You can dazzle the reader with an intricate narrative, full of clever twists and conundrums. You can set the novel on another planet; you can people it with vampires and time travelers. You can fill it with violence or sex or mathematical theorems. You can dazzle with your arcane knowledge, your vaulting ambition or your extraordinarily inventive voice.
This is an obvious broadside against the fiction of David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon and Donna Tartt — fiction that is smart and ambitious and is afraid to be neither. There has been a trend in fiction in this millennium that critic James Wood has dubbed "hysterical realism. But Wood has argued — and I would agree — that novels must ultimately be about genuine human beings.
Otherwise, all that literary velocity becomes mere pyrotechnics. Gilman notes that "Nothing spectacular happens" in the novel. That is not, presumably, to the novel's detriment, at least in this estimation. This, in the end, is the problem with "intimate" fiction — the emphasis, that is, on the novel as a warm blanket to cuddle with instead of a fire that burns clean through you. Intimate reading is reading for comfort, instead of all that good stuff — beauty, truth, wisdom — that we no longer acknowledge seeking without ironic air quotes.
Intimacy is too nice for any of that. In his seminal Reading As Therapy: What Contemporary Fiction Does for Middle-Class Americans , the young literary critic Timothy Aubry argues that we have come to "treat novels less as a source of aesthetic satisfaction than as a But maybe fiction should be neither. The emphasis on intimacy seems a dangerous path for fiction, fostering a cloistered art form that does not address the issues of the day. Save intimacy for the bedroom. So many cultural conversations rely on a framework of value, oriented by exemplars of high and low culture.
Think of the widely expressed contempt for the mega-selling erotica novel Fifty Shades of Grey , about which Salman Rushdie stated, "I've never read anything so badly written that got published. Yet while these extreme examples persist, one of their chief effects is to highlight a large middle space where much cultural activity takes place. This middle space is not a value-free zone, and analyzing it requires robust conceptual resources, one of which is the middlebrow. Defining the middlebrow has always been contentious.
The word emerged to complicate the binary between highbrow and lowbrow in the early-to-mid twentieth century, a period when critics were confronted by both the emergence of Modernism and the increased production of mass culture. During this time, middlebrow culture developed across the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, and other countries, and was inevitably inflected by these different national contexts. Yet, for all this hostility, the actual definition of the middlebrow was elusive. As Woolf writes, "what, you may ask, is a middlebrow?
And that, to tell the truth, is no easy question to answer. Ever since the groundbreaking studies by Joan Shelley Rubin and Janice Radway, who offered sustained analysis of twentieth-century middlebrow institutions such as the Book-of-the-Month Club, it has been apparent that the term middlebrow is more than a rhetorical slap. My research extends this work by looking also at the contemporary middlebrow, in recognition of the term's persistence in cultural discourse, where it turns up in discussions of Oprah's Book Club, HBO television dramas, Oscar-winning biopics, and more.
In this article, I provide a detailed account of the middlebrow as a cultural phenomenon with continuities across its historical and contemporary manifestations. My account relies on an understanding of the middlebrow as related not only to cultural products, but also to cultural practices. This is a similar definitional approach to that of Melissa Sullivan and Sophie Blanch, who consider the middlebrow as an aesthetic mode, a set of dissemination and transmission practices, and a set of consumption practices. While my background is in literary studies, this article also considers middlebrow music, film, television, magazines, and visual art, and it is attentive to the ways in which the middlebrow has developed across different, though mostly Anglophone, national cultures.
By examining different cultural forms, this analysis extends the scholarship in my book, The New Literary Middlebrow: Tastemakers and Reading in the Twenty-First Century , in which I define the middlebrow through eight key features. Instead of seeing these features as absolute requirements, we should understand them in the frame of Ludwig Wittgenstein's theory of family resemblance, in which a group is defined by a number of overlapping similarities.
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It is a set of phenomena that "have no one thing in common which makes us use the same word for all - but they are related to one another in many different ways. Nonetheless, all middlebrow institutions and practices display most of these features, and together they describe a distinctive cultural space. As David Carter argues, while there is no straightforward correlation between middlebrow culture and the middle class, nevertheless "the potency of imagining cultural divisions through the brow triad owed much to its apparent homologies with class divisions.
The term has a tendency to stretch, encompassing a range of groups with different cultural practices and operating in distinctive national contexts.
For example, Bourdieu's work on middlebrow taste le gout moyen draws on his knowledge of French society and is linked to his argument in Distinction that shared cultural tastes characterize different socioeconomic groups. Bourdieu maintains that middlebrow tastes align with petit bourgeois consumers, who roughly correspond to the lower end of the middle class.
