomfort for my whole life.
But the second point there was that you said, "pleasure is productive. It produces itself." And so I wonder if you could say a little bit more about that. I have trouble with this. I have trouble with finding pleasure as something that is productive. Again I make life very difficult for myself. So please counsel me.
Arielle Zibrak: Well, I mean, I think the long and short of it is that we live in a capitalist society that really values productivity. And there's a cultural mandate that you either be producing or consuming at all times. And so like engaging in the economy is the moralism of capitalism where it's like, how am I valuable?
And I think that women are doubly susceptible to this because for the reasons that, we talked about earlier, female people are socialized to feel like they have to earn their space in the world. If you're not [00:45:00] looking good or making people happy or providing food for them, why are you there? Like you're not valued.
Something that I marvel at when I look at that cis-het white men and the way that they behave you know, not all of them, but like the conventional ways that they behave, like taking up space on the subway, just like walking into a meeting and saying whatever's on their mind, like this kind of entitlement that allows them to not feel like they have to earn their keep or like their space in the world or their right to be heard.
At times I sort of look upon that with the same, but at other times I think I wish that other kinds of people had a little bit more of that. And I think that like you only get to live once. So if your tendency is to spend it justifying your space on earth or constantly thinking about what it is that you could do or produce for other people or how you can consume or support their endeavors, where is your life in that?
And I think that it's very rare and important when we are able to find moments where we are just being. We're reading a book that we love, not because we have a book club where we have to talk - book clubs I think are great, but I also think it's funny because it's this way that women have like productivized the act of reading where it's like, I have to get this read for my book club. It's like, if you didn't have the book club, you might not read the book partially because you can't do something for yourself. Like it's the fact that you have to be beholden to these other people in the book club and that you would feel guilt or shame if you showed up at the book club, not having read the book, that you read the book, because that's the only way of accessing pleasure. Or like that female sexuality is so channeled through male pleasure where it's like, you can only access your pleasure if you're sure that your partner is feeling pleasure.
All of these things are related where like we have to make up these really complicated excuses in order to grant ourselves access to moments of pleasure. Where it's like, no, I'm not really doing this for myself. It's for someone else or something else.
I think sometimes people have children for this reason. They want to go to amusement parks and water parks and play games, do kid things, but they like, they wouldn't do that for themselves. So they have to have a kid so that they can experience those things through somebody else or with somebody else, or have an excuse to do them.
And I would just like to see more people, especially people who more frequently experience like that secondaryness, just own the fact that we are human animals who deserve to experience pleasure, who deserve to have days of existence where we do not produce anything or consume anything. Where we just be.
And I view that as a pretty powerful anticapitalist gesture.
Andrea Martucci: I feel very called out.
I appreciate so much that you have taken the time to speak with me today because the fact that I struggle with this and that I find this difficult is exactly why this resonated with me, because I need to be pushed on this. I need to try to wrap my [00:48:00] mind around the idea of not being productive. As somebody who has a, at most times weekly podcast, where I usually have to read something for that podcast.
What you're talking about, like with, the book club where literally, all of my reading is assigned reading. And part of me is like, I've come to the realization in the past year or so that I have ADHD. And so there's, there's also this element of realizing that part of the way that manifests for me is actually finding it really hard to prioritize things I want to do.
And so the podcast is in some ways creating an obligation that then allows me to do the things that I think I want to do. Sometimes I create obligations that it turns out I don't really want to be doing. It's effective in some ways.
Like it helps me focus in on something, some course of action, instead of just spiraling off into ether, doing nothing, but I need to productively channel my energy towards those things that are maybe less not just productive or something that I take pleasure in without expecting it to be single-handedly bringing down capitalism white supremacy and every other harmful power structure that exists because that doesn't exist. But I have to convince myself of that.
Speaking of media diets, I'm, curious if you could share some thing that you have, I'm going to use the word consume here and now it feels weird in this context to use the word consume, but some something you have read, watched, listened to lately that is part of your media diet that is not a guilty pleasure or is a guilty pleasure. Up to you.
