As One In Rejecting The Label ‘Middlebrow’
Written in response to:
“middlebrow” (adj) derogatory
- demanding, involving, or having only a moderate degree of intellectual application ie “middlebrow fiction”
To the editor,
It may be, to quote that renowned highbrow author, the late Ms Virginia Woolf, ‘that “terrifically sensitive” lady novelists overestimate the dampness and dinginess’ of the middle-brow fungoid growth. But, be that as it may, the three terrifically sensitive lady novelists signing our names below are startled and offended by your reviewer Beth Driscoll’s collective dismissal of any discriminating powers of intellectual application to our respective works.
Please find three separate responses from us but know that we are as one in rejecting such a label,
Susan Johnson, Antonia Hayes, Stephanie Bishop
From Antonia Hayes:
I want to thank the Sydney Review of Books and Beth Driscoll for the recent commentary on my novel, even going so far as to say ‘it is well-written and interesting, a book to spark thought, discussion and emotional investment’. This is high praise, but I also felt it was necessary to respond to some of Beth Driscoll’s comments about middlebrow cultural distinctions in her recent essay ‘Could Not Put it Down’ and how she related these practices not only to the treatment of my work but also to that of my peers, Stephanie Bishop and Susan Johnson.
All of us are slaves to the irrationality of our brains. This is why first impressions count: our amygdala constantly makes subliminal, near-instantaneous judgments. Being judgmental is animal behaviour that’s been crucial to our evolutionary survival. Although we’re urged not to judge a book by its cover, the primitive part of our brain cannot help it. If you glance at the cover of Relativity, it’s likely you’ll be distracted by a shiny thing: light glinting off the golden Australian Womens’ Weekly Great Read sticker.
Driscoll opens her essay by asking ‘what effects might such packaging have on a novel’s critical reception?’ before quickly answering her own question by immediately pulling my novel, as well as The Other Side of the World by Stephanie Bishop and The Landing by Susan Johnson, into a contentious cultural landscape: ‘the terrain of the middlebrow’.
Middlebrow is a difficult term; it implies an aesthetic pecking order, and is more often than not used in a derogatory way. Driscoll herself acknowledges this, that ‘it’s a provocative, loaded word that usually gets a response’ — and she is clear she doesn’t use the label as an insult. And yet, in this particular piece, Driscoll inadvertently belittles the cultural value of these novels simply by insinuating that they have middlebrow features — ‘a word that suggests exclusion from serious literature’ — and asserting that ‘a move towards a broad readership still often means a move away from prestige’.
To be clear, this essay is not literary criticism of aesthetic form, but rather commentary on allegorical meaning gleaned from packaging, positioning and content. Driscoll’s piece resembles precisely what Susan Sontag is averse to in her essay Against Interpretation, where ‘the project of interpretation is largely reactionary, stifling… In a culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capability, interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.’ Driscoll strongly enforces her middlebrow interpretation onto these three books to the point where her narrow analysis asphyxiates them of any artistic value, even when she’s trying to find it.
Looking more closely at Driscoll’s book, The New Literary Middlebrow: Tastemakers and Reading in the Twenty-First Century, she defines the middlebrow as having eight key features: ‘the middlebrow is middle class and feminized. It is reverential towards elite culture and also entrepreneurial. Its practices are recreational, emotional and earnest, and it is always mediated: through cultural intermediaries and through the technological processes of the mass media.’ Driscoll explores middlebrow in her book primarily as practice — a way of reading — and uses the term to describe institutions such as book clubs and literary festivals. When Driscoll refers to middlebrow texts in her book, she places them in the context of middlebrow reading, like the relationship between the novels that feature on Oprah’s Book Club and its audience.
Yet in this essay, the three novels examined are unambiguously identified as middlebrow texts without the filter of a relative middlebrow context — not only within Driscoll’s commentary but also directly by the Sydney Review of Books in their ‘Coming Soon’ side panel. Driscoll’s vague definition of middlebrow in the essay muddies the waters; I had to seek out her book for clarification because her explanation was confused. Who or what is she talking about exactly? By describing the middlebrow as set as practices but failing to articulate whose set of practices (the writer or the reader), we automatically infer that Driscoll is straight up calling these books middlebrow.
