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‘Could Not Put It Down’

When publishers have a big new novel to promote, one with buzz and the potential for significant sales, they will often market it to women readers. These readers are the mainstream of literary culture: research shows that women are (and always have been) more likely than men to read novels, to attend writers’ festivals and to join book clubs. To attract these readers, a novel might be given a cover featuring images of women or children, it might come with a reading group guide, and it might be emblazoned with a sticker from another female-oriented media organisation: Oprah, Richard & Judy, or the Australian Women’s Weekly.

What effects might such packaging have on a novel’s critical reception? Despite recurrent proclamations of an end to cultural hierarchies, a move towards a broad readership still often means a move away from prestige. A book promoted in this way enters the terrain of the middlebrow, a word that suggests exclusion from serious literature. For example, Ivor Indyk’s recent piece for the Sydney Review of Books argued that literary prizes, rather than acting as ‘the last bastion, in this world, for the literary recognition that is withheld by the marketplace’, have been overtaken by  ‘the cult of the middlebrow’ so that prizes frequently go to authors who have ‘appeal’ rather than those who are ‘challenging or innovative’.

The word middlebrow galvanises the rhetorical opposition between commerce and art; it’s a provocative, loaded word that usually gets a response. But the middlebrow is more than a trigger for controversy. It is a specific cultural formation that arose in the mid-twentieth century, manifested in the Book-of-the-Month Club, Great Books programs and so on. It is present today in online cultural magazines, bookshop cafes, or the Twitter feed of a literary festival. We can recognise the middlebrow by a set of features. It is associated with women and the middle class. It is reverent towards legitimate culture and thus concerned with quality – the middlebrow shies away from the trashy – at the same time as it is enmeshed in commerce and explicitly mediated. The middlebrow is concerned with the domestic and recreational rather than the academic or professional, it is emotional, and it has a quality of ethical seriousness. These features can combine to make a book vibrantly social, a catalyst for passionate conversations between readers.

It is most useful to think about the middlebrow as a set of practices, rather than a label permanently affixed to a cultural product or institution. Books and their readers may slip in and out of the middlebrow; they may be middlebrow in some circumstances, but not in others. This is evident in three recent Australian novels, by Susan Johnson, Stephanie Bishop and Antonia Hayes. Each of these three novels has features that lend themselves to middlebrow readings, including their gendered packaging and their themes, particularly their attention to the ethics of intimate relationships. At the same time, other aspects of the novels, such as their formal techniques, work against the middlebrow and keep open the potential for these books to be drawn into literary circuits of reception.

Susan Johnson is an established author of literary fiction and non-fiction, with several of her books shortlisted for awards. The Landing is her breakthrough book, a change marked by its naturalistic cover image of a woman in a red dress standing at the edge of lapping water. It is not just critics but also readers who notice this packaging: as one wrote on the reader-review website Goodreads, ‘I am guessing that the marketing department at Allen & Unwin have chosen this cliché cover design to appeal to a wider audience than Susan Johnson’s readership who like her literary fiction.’ The shift rankles this reader, but The Landing is a book that works on several levels and may well appeal to a range of readerships.

The novel opens with Jonathan Lott driving to his holiday house in The Landing, a secluded small town close to Brisbane. Jonathan, in shock after being left by his wife, is one of the protagonists; the other is Penny Collins, a divorced resident of the town dealing with the demands of both her impulsive daughter, Scarlett, and her aging mother, Marie. These characters are supported by a quirky ensemble of residents and visitors, such as nosy Sylv and Phil who run the corner store, the aging Glaswegian Dr Gordie, fantastically snobbish Celia and her husband Glen, and a wistful child, Giselle. It’s an appealing, eccentric small community – SeaChange in book form. But it is also an Austen-inspired set-up for social commentary, as flagged by the novel’s first line: ‘If a separated man – about to be divorced – is in possession of a good fortune, must he be in want of a new wife?’ The text moves nimbly between accessible middlebrow charm and the literary distance of astute irony. When Jonathan invites Penny to a dinner party, for example, the novel’s close third person perspective notes her surprise at being asked to bring dessert (‘What a tight-arse, she thought as they parted, asking people to dinner and then asking them to bring the dinner’) and then follows her rapid train of thought (‘he never gave mates rates on his house either’) leading all the way to his rumoured one-night-stand with the local real estate agent. The compressed, escalating indignation of this passage is very Austen and very funny. Johnson’s technique grounds reception of her work in literary terms: Susan Lever writes in Inside Story that ‘few Australian novelists can manage the consistently ironic tone that is Johnson’s strength in this and earlier novels,’ while Susan Chenery in the Sydney Morning Herald notes ‘the quality of Johnson’s writing’ and describes her as one of the ‘most underrated writers in the country.’

