Academic Affects: A Conversation on Guilty Pleasures

By Sarah MesleMay 18, 2021

Academic Affects: A Conversation on Guilty Pleasures
ARIELLE ZIBRAK’S NEW BOOK, Avidly Reads Guilty Pleasures, tracks through 200 years of “lowbrow” femme fictions. It explores how the lived experiences of women’s lives — often experiences of inequality — take shape in and give shape to the pleasures of reading and watching.

For scholars of cultural and literary history, the interaction of personal taste with “cultural capital” can take on a particular sharpness. In classrooms, in academic journals, in convention rooms and hotel bars — places where what counts as “serious” writing gets arbitrated by academia — the questions of what kinds of experiences matter to establishing expertise continue to be negotiated. 

In honor of Zibrak’s book, this conversation brings together three scholars — working in different fields and at different kinds of institutions, with different intellectual formations — to think about the status of “guilty pleasures” in the world of academia now.


SARAH MESLE: Let’s get right to it! Do you have a guilty pleasure? Is that an important category for you, or was it at some moment in your aesthetic formation?

ANA QUIRING: I have so many guilty pleasures, some of them the iconic texts of bad heterosexuality (The Bachelor, The Twilight Saga) and some queer in the most wonderfully uncool ways (gay fan fiction and romance novels). To me, the guiltiest pleasure is giving up the impulse to justify or narrate that enjoyment. I was trying to work up a reparative reading of Twilight for the longest time, making it a paean to girls’ desire, or something. It was liberating to realize that Twilight’s unredeemable qualities are a key component of its pleasure. Teenage girls, of course, already know this. They don’t need me to tell them.

ARIELLE ZIBRAK: In the book, I define “guilty pleasures” as texts (broadly speaking) that give me pleasure because they allow my already-existent guilt a chance for representation. Many of these are documents of what Ana is calling “bad heterosexuality.” There are countless bad ways in which heterosexuality is enforced. My guilty pleasures are the texts where characters grapple with that enforcement. A lot of the media we identify as “trashy” actually does this; so, I like the parts of The Bachelor where the contestants are themselves feeling oppressed by the narratives baked into the structure of the show. These texts are very infrequently uncritical of themselves, or at the very least they wear the cracks in their own veneer quite visibly.

I don’t think I feel at all guilty about jettisoning that justificatory impulse associated with the study of popular culture, though. In fact, I take a lot of pleasure in using documents of popular culture as theory rather than reading them through theory. The performance of scholarship can sometimes get in the way of actual scholarship, and the traditional definition of “guilty pleasures” is more about how our desires and impulses are read by others than they are by ourselves. If we watch Keeping Up with the Kardashians in a forest, do we feel guilty about it?

KYLA WAZANA TOMPKINS: Honestly, I don’t think I feel guilty about pleasure at all. I’ve certainly never felt guilty about genre pleasures, of which I have many, like science fiction or everything to do with vampires and boarding schools, or owning outrageous amounts of shoes and lipstick, or spending a good amount of time every day hating particular phenomenon or kinds of people and enjoyably elaborating that hate in language with people I really love. I think I feel guilty about pleasures that harm? Like enjoying steak given our climate crisis, or eating octopus because they seem like actually nice people one shouldn’t eat. So I’m trying to listen to what seems like guilt but which is actually an ethical opening up to the presence of another in a way that changes what I think my freedoms should be. That seems like a good reading of guilt to me: if it harms someone in ways that I can change, I change.

I suppose that I feel guilty about pleasures I have that rely on horrible intimacy/inequity vectors, like getting pedicures or paying people to clean my house. Throwing money at these is palliative but not a solution.

But viz cultural pleasures: Truly after almost a quarter-century either in graduate school or as a professor, I’ve come to really feel that the cultural hierarchies that used to induce me to feel guilty or act guilty about forms of culture or the shape of my pleasures whether in the form of some modernist idea of art, or some normative model of professional affective comportment were basically invented by people who want me and the peoples I love to die, so my pleasure in surviving despite them is just unlimited in a pretty seriously spiteful way. Like I feel contempt for people whose well-being or sense of professional value is dependent on, say, opposing aesthetic value and social change. Because their ideas are bollocks and their actions are impossible to justify. Feeling free of that just opened up my freedom to enjoy my one and only life with unalloyed pleasure.

What’s your sense of how taste hierarchies have changed (or haven’t) in your time in academia, in 19th-century studies … or the world, more broadly?