Arielle Zibrak: Yeah, so actually what I'm reading right now, I just stayed up late last night reading most of it, is Animal by Lisa Taddeo. Uh, She wrote a book called Three Women that I loved, that was a nonfiction book and Animal is her first novel. And it really has a characteristic that I love in literary fiction that you don't see very often, which is like a female anti-hero. So she really structures her as depraved. She's on like a sort of sexual revenge mission. She has very loose ethics in a lot of categories. And she describes herself as being extremely attractive and manipulative. And so I think it's really fun to read this kind of character because there's so much literary fiction that has male antiheroes. We're fine with that. But because women are here to please, it's very rare that you have a really good female anti-hero as of like first person protagonist driving the novel. So I love that.
And she feels a lot of guilt because she is such a self-described terrible person. So I think of that as a guilty pleasure, because as in the book I describe guilty pleasures not as things that I feel guilty about consuming, but things that are kind of about guilt or about shame that also give us pleasure. And so that definitely does that for me.
And then I've been watching a lot of the show, The Bold Type. Barbara Samuel [00:51:00] who is a writer that I worked with at Random House and who became a friend and who gave me a very generous blurb for the book, when she read the book, like in advanced form, she was like, have you seen The Bold Type? You need to watch the show? Your book is like a companion piece to The Bold Type and I had not. And so I watched the whole series up until where we are now, which is they just released a new season. And so I just started watching the new season and I think that The Bold Type is a really interesting show in that it's about this group of 20 something women who work at a magazine that's based on Cosmopolitan and it deals with a lot of sociopolitical issues, but it doesn't take a very clear stand on them.
And at first I thought this was problematic. Okay, you're going to have a whole episode about the #metoo movement. And it's like the naughty intricacies of that. Or the way that two of the characters are white and one character is biracial, like of the triad that is the center. And there are these moments where they like touch on the fact that the two white characters don't necessarily understand the racial identity of the biracial character, but it never really goes anywhere, I guess, resolved.
And I've decided that I think this is really cool because I like when things are about issues, but don't try to solve them. Like when their politics are somewhat inscrutable, because what they do is they put you in that place of discomfort and they get you to think about what do you think about it? What do you feel about it? Instead of telling you, here is the appropriate position to take in relation to this issue. And I recognize that maybe some people do need the "here's the appropriate position to take," because oftentimes there is an appropriate position to take. Like we should all support the Black Lives Matter movement. To my mind that is the only appropriate position to take in relation to that.
But I think it's also interesting to like consume a fiction that's about something like that in the kind of complicated way without the fiction itself taking a stand. Like that it offers a sort of suite of perspectives through the representation of these different characters who bear different relations to it. Because that also makes it more productive to talk about.
If you're not coming in being like we know what the text thinks about this, or we know what the show thinks about this. But when I watch something and then I want to talk about it with my friends, or I want to teach it in a classroom, I think it's great if you can come into the conversation and say, what do you think the show thinks about this? Like, If that's not clear, I feel like that's a lot more fun than if you have some kind of like didactic media that is just telling you a perspective.
Because also, I don't think that it's easy for people to internalize that kind of a like really straightforward message. I think that's where we get a lot of performative social activism or consumerist social activism that doesn't have a lot of meaning behind it, is when people are like, oh, okay, this is what I should think. I will adopt that thought. As opposed to you thrust people into the complexities of an issue and you don't throw them a line, that's here's the [00:54:00] takeaway. That they have to build that ourselves. I think that produces more thoughtful people.
Andrea Martucci: Hard agree, hard agree. That was a perfect conclusion, because I think that's really exactly what your book does. And I really hope that others pick up your book, Avidly Reads Guilty Pleasures by Arielle Zibrak, because I think listeners of Shelf Love will find it really intriguing. And of course I will have a link to buy it in the show notes. Thank you so much for joining me today, Arielle. This was fascinating.
Arielle Zibrak: It was so much fun talking with you. I'm a big fan of the podcast and it's an honor to be here.
Andrea Martucci: Thank you. So how can people find you online and connect with you to keep up with what you are working on?
Arielle Zibrak: Almost everything is on my website, which is ArielleZibrak.com and you can find links to my Instagram and my Twitter there and to any pieces that I'm publishing online, journalistic work, scholarly work books.
And I also have ways to contact me there as well if people are interested in getting in touch.
Andrea Martucci: Cool. Can you share anything you're working on now? What's next?