Johnson’s versatility is on display in the dinner party scene, where her skewering of upper-middle-class sociality is interwoven with another level of the novel, its exploration of characters’ emotions:

‘I hope the meat’s halal,’ said Glen. ‘You know we’ll all be eating halal soon. You sheilas will be covered from head to toe in black curtains, with little slits for your eyes.’

Marie gave Penny an I-told-you-so-look, a look that flooded Penny with a high, operatic, out-of-proportion emotion. In the company of Marie her emotions were enlarged, perilously close to the surface, including feelings she did not previously know she possessed. Marie acted upon her as a kind of truth serum, causing her inner self to stand revealed – or at lest her more primitive self, which predated manners.

‘Oh, for God’s sake,’ Penny said, ‘this anti-Muslim hysteria is ridiculous.’
‘You won’t be saying that when you get your hands cut off for adultery,’ said Marie.

This is a satirical treatment of political views, but Penny’s emotional turmoil is also real. The competition between two forces, the desire for intimacy and the need for individuation, is integral to this novel. It is attentive to different forms of connection and isolation, from Penny’s desire for an identity separate from her mother, to Jonathan’s helplessness after the departure of his wife, to the sense of claustrophobia in a small community. Self-knowledge and relationships are themes in many works of literary fiction, but the high pitch of emotion in Johnson’s writing means that these elements of The Landing can also be drawn into middlebrow, Alain de Botton- or Oprah-esque models of reading for identification and therapy.

Nested within these layers is a third, the story of Marie’s emigration from France to Brisbane in the 1950s. We follow her romance with department store heir Syd Collins (who jumps off a bridge when she refuses his marriage proposal), her anxiety about her past in France, and her eventual evolution into a society figure and businesswoman. Marie is a wonderful character and these sections of the novel showcase one of the most likeable aspects of the middlebrow: that of simply reading a great story. The pleasure of reading Johnson’s book has been one dimension of its reception. Louise Fay in Bookseller and Publisher describes the book as ‘an enjoyable novel, perfect for those who enjoy family dramas with a bit more depth, such as those by Fiona McIntosh or Monica McInerney’, and a Goodreads reader calls it ‘an enjoyable light read’. Lightness is certainly part of The Landing’s appeal, but it is shot through with an equally appealing literary intelligence.

Stephanie Bishop has literary credentials: prize nominations, grants, a position as lecturer in creative writing at the University of New South Wales, and experience as a literary critic for the Sydney Review of Books, among other publications. At the same time, her second novel, The Other Side of the World, has been promoted to a wide readership: featured in 86 bookshop displays and selected as a Great Read by the Australian Women’s Weekly. Hachette Australia describes The Other Side of the World  as a book ‘the whole company has fallen in love with’  which ‘we are determined to publish… with the splash it deserves.’

Near the top of the Goodreads page for The Other Side of the World, a reader poses a question: ‘What would you say the genre is for this book?‘ Another reader answers:

I would say maybe Domestic Fiction? However, while the novel explores issues such as motherhood and marriage, it also looks at broader themes like race, culture, travel, identity and ‘life changing decisions’. It is also within both English AND Australian Fiction I would think.

This condensed interaction, a kind of book club in four sentences, points to some of the ways in which Bishop’s novel can be folded into middlebrow reading practices: attentive to domesticity, motherhood, marriage. Along the top edge of the cover, two upside-down children run in shadowy silhouette, a familial image reinforced by the back cover blurb: ‘Cambridge, 1963. Charlotte is struggling. With motherhood, with the changes marriage and parenthood bring…’ Yet the inversion of the image unsettles the book’s straightforward appeal; a disturbance that prefigures the book’s participation across middlebrow and literary modes of reception.