AQ: I’m a modernist by training, a field that has a very concrete narrative of its own democratization of taste (like most other fields, I imagine). Moving out from Joyce and Eliot has given the field a lot of enjoyable identity crises. Feminists have infiltrated modernism with the weirdest little books — spies and witches and sentimentalism — that have forced it to expand its self-definition.

In the broader world, I do get the sense that many people, queer women especially, are learning to detach guilt from pleasure, and embrace their bad objects as sources of joy. The internet is proliferating with paranormal romances, which I take as a general net good.

AZ: I think it’s a truth universally acknowledged that once we incorporate a broader variety of voices, we encounter a broader variety of genres and a wider concept of what “counts” as objects of serious consideration or inquiry.

There’s so much white maleness in the concept of the “highbrow.” When I first became a 19th-century scholar, the study of popular women writers in the period was presented to me by more senior scholars as a niche interest. I think the field is now better at incorporating these texts into larger conversations, of which they were always a part. Not only were Hawthorne (and Emerson and Whitman and James many other key 19th-century white dudes) reading works by women authors, they were also admiring them. Hawthorne was dismissive of a lot of women writers, but he was also impressed by Fanny Fern’s Ruth Hall and Elizabeth Stoddard’s The Morgesons. I personally believe James’s The Portrait of a Lady was inspired by Rebecca Harding Davis’s A Law Unto Herself. These works and many others by women, Indigenous writers and speakers, queer writers, and writers of color were a part of the dialogue of their time. They don’t need to be added into our scholarly conversations; they need to be further centralized.

I think the important work now is to think about how the stories we tell through literature about ideas like American Exceptionalism, Individualism, and how we engage with notions of freedom or the control of the natural world sound a little different when we account for all of the voices that were not a part of the original conversations.

KWT: What I have loved so much about being a 19th-centuryist is that in general my generation of scholars feels like a group of deeply promiscuous readers. The interventions of women scholars into histories of women’s reading practices; of scholars of early Black print culture on the circulation of poetry but also revolution but also science in the Atlantic world (and also how science and poetry and revolution are kind of the same thing sometimes!!); the archival work done by early Americanists and 19th-centuryists who work on periodicals and newspapers that finds new, lost, wildly “Failed” literature like every single day: all of these have opened up our field to a sense that the reading life of the 19th century is far more wildly exploratory than canonical Literary fields would or can allow. Like Arielle, although I think I am a generation older, I too grew up with a kind of wink-wink relation to women’s writing but by the time I started writing my dissertation mostly it meant that every book or essay started by people vaguely waving their hands at “the Tompkins-Douglas debate.”

But for me anyway, whether digging into Emerson or Alcott or Delaney or Twain or Chesnutt, as a scholar I’m drawn to the wildly bizarre detail, the odd formulation that I know I can only make sense of if I try to sink deeper into the period historically. And the people I want to talk to — and I suppose I’m also grounded in queer theory too — tend to want to intellectually go down strange garden paths. And as it turns out, the period was just … bananas, strange when you really look at it. So again, the sense of seriousness or of hierarchy or value that some academics want to bring to Literature seems like a really sad and lonely way to try to extract only particular texts from the anarchic mess of print culture and literature in the period.

It’s not that there aren’t good pieces of writing and bad ones — it’s just that why not read everything together? Writers read everything! They perambulate the world. Why would we only want to teach or assign what writers wrote while pretending that they themselves did not read whatever they wanted? I am a lover of fiction who truly despises the historical fictions that fields and disciplines tell themselves about their own work. I do love historical fiction, however.

How do you manage the “bad” feelings of aesthetic experience — guilt, shame, insecurity, even arrogance — as a teacher, or in other academic settings? Do you think there are reasons why people should feel guilty for their taste?

AQ: I would guess that the people who feel the most shame about their taste are the people who have been taught not to trust their own judgments already. Teenage girls, and queers, and people of color. Maybe we merely need to redistribute shame a little bit. I’ve been teaching Intro to Gender Studies this semester, and my students can have a pretty binary idea of what’s serious and what’s unserious, what’s fun and what’s un-fun. My goal is to encourage them to give up sheepishness in their media pleasures, just as much as I want them to find pleasure and play in theory.