Arielle Zibrak: Sure I'm working on a bunch of things. So I recently finished a novel called A Third Thing, which is about a young woman who moves to New York and then to Barcelona and is grappling with a lot of the issues that we talked about today in terms of her own feminism and also how she wants to express herself in the kind of art she wants to produce. I'm writing a nonfiction book called In The Image of Our Own Desires, which is about consumer feminism and the roots of like new age movements that we see today in what, in the 19th century, was known as New Thought. And I am in the very beginning stages of writing a second novel that is about divorce. So stay tuned for that. That's still a very like tentative early project, but yeah, always busy.
Andrea Martucci: Awesome. Thanks for sharing that. I'm excited.
Thank you so much for joining me today. If you have any thoughts on the show, I would love for you to reach out to me. You can send an email to Andrea at Shelf Love Podcast dot com.
This episode is produced by me, Andrea Martucci. Thank you to Shelf loves editorial advisory board members, Katrina Jackson, and Tasha L. Harrison.
I have a few quick announcements. First of all, doot doot doot doo. I am back from my summer hiatus.
I launched a Patreon. You can find it at patreon.com/ ShelfLove. so the Patreon is to support editing and transcribing with the goal of me then having more time to create even more awesome content, including in other formats, such as making videos or doing more written first content
If you get value out of this podcast, and if you are able, I hope you consider supporting Shelf Love on Patreon. The tiers start at $3 a month and I'll be adding more perks as the community grows. Right now, all patrons will receive access to a private Discord community where you can talk about romance, get behind the scenes info, and have discussions about the [00:57:00] podcast with other listeners.
Patrons who support Shelf Love at the $3 and $10 tiers will be listed on the Shelf Love website as patrons, and at $20 a month, patrons will be named in episodes as supporters. I'm thankful for the two patrons who have signed up for that top tier, which is called the Joyful Hag tier. First of all, thank you to Gail Martucci my mother-in-law who support extends to so many areas of my life. And also thank you to Copper Dog Books. Links to the Patreon are in the show notes. And on my website. That URL again is Patreon.com/ Shelf Love. I appreciate you all for listening to the podcast. And I hope that if you're able to do so that you consider supporting Shelf Love on Patreon.
So speaking of Copper Dog Books, which is my genre affirming local, independently owned bookstore, I'm thrilled to announce that we are collaborating on a very exciting in-person and virtual event with the one, the only Dame, Jodie Slaughter, romance, author, and general charming troublemaker.
Mark your calendars for August 10th and 11th, 2020. On Tuesday, August 10th, you can join Jodie and I on a river boat cruise on the Essex River Queen, which leaves from Essex, Massachusetts. If you are nearby, it will be a great chance to meet Jodie and I in-person as well as mingle with other local romance, readers, writers, and booksellers. Tickets are $20 and you can find more information on copperdogbooks.com
For most of you who do not live in the area on Wednesday, August 11th at 7:00 PM, eastern time, we are streaming a virtual event on location in Copper Dog Books. Registration for the virtual event is free. You can also order Jodie's books through Copper Dog Books, and Jodie will sign them after the event.
Again. All the information and links to sign up can be found on Copper Dog Books.com. And of course, I will have links on my website and in the show notes.
At the end of episode 89, I said that I was going to be doing some thinking about how I could do my part to not just sloganize my support, but to actually do something meaningful to support the causes that I believe. I believe one way that I can add the most value is to use my platform, to help bring attention to projects and organizations that are doing the work.
At the end of every episode, I'm going to be sharing organizations with rad missions that I hope you consider supporting.
Today I would like to share Honor Black Birth. You can find them online honorblackbirth.org. Here's how they describe their work.
" Honor Black Birth is a St. Louis based storytelling incubator. Reclaiming our stories and depathologizing Black pregnancy one counter narrative. [01:00:00] Honor Black Birth shifts the narrative about Black pregnancy and birth. We ground our work in a reproductive justice framework.
We respect lived experience as expertise. We value art and storytelling as a means to feed the imagination and a catalyst for social change. Our featured project is You Lucky You Got A Mama, a feature length documentary exploring the intimacies of pregnancy through a lens of gender."
And so that was directly from the website. On the website honorblackbirth.org, you can find links to purchase merchandise. I purchased a beautifully designed t-shirt that says "giving birth is not a gendered experience." There's like a really beautiful line art drawing of two faces on it. It's really gorgeous.
You can also support Honor Black Birth by funding it on Fundrazr. All the links and more information can be found on honorblackbirth.org.