The novel begins with a prologue, a flash forward to Cambridge, 1966, that establishes Charlotte’s anxiety over her relationship with Henry, and concludes with a heart-wrenching twist: ‘And the children? Where are they? The children.’ The novel then shifts back three years and introduces Charlotte as a newly-married young mother in Cambridge. Her husband Henry decides that the family should emigrate to Australia and Charlotte acquiesces, sparking both the novel’s action and emotional tension.

Charlotte is struggling with motherhood, and her ambivalence towards her children is at the centre of some of the novel’s most vivid scenes. In one, the toddler Lucie is calling out for attention in the family’s Perth backyard and Charlotte resists by deliberately prolonging the task of beating the carpets. As in Christos Tsiolkas’ work, this scene is replete with the sublimated violence of our most ordinary relationships:

Now! Now! Now!’ Lucie screams, as the dull thwunk, thwunk of the stick continues, its pace increasing. Lucie’s separate cries blur into one long, loose-ended wail. As Charlotte works, she feels the labour give rise to a certain glory. The girls will not come near her while she strikes at the carpet. She is alone, free. This second is hers, goes the stick. And this one, and this one and this.

Charlotte expects her daughter to be angry with her – ‘It would be proof, she thinks, that she is not fit for this after all’ – but when Charlotte picks her up, Lucie’s ‘little hands pat her mother’s back as though she is the one in need of comfort’.

The power relations between Henry and Charlotte are just as interesting. A sustained account of Charlotte painting Henry’s portrait is reminiscent of the gender politics of Lily Briscoe’s painting in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. In Bishop’s scenes, Henry’s physical discomfort contrasts with Charlotte’s re-discovered professional absorption, and it is in the process of painting that she realises she moved to Australia because ‘she didn’t have the strength to refuse’. The question for Charlotte becomes whether she should stay or go, and her mixed feelings persist through to the novel’s powerful, ambiguous ending: we’re not quite sure whether this book affirms or disrupts its domestic frame.

The novel is propelled by Charlotte’s emotional tumult, but it also has a broader interest in migration, nostalgia and questions about belonging. Bishop has spoken about the influence of her own migrations and those of her grandparents on her treatment of these issues, and readers may have their own experiences to compare with those of Charlotte and Henry. While Charlotte feels torn from her English home, Henry is unsure whether he belongs anywhere: born in India and raised in England, he moves to Australia in search of the sense of home that eluded him in both places. His quest is complicated by his encounters with racism in Australia and a return visit to India. These highly ‘discussable’ themes as well as the central domestic drama make the book middlebrow-friendly, and are emphasised by Hachette’s reading group questions : ‘How do you think Henry and Charlotte’s relationship has been changed by the arrival of children?’, ‘How much have attitudes towards race changed in Australia since the 1960s?’

But the novel can also be appreciated in more specifically literary ways due to its careful, poetic and polished prose, which is particularly evident in descriptions of landscape. Dorothy Johnston in the Sydney Morning Herald writes that Bishop’s ‘prose style is fluid yet precise’, and Felicity Plunkett writes in The Australian that ‘the novel thrums with an elegiac hum… the precision and flair of the writing is breathtaking.’ Bishop’s formal skill, combined with the ambivalence of the novel’s ending, establish the possibilities for a literary reading of The Other Side of the World alongside its popular reception.

In early press for Antonia Hayes’ debut novel Relativity, Penguin Australia publisher Ben Ball wrote that ‘With touches of A Beautiful Mind and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Relativity will be a huge and exciting book for us in 2015.’ The child at the centre of Relativity, 12-year-old Ethan, has a love of physics and Hayes weaves its language into her novel, particularly in descriptions of the relationships amongst the family unit of Ethan, his father, Mark, and his mother Claire. In one scene, Ethan and Claire watch a meteor shower from Jubilee Park:

She pulled the sleeves of her jumper over her hands and shivered. Ethan gave her a hug to help her molecules expand. In the dark, her pale skin and fair hair seemed blue. When Ethan looked at his mum, he saw another universe – a world intact, of soothing shapes and soft textures, of beautiful angles and the warmest light. His universe.