AZ: Pleasure and fantasy are, for me, spaces where anything goes as long as we’re all consenting adults. I love the novel Lolita, always have, for the pleasures of Nabokov’s prose. It’s not a guilty pleasure for me because I think it’s totally okay for me to love it in the context of my own reading experience. Ditto for the films of Woody Allen. But I don’t teach these texts because I’d rather make space for other voices and avoid the triggering feelings they can create. The last time I taught Lolita, I taught The Bluest Eye right after and a student pointed out to me that they couldn’t read Nabokov’s depiction of child abuse and the popular culture’s sexualization of girls and young women without feeling sick, but that Morrison’s depiction of the same — given the perspective from which it was written and the identity of the writer — felt really productive for them. That seemed right to me, and I haven’t taught Lolita since. Mostly because I don’t think I need it in the syllabus. It’s not accomplishing anything that other texts can’t.

KWT: Okay, I’ve discovered a shame feeling I don’t mind owning! It’s when you go back to books you loved as a child and you realize how racist they were. That suuuuuucks. But I love how Arielle distinguishes between productive and unproductive sites of inquiry: “can I get a good question out of this” is one useful way into a text. I myself won’t watch Woody Allen anymore because there are signs of child sexual abuse all over his work and I don’t want to be around that, nor give money to someone who has sought to suppress his own children’s lives. However, I suppose if I were tempted to teach a class on literature and children’s sexual abuse, which I never will be but sadly can imagine some pretty gross people in our profession who would love to, I suppose I might want to look at his work frankly in the context of the accusations around him. And I suppose I would do so without feeling guilty, unless I hadn’t warned people in advance to protect themselves from feeling hurt or traumatized.

I do teach racist work all the time, because that is part of the work of my field, but what I try to do is actually get away from shame or guilt and really try to look at racism squarely. Sometimes you just need to do that. The incredible stupidity of people who claim that “wokeness” wants to “suppress freedom” or, even worse, produce that hilariously pathetic and masochistic affective formulation called “self-censorship” is that we never talk about how actually very good some of us already are at framing and explaining the context for problematic representations while enfolding that understanding into our complex engagement with that text. TL;DR: shame and guilt are a waste of time, and kind of narcissistic. I’m with Arielle on the formulation that a classroom means giving students the means to be consenting adults.

Avidly Reads Guilty Pleasures describes several scenes of aesthetic encounter: the classroom, but also the couch alone (either reading or watching) and the experience of watching so-called lowbrow fictions with friends (especially, for Arielle, with femme-identified friends). How do these scenes fit together or matter for you? Are there some pleasures that can’t enter academic worlds, or that should and don’t?

AQ: We sometimes talk about “protecting” texts from ourselves — don’t put your favorite novel in your dissertation, for instance. That can apply here. Guilty pleasures and lowbrow objects deserve as much scholarly attention as anything else, but I personally wouldn’t put my indulgences up for scrutiny like that. To me, the essence of a guilty pleasure is a private or social acknowledgment of something’s badness, a momentary pause, and then pushing through that feeling toward pleasure anyway. It makes lots of room for cognitive dissonance. Academic analysis isn’t always so gentle. I thought for a long time that to apply academic attention to an object was to justify it or dignify it, but now I want to enjoy some of my favorite things without putting a high premium on dignity.

AZ: I get what Ana is saying here completely. I have a long history of worrying about “protecting” texts I teach from myself especially. It always seems straightforward to me to teach a text that I have the distance to dissect or debate in easily identifiable ways or that is of value to me because of what it teaches us about its own historical moment or even a set of compelling ideas it presents. When I really and truly love a text to the point where it has entered my deep consciousness and its words surface for me regularly throughout the course of my lived experience as though they constitute my own personal past, it’s a daunting prospect to walk a class through a conversation about it.

I do believe the experience of textual pleasure is a skill that can be taught — or at least modeled — because so often in academic contexts expressing sheer admiration or personal reaction can feel anti-intellectual. I’ve had students say brilliant things about how texts made them feel (both how they felt and how the text accomplished this for them) and then immediately apologize for making a comment they thought was somehow inappropriate. In saying this, I don’t want to reify some opposition between criticism and textual admiration or enthrallment. I just think they’re different modes of reading of which almost every reader is capable.

KWT: I read Ana’s lovely phrase “I want to enjoy some of my favorite things without putting a high premium on dignity” as a wish to reclaim some of the space of consumption from the logic of academic capitalism which is to monetize/professionalize everything you notice. This makes so much sense to me. Not everything in your life deserves its own field of “Studies” — we need to preserve spaces of just Being. But I also love how Arielle is taking notes from reading and writing in the 19th century to say: What academics get to do, that post-20th-century readers rarely get to do, is to allow both writing and reading to be social occasions, a practice of sociality that creates collectivities of interest.