As a consequence, this class fraction relies on middlebrow mediators to make culture accessible. The consumers who were the target of mid-twentieth-century English critiques of the middlebrow by Q. Leavis, Graham Greene, and Virginia Woolf also tended to occupy a lower-middle-class position. The middlebrow is frequently defined by its class-based audience, as Nicola Humble notes when she suggests that a novel was often seen as middlebrow "because it was widely read by the middle-class public.
This reading of the middle class as aspirational aligns with work on class and culture in the United States. As Radway's study in A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste and Middle-Class Desire indicates, the middle class of the American middlebrow was likely to be professional-managerial, made up of cultural workers whose status and income depended on the acquisition of cultural capital.
Blair's analysis of a book column in Ladies' Home Journal , which she argues was written for a "burgeoning middle-class reading audience" attracted by the "tacit promise As these different inflections of class suggest, a simple mapping of the middle class onto the middlebrow is difficult.
Reading as Therapy What Contemporary Fiction Does for Middle-Class Americans
Scott addresses this difficulty in his reflection on the influential article by Russell Lynes for Harper's Bazaar , which was accompanied by a chart setting out examples of highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow consumption. Figure 1. For Scott, these "categories do not represent class differences; they replace class differences The concept of the middle class is highly elastic in the twenty-first century. For example, the British Broadcasting Commission's Great British Class Survey found a new model of seven social classes, diversifying our understanding of the contemporary middle class.
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The established middle class makes up the largest group 25 percent in this survey, but it has two near neighbours: the technical middle class, with low levels of social and cultural capital, and the new affluent workers, who are socially and culturally active. In particular, there may well be distinctions between the kinds of cultural activity pursued by different fractions of the middle class, with books occupying a somewhat higher status than movies or television. With these distinctions in mind, it is nonetheless clear that the middle class is frequently invoked in discussions of contemporary middlebrow culture.
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For example, Marilyn Poole's interviews with members of contemporary Australian book clubs found that "[t]he groups see themselves as middle-class, professional, native English-speaking, and perhaps rather exclusive. Middlebrow culture remains broadly middle class, although the particular relation between any middlebrow cultural activity and its participants' class positions will always require thoughtful examination.
A respect for culture underpins the activities of the middlebrow. In Bourdieu's conceptualization, the petite bourgeoisie is characterized by "cultural goodwill" and "filled with reverence for culture;" 35 this attitude is also evident in research on historical Anglophone middlebrow institutions. Rubin, writing about the reception of American radio book programs in the mid-twentieth century, suggests that the intimacy of listening to such programs in one's home perpetuated "genteel homage to critical pre-eminence": the experience created a "strong feeling of indebtedness to the distinguished visitor who had graced one's home.
While the highbrow hangs "drawings by his friends" in the bathroom, the middlebrow favors acknowledged cultural masters by not being "above an occasional color reproduction of a van Gogh or a Cezanne. In the twenty-first century, cultural reverence remains a leading characteristic of the middlebrow.
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Writers' festivals glorify authors, particularly the international, literary authors that establish an event's prestige. Through her book club, an exemplary institution of the contemporary middlebrow, Oprah Winfrey also celebrated and displayed awe towards writers' cultural authority. Scott offers perceptive insights into the forms of reverence shown by contemporary middlebrow culture, by referring not only to "'difficult' cable television shows," but also to the "self-conscious foodie culture in which a taste for folkloric authenticity commingles with a commitment to virtue and refinement.
Scott reads these forms of reverence as "pretension": for him, "'middlebrow' is the kind of word rarely said without a sneer. Perhaps the most famous early use of the word middlebrow was in , when a columnist in Punch quipped that "the BBC claim to have discovered a new type, the 'middlebrow'. It consists of people who are hoping that someday they will get used to the stuff they ought to like. He insists that "middle-brow culture is objectively condemned to define itself in relation to legitimate culture," which means that it can often appear as an incomplete or inferior version of high culture.
Macdonald, for example, sees "Midcult" as a dangerous copy and adulteration of highbrow culture: it "pretends to respect the standards of High Culture while in fact it waters them down and vulgarizes them.
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I have a soft-spot for the faux-sophisticated, when it's done well. The sophistication of the middlebrow is, for these critics, illegitimate faux. The reverence for culture displayed by the middlebrow can also highlight its separation from formal academic institutions.