But if literary middlebrow is taste — a way of reading — then how precisely does that taste relate to these texts?
Driscoll’s work draws heavily on the field theories of Pierre Bourdieu, who plotted writers onto a literary field where they operated at two opposed positions: bestselling commercial writers at one pole (heteronomous, or lowbrow), and pure literary writers at the other pole (autonomous, or highbrow). Driscoll’s book is a sociological exploration of the middle part of this field, expanding Bourdieu’s work to fit into her take on contemporary literary culture. Bourdieu’s ideas about ‘relationality’ and literary position-taking appeal to a physics nerd like me: in Einstein’s special relativity, time changes according to the speed of a moving object relative to the observer. Fundamental to Bourdieu’s view is how literature cannot be understood purely in reference to itself but must be situated in terms of other points of reference both in meaning and practice — cultural products, producers, consumers and institutions are intertwined.
Important parallels between French literary theory and the Australian Women’s Weekly aside, the real missing link between Bourdieu’s theory of the literary field and Driscoll’s essay is Bourdieu’s acknowledgment of artistic aspiration, the motivation of the producer. Bourdieu’s field refers to the principles of the individual writer — whether they valued popularity and commercial success or artistic prestige and peer respect — and which pole the writer used to measure their own success.
Driscoll uses Bourdieu’s stratification idea to shape her own contemporary cultural hierarchy, zooming in on that liminal middle space of the literary field between high and low where commerce and art can somehow magically coexist. But in this essay, she moves Bourdieu’s literary theory goalposts by focusing on commodified symbolic meaning within the greater cultural landscape — like middlebrow packaging, promotion and readership.
Bourdieu’s polar positions of high and low concern the writer’s intention and purpose, why they write — while Driscoll’s vocabulary of polarity refers to ‘the rhetorical opposition between commerce and art’ and ‘domestic and recreational rather than the academic or professional’. Driscoll simplifies the cultural sphere into competing ideological positions of consumer culture, where middlebrow must be the compromise in between, but overlooks writer intention and purpose. In this sense, Driscoll removes the writer from the equation in an assessment of their cultural value.
From book reviews to media interviews, I’ve personally seen — as a publicist working in trade publishing, a bookseller, and now author — how often assumptions are made about a writer’s intention and purpose that rely on publisher positioning, marketing, publicity and promotion as proof. I can’t speak for Bishop and Johnson, but I strongly disagree with Driscoll’s interpretation of my artistic motivation in writing Relativity; I take issue with the fact that she asserts that ‘the lines of sympathy are clearly drawn’ or that ‘the wrongness of child abuse is forcefully presented’ — in fact, I wrote an essay explicitly saying I was doing the opposite.
Driscoll’s picking and choosing of sources, like pungent sound bites from reviews, to fit her argument is equally vexing. While I appreciate that she’s taking an interdisciplinary approach with her commentary, she weakens her analysis by relying on Goodreads to prove her points and reinforce the middlebrow.
I found readers on Goodreads who love Johnson’s ‘use of language, her well-rounded characters and the wonderful sense of place which her writing engenders’ in The Landing; and readers ‘totally amazed with the writing style and the complexity of the story itself’ of Bishop’s The Other Side of the World; even someone who said ‘Relativity has all the motifs, themes, images and topical discussion points as any Australian classic’. Other readings deem each novel a disappointment and incongruous with reader expectation: that The Landing ‘kind of reminds me of a boring story your Gran would probably tell you about times past and her neighbours – you listen but don’t really get into the story’; that in The Other Side of the World ‘not enough happens! Pages of descriptions of pushing a pram around the park, the sunlight on the trees, the heat, the cold, blah, blah…’; that Relativity ‘felt as though I was reading a text book on physics instead of a novel’.
What exactly does this prove?
That this is the nature of reading. Novels are never limited to a single interpretation or neatly support a narrow set of aesthetic practices. Reading is always idiosyncratic; nobody reads the same book the same way, and readers always bring themselves to the page. It’s a strange idea: to apply a checklist of practices — like ‘qualities that align well with the middlebrow’ aesthetic — to something as individual as reading. To read is always to misread. To read is never to misread as well. Every book will tally with features of the middlebrow checklist as much as every book will not.