I mean one deployment of pleasure in reading and consuming that has become a kind of social space has of course been Avidly! Which was founded by two 19th-centuryist scholars who think a lot about minoritized spaces of cultural appreciation. I want my students to bring their pleasures to the classroom because then we can tug on the thread of pleasure or disgust or aesthetic encounter or judgment to get to other stories and insights. But I really don’t want my students to feel like every search for knowledge has to be instrumentalized toward professionalization because fuck capitalism.

Paying it forward a bit: What are the best things you’ve read about the relationship between aesthetic pleasure and social or embodied identity? Are there core ideas or texts that guide your thinking or teaching on these issues?

AQ: There’s a tremendous community online, especially on YouTube, of commentators who have returned to the maligned cultural texts of their youth with new eyes, tracing how misogyny and gatekeeping have rendered many texts “bad” in the popular imagination. Creators like Contrapoints, Lindsay Ellis, and Sarah Z come to mind.

In the academic sphere, I really appreciate writing in queer studies that grapples with the way we want our political heroes to be valorized, unproblematic, and inevitably find them wanting. Kadji Amin’s Disturbing Attachments is a great example. My friend Anwesha Kundu is writing a dissertation about colonized subjects who identify, perversely and enthusiastically, with their colonizers, and I’ve learned a lot from her on that subject.

AZ: I think queer theory and then affect theory were the first fields where I saw this being done really well in the academy. Eve Sedgwick, Jack Halberstam, Lynne Huffer, Lauren Berlant, Sianne Ngai, Sara Ahmed, and C. Riley Snorton are all people who’ve influenced my work. Not only because they theorize aesthetic attachment with a lot of nuance, but because they mobilize personal experience as a kind of theoretical framework even when not working in memoir-y modes per se. On Compromise by Rachel Greenwald Smith is a forthcoming book I’m reading right now that integrates personal experience into the creation of theoretical revelations with a deft hand and a lot of cultural criticism does this well too — work by Hilton Als, Rebecca Solnit, and Jia Tolentino.

A third category of texts that I find to be effective sites of negotiating aesthetic pleasures and identity are scenes of aesthetic consumption in fiction. I’m a sucker for the play-within-a-play conversations we can have about literary texts. I love thinking about the Gossip Girl episode where they stage The Age of Innocence as a piece of criticism or the fact that Minta Doyle, in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, leaves the third volume of Middlemarch on a train, which really tells you Minta’s whole problem both aesthetically and in terms of the trajectory of her life.

KWT: I can’t wait to read that Kundu book, what a complex space to write into. Regarding pleasure, I myself love Jack Halberstam’s writing because he kind of hates everybody and everything with a real gusto that I relate to. For me, the two key texts on pleasure and embodiment have been Sylvia Wynter’s essay “Rethinking ‘Aesthetics’” which basically changes everything forever amen and then also, given my interests in food and eating, Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power.

A longer question! Ana has written at Avidly of the aesthetic mode of dark academia that it “idealizes narrow and Eurocentric standards of education. At the same time, it democratizes their trappings and texts by making them available as fashion.” I want to line this up with what Arielle calls “rich white people fictions” — fictions that fantasize about the social effortlessness of being rich and white (ranging from Nancy Meyers movies to Edith Wharton novels). This makes me want to ask you all a question I once asked Gwyneth Paltrow: what’s your ethics of luxury?

AQ: I’m a grad student who makes $20,000 a year, and my chances of making a permanent income in this profession are small, so any ethics of luxury I have is more about fantasy than about real spending. Sometimes I go for walks in the wealthy neighborhoods near my university and make rules about which houses I’m allowed to desire. Anything with columns or extra wings or an endless, manicured lawn is right out, but a respectable brick three bedroom with a nice sunroom is allowed. I think this has become a common phenomenon for millennials. Our access to luxury has been so limited by the economy that even the way we fantasize about wealth has shifted.

For instance, on the recent (very guilty pleasure) Netflix reality show Marriage or Mortgage, couples decide whether to spend their savings on a down payment or luxury wedding. I was flabbergasted by how many couples chose weddings until I realized that home ownership has been really removed as a viable fantasy for our generation. A wedding, one burst of glory, seems so much more feasible. One friend told me that she’d never be able to afford a house where she lives, so she’s been buying beautiful pottery instead. We could certainly call this a kind of cruel optimism, if we’re focused on everyday luxuries instead of long-term security, but I think there’s something very reasonable about this approach. I believe in avocado toast.

