Middlebrow – Feelings and Fury

This is a guest post by Faye Hammill, University of Glasgow. She is an editorial board member for Anthem Studies in Book History, Publishing and Print Culture.  

What does “middlebrow” mean? Is it a label for a particular kind of book, film or artwork – one that is unchallenging, conventional, perhaps mediocre, yet with visible aspirations to be taken seriously? This is the way the word is most often used by reviewers and journalists – usually with a derogatory tone. Or is it a set of practices and institutions: a mode of education, a route to self-improvement? This is what cultural and literary historians tend to mean by “middlebrow”.

One thing is certain: it is a provocative word. A 2015 piece on highbrow and middlebrow in The Conversation by an Australian professor of creative writing, John Dale, sparked an extensive debate, ranging from a verbally dextrous attack on an allegedly middlebrow novel (“What words suffice to describe it… mawkish? pompous? orotund? turgid?”) to a contemptuous dismissal of critical expertise (” John cuts through the academic waffle that surrounds the so-called study of English literature”). Some of the most vigorous commentary related to Dale’s claim that: “The distinctions between highbrow and middlebrow fiction are as old as literature itself.” I do not think that makes any sense. For one thing, fiction is a genre that emerged much later than poetry or drama. For another, the discourse of “brows”, which fragmented readerships into different levels, was generated by the industrialisation of the publishing industry in modern times.

Ah – here I go, entering the fray. I hadn’t meant to, but “Middlebrow” is a word that makes people want to fight. Three Australian writers recently reacted with (controlled) fury to an article by Beth Driscoll in the Sydney Review of Books that cited their novels as examples of books that “slip in and out of the middlebrow”. According to Driscoll, the work of Susan Johnson, Antonia Hayes, and Stephanie Bishop demonstrates that “middlebrow” should be understood “as a set of practices, rather than a label permanently affixed to a cultural product or institution.” The three writers upbraid Driscoll for reinforcing the association of the middlebrow with the feminine, and for apparently accepting the idea that anything that sells well must be of inferior quality.  However, in this case, both the original article and the responses are thoughtful, measured and insightful, with none of the flippant or hasty reaction evident in the Dale example.

Why has this debate reignited in Australia in particular? Does “middlebrow” have a distinctive resonance in Australia that is different from its meanings in other places? The question of the geography of the middlebrow is taken up in fascinating ways in Mitchell Rolls’s and Anna Johnston’s Travelling Home, Walkabout Magazine and Mid-Twentieth-Century Australia (Anthem, 2016). One of their key ideas is that Walkabout, which focused on travel and also on book culture – was used by its readers as a way of “finding their own place in the world” (43). They argue:

Throughout, the magazine mobilized the sentimental discourse common to middlebrow aesthetics, which encouraged personal engagement with others outside metropolitan readerships.  [The editors'] intentions to educate through travel and reading about travel situate Walkabout precisely in the realm of sentimental education typical of middlebrow culture. (52)

Yes. That’s what I think “middlebrow” means – or rather, that’s how I think the word can do useful work.  As a simple term of abuse, it only generates disagreements based on individual taste: for instance, about which books are or aren’t “middlebrow”.  But in Johnston and Rolls’ nuanced usage, “middlebrow names a phenomenon – a powerful force that we need to take account of when we try to understand contemporary and historical cultures of reading and entertainment.  Studying the middlebrow artefacts of the past, such as the novels chosen by the “Book of the Month” club, the syllabuses for university extension courses, or the magazines that presented a modernising, globalising culture to regional readerships, can help us understand how “sentimental education” might have worked in different times and places – and how it still works today.  Indeed, in this sense, middlebrow culture can be understood as a counter-practice to traditional academic criticism, with its emphasis on aesthetic form. In book clubs, emotional responses to literature are taken seriously; in university seminars, they are often seen as irrelevant. Yet the culture of the middlebrow is itself now a legitimate object of academic study, and professional critics are increasingly likely to reflect explicitly on their own tastes and biases, and to write in a personal voice about the effect of their upbringing and academic training on their responses to art. This makes their work more accessible beyond the academy. In this way, and through the online engagement – however fractious – between academics and wider audiences, we might be seeing a real erosion of the boundaries between elite and popular cultures of reading.

Faye Hammill is Professor of English at the University of Glasgow, and founder of a research group called the Middlebrow Network. She is author of six books, including Magazines, Travel and Middlebrow Culture (2015, with Michelle Smith).

Connect with Faye:

Twitter: @MidBrowNetwork

Academia: http://glasgow.academia.edu/FayeHammill