The logic of Driscoll’s cultural analysis in this essay is also unconvincing. It’s explicit from the first paragraph that The Landing, The Other Side of the World and Relativity were strategically chosen for this piece — to be analysed through the middlebrow viewpoint — because of their packaging, promotion, marketing and sales points. This makes for a blinkered argument that works towards correlating these novels with a middlebrow readership based on promotional elements exterior to the text. Packaging, promotion, marketing and sales points should not the foundation on which cultural value is judged. On closer reading of each novel’s text, although secondary to their commercial positioning, Driscoll also points out ways all three novels fall outside middlebrow reading practices. So her thesis follows that novels enjoyed by a middlebrow audience might actually have literary and aesthetic value.
This is stretching her subjects to fit her argument. In theory, any three novels could be aligned with middlebrow values in this way. Patrick White’s Riders in the Chariot sits within Driscoll’s list of middlebrow practices in some ways and also does not. Most novels fall inside and outside that definition. Beyond the slippery meaning of middlebrow, should a novel’s aesthetic and literary value be based on a portion of its readership?
While I appreciate Driscoll’s — ultimately — positive reading of all three novels, this essay is problematic because it validates two broader issues in contemporary Australian literary culture. The first is the tainted measuring stick of commercial appeal. Ivor Indyk’s recent piece on ‘The Cult of the Middlebrow’ is spoken through a veneer of frustration but implies exclusion and artistic superiority: ‘It’s a truth well understood, though perhaps not much regarded these days, that literary quality stands in an often hostile relation to popular appeal’.
That comment is cultural weaponry; it’s the Sydney Review of Books pulling rank. It’s reductive to assume that something appealing is hostile to beauty, or something that sells in the marketplace is at opposition with quality. If theoretical physicists can agree that light can behave as both a particle and a wave, surely literary theorists should be able to embrace duality — real artistic and commercial success — that isn’t simply a middlebrow compromise.
The second issue it validates is gender bias in literature. To say the middlebrow is only about gender would be to simplify Driscoll’s argument, but to say our novels are open to literary readings in spite of their positioning is an excruciatingly gendered stance to take. As the Stella Count demonstrates, women writers across Australia are often not given equal voice, but they’re also not given equal reading. Gender should be separate to critical reception, but it never is.
If we’re going to break apart the middlebrow aesthetic and really show it has value, why not use books that are institutionally highbrow but full of middlebrow practices? Why not include a book written by a man? It conveys a great deal that the Sydney Review of Books wants to interrogate institutionally middlebrow books written by female authors (but that have highbrow practices) rather than the other way around.
Golden stickers are not the only way we’re easily distracted by shiny things. The way I’ve been addressed in the cultural sphere, with constant reactions to my appearance and gender — comments at literary festivals and events about my hair, my dress, my shoes; irrelevant references in book reviews to the fact I was a teen mother — speak volumes about the currency of how women are primarily valued. Saying my novel ‘has the authority of personal experience’ has the effect of reducing my authority as a writer of fiction; claiming that ‘the events of Relativity are based on her own life’ diminishes my imagination and understanding of craft.
This treatment of fiction, written by women or targeted to women, mirrors the way we treat women: as objects, where substance is an afterthought. The structure of Driscoll’s argument is all about surfaces — stickers, covers, marketing, publicity — and considering the words and meaning below the surface reads like a brief digression. This essay simplifies the middlebrow into a gendered term that doubles for domestic — which isn’t exactly how Driscoll treats it in her book — but what Driscoll and the Sydney Review of Books ultimately get wrong with the message of this piece is that they chose to assess the work of three women.
What are we supposed to do with these theoretical assessments? Indyk says awards are middlebrow, Carman says festivals are middlebrow and now Driscoll says novels are middlebrow. The savage rhetoric and empty intellectualisation of shrinking the status of authors and books and institutions distorts reality — it’s just another shiny thing. What alternative is on offer? What cultural utopia are they hoping these diatribes will create?