AZ: My aunt had this iconic ’80s poster hanging in her bathroom I think about all the time. It’s of a naked woman sitting in an armchair in a maximalist room and the caption is a quote attributed to Gertrude Stein: WHEN YOU ARE NOT RICH, YOU EITHER BUY CLOTHES OR YOU BUY ART. (It’s something Hemingway records her saying in A Moveable Feast.) I like the poster because it acknowledges not only that sometimes these pleasures come at the expense of necessities but also that the desire for them can make us feel exposed. And yet — the naked woman in the armchair looks really happy. She’s not only embracing her art collection; she’s also embracing her 1970s-sex-ed-film body. I think most of us can identify with choosing our little luxuries when big luxuries are out of the question and also that these things are important for making us feel human. Capitalism might be the author of a lot of our material desires, but it’s also a kind of counter-capitalist gesture to make decisions that are at odds with our internal homo economicus. I like to blow “extra money” on things I don’t need — even when there are a lot of things I desperately need. So, when I won an award in grad school and found myself with an unanticipated $200, I’d buy a jar of Nutella instead of stocking up on more nutritive staples, get a mani-pedi instead of paying down my credit card debt.

What I call “rich white people fictions” are a way to consume the trappings of a lifestyle I’ll never be able to afford. They’re how I even know what a Birkin bag is or what would be appropriate to pack for Cannes. I love Ana’s paradox about democratization and think the access to this knowledge accomplishes that in a way that doesn’t make me feel inferior.

KWT: After many, many years of being broke, not to mention being the inheritor of the effects of many generations of poverty on both sides of my family, I really do love luxury. I think that we forget, however, that life is cheaper for the rich: air miles, points, free nights in hotels, the time saved by not having to wait in line, having friends to stay with or hitch rides with, being given someone’s old car, inheritance, all of these are about needing to do less to have more, or making wealth generate itself. I’m trying to decipher some of the secrets that wealthy people have and keep to themselves but if I’m being honest, mostly I just buy secondhand luxury goods and pretend that I wore them into a genteel state of disrepair, i.e., I don’t care so what it’s just this old pair of Prada heels. Insouciance is a luxury. My mom tells me this story about her first week in Canada: after a few days, my grandmother took her to buy running shoes and when she got home her sisters jumped on them and scuffed them up and she was horrified. Like why would you make a thing look old?!!! I guess I am far more assimilated. The truth is, most truly wealthy people are pretty shabby and not all that great to look at. New money bling is so much more fabulous. But truly my ethics is: Buy nice things already used and be rude to the rich because they aren’t very valuable or useful or interesting or even attractive people, actually. I don’t understand why we don’t eat them.

Finally: Arielle ends her book (and begins, really) by talking about how taste judgments can teach us about the kinds of love and connection our social worlds value. What’s something you would say to students about how loving books, stories, or media can relate to their larger lives?

AQ: I think we often love things before we can articulate why. Aesthetic enjoyment, then, is not just a pleasure on its own terms but a kind of road to greater understanding. So many queer people I know have stories about becoming attached to the most simplistic gay characters (oh, the horrors of the Glee era) and being confused by that attachment until quite belatedly realizing they were identifying with them. I’d want my students to know that there’s a really valuable skill in this, a method taught to us by so many Black feminist thinkers: paying attention to the body, and to pleasure, can offer the key to insight on both personal and political scales.

AZ: I urge my students to connect to both their own histories and the histories of others through texts. The question of what my personal historical archive is — as a way of addressing the question of History more broadly — really interests me. One version of studying my own history, a literal one, would be taking up the topic of Jewish diasporic fiction. But this feels more like the history of my body and my family than the history of the texts that raised me, and ultimately the texts that raised me — which I write about in the book — feel more mine than the people who raised me (sorry family!) because I was a latchkey kid who spent a lot of time in front of pages and screens.

Aesthetics have their own genealogy, so it’s always generative to trace the influences of your influences, to swim in the cultural waters where your first loves were born. Asking students to identify their own historical archives helps them develop a sense of history and their aesthetic attachments simultaneously.


Sarah Mesle is the editor of the LARB channel Avidly, which she co-founded with Sarah Blackwood in 2012.

LARB Contributor

Sarah Mesle (PhD, Northwestern) is faculty at USC and Senior Humanities Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Prior to arriving at USC, she held postdoctoral fellowships in English at the University of Michigan and the University of California, Los Angeles. She is a 19th-century Americanist by training and is interested, generally speaking, in the long history of the American popular novel and in the many ways pop culture can excite, estrange, and surprise.


With Sarah Blackwood, she is co-editor of You can follow her on Twitter.


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