These frequent physics metaphors will be loved by some and hated by others, or else loved for a while before the reader grows a bit tired of them. They’re certainly one of the distinctive features of Relativity, foreshadowed by the embossed equations on the night sky of the Australian cover. But as the silhouetted figures also on that cover suggest, relationships are the core of this novel, animated by a strong moral issue and the dilemmas it raises. As LS put it in a review for The Saturday Paper, Hayes ‘may well become our very own Jodi Picoult.’

Relativity begins with a compelling hook, a description of panic that ‘surfaces as an irregularity of breath… “Help,” he said. “He’s not breathing”’. The he, it turns out, is Ethan, who suffered a brain injury as a baby. The driving question of the first part of the novel is whether or not that injury was inflicted by his father. Through progressive flashbacks, the reader arrives at the moment before baby Ethan’s injury. Claire is away auditioning for a dance role despite Mark’s resistance to the revival of her career. In this scenario, the lines of sympathy are clearly drawn, even if Mark later admits ‘I’m just scared about being left alone with him.’ It is while Claire is at the audition that the baby is injured, and the descriptions from the hospital scene are distressing:

In the photographs, purple marks covered Ethan’s pale skin, his eyes looked dead, a sickening pattern of bruises dotted his chest. She squeezed her eyes shut, and then opened them again.

In interviews, Hayes has disclosed that the events of Relativity are based on her own life. Her son was shaken as a baby and has now recovered from his brain injuries. The novel has the authority of personal experience and the wrongness of child abuse is forcefully presented.  The advantage of writing this story as fiction, however, is that Hayes can inhabit multiple perspectives as she considers the nuanced moral questions that become the most engaging aspects of the book. Can a good person do a terrible thing? How would they explain it to themselves afterwards? Is forgiveness conceivable, and what would it look like? What kinds of relationships are possible? The novel invites readers to empathise, reflect and then discuss these issues.

This is a novel of emotional intensity and ethical seriousness, delivered in clear, direct prose: as one Goodreads reviewer responded, ‘Oh the feels. AMAZING. Sad, happy and complicated but such an easy read. Could not put it down.’ This combination of qualities aligns well with the middlebrow. In the words of another Goodreads reader, the novel sits in ‘a comfortable middle ground between literary and popular fiction.’ Relativity showcases the particular pleasures of middlebrow reading – it is well-written and interesting, a book to spark thought, discussion and emotional investment. But readers, like critics, can react against explicitly middlebrow packaging. One Goodreads reviewer was annoyed by the large, gold Women’s Weekly Great Read sticker on the cover of Relativity:

I had read a good review in The Age but was almost put off when I bought it because of the Women’s Weekly Great Reads sticker – why do they put those things there? Nevertheless, literary snob that I am, I did purchase it and enjoyed it.

As these three novels show, contemporary readers, critics, authors and publishers are constantly negotiating cultural distinctions, moving in and out of middlebrow and literary modes of appreciation, valuing books for their manifold pleasures. Each of these novels has much to offer readers. The Other Side of the World is the book my mother picked up at my house and became instantly absorbed in, hooked on the story and loving the language. Relativity is the book that got me into a heated debate with friends over an afternoon beer. The Landing is the book with passages that I read aloud to my partner, because they were so sharply observed and funny that I had to share them. Some of the pleasures of these novels are middlebrow, all of them contribute to a vibrant Australian culture of books and reading.

References

Stephanie Bishop, The Other Side of the World, (Hachette, 2015).
Susan Chenery, ‘The Landing by Susan Johnson shows a contemporary world in delicious microcosm’, Sydney Morning Herald
Louise Fay, ‘The Landing’, Bookseller and Publisher
Goodreads page for The Other Side of the World
Goodreads page for The Landing
Goodreads page for Relativity
Antonia Hayes, Relativity, (Penguin, 2015).
Ivor Indyk, ‘The Cult of the Middlebrow’, Sydney Review of Books.
Susan Johnson, The Landing, (Allen & Unwin, 2015).
Dorothy Johnston, ‘The Other Side of the World review: a meditation on the longing for home’ Sydney Morning Herald
Susan Lever, ‘The Way We Live Now’, Inside Story
Felicity Plunkett, ‘Stephanie Bishop’s Other Side takes poetic ride to 1965’ The Australian
LS, ‘Relativity’, The Saturday Paper
Joanne Shiells, ‘Relativity’, Bookseller and Publisher