But to borrow from Sontag again, perhaps this is what the Sydney Review of Books does best: ‘jerking off the universe… an intense, and not very sociable pleasure, which has to be repeated again and again.’
From Stephanie Bishop:
While I am grateful for Beth Driscoll’s coverage of my novel, along with two recent novels by my peers, and appreciate what is, overall, a positive reception, I am deeply troubled by the gender bias of this piece and by the reductive, exclusive and hierarchical argument that pits ‘middlebrow’ books and reading practices against the idea of ‘prestig[ous]’ ‘serious literature’.
According to Driscoll’s piece, the middlebrow can refer to a way of reading, marketing strategies, a type of audience, and the content of a book. As a set of practices relating to a book’s content, Driscoll argues that middlebrow here refers to books that are ‘concerned with the domestic and recreational’. They are books that are ‘emotional’ and have ‘a quality of ethical seriousness’. Judging from the claims she makes about the novels under review, one learns that middlebrow features also include a compelling plot, a focus on ‘intimate relationships’, subject matter that inspires debate, and emotional complexity. As far as I can tell, these concerns and practices are not gender specific – in no way are they limited to appearing in books written by women. So why then, is this term used only in relation to books written by women? The term, as it is discussed in Driscoll’s piece, isn’t once used in reference to a book written by a man. Why, here, do male novelists, by their very absence, appear immune to the categorisation of the middlebrow?
What is particularly troubling in this article is the way in which these non-gendered practices are clearly tied to female experience: ‘We can recognise the middlebrow by a set of features. It is associated with women and the middle class.’
But is Driscoll referring to middle class women readers, or to middle class women writers, or even middle class women characters? Quite possibly all three. The failure to adequately discriminate here means that, based on a judgment of gender and broad class orientation, the article marginalizes the work and concerns of an entire group of people, preventing them from claiming cultural authority and prohibiting a serious reception of their writing as ‘challenging or innovative’ (Indyk’s phrasing in another recent SRB piece), the true benchmark of the literary.
The piece unwittingly quarantines and belittles middle class women writers, their books and a female readership. Driscoll’s essay opens with a well-known fact: women are the people who read, and by default make up the mainstream market. Because of this, Driscoll claims, books are often marketed to women readers. The books that catch the attention of this mainstream audience are often united, Driscoll argues, by middlebrow practices. In this way the term middlebrow is used to refer to a group of readers (ie. middle class women), as well as to features that have long commonly defined the novel. But given that it is well known that women read books written by both men and women, and that middlebrow practices cannot possibly be gender specific, there is nothing to warrant the subsequent sole focus on books written by women.
Moreover, throughout Driscoll’s piece middlebrow is used not only as a gendered term, but as a hierarchical one in regards to culture, connoting, in one direction lowbrow and trash, and in the other, highbrow and elite. From the start, Driscoll sets up the middlebrow in opposition to the literary or highbrow:
… 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.
This quote comes early on in Driscoll’s piece and is later softened, but not refuted. Driscoll acknowledges that the books under review may well be read for their literary merit, but this is the thing: a literary reception, Driscoll makes clear, is certainly a possibility for these books, but this is seen as a potential and secondary interpretation. The books are clearly branded by the SRB as ‘middlebrow novels’ and throughout the piece mere lip-service is given to the way they may be viewed as nominally literary. The books remain subject to the overarching exclusionary argument, and are bullied into supporting an ill-defined term.
Yet none of Driscoll’s exclusionary claims are validated: why would a book that receives mainstream attention automatically be distanced from the possibility of being considered ‘serious literature’? Why would a large readership mean a lack of prestige? One might assume that this is a judgment based on the notion of the lowest common denominator – a large, mainstream readership surely couldn’t appreciate high literature, and therefore a book that appeals to the masses by definition cannot be high literature. It is not only an insulting claim, but in the process of making this argument the piece fails to adequately account for the way in which a complex novel might operate across several levels and therefore appeal to many different audiences simultaneously.
It is a patronising way of referring to the popular, as though what is, or becomes, popular must by definition be devoid of and excluded from the possibility of being of significant literary value. In this piece, middlebrow is a term often placed in proximity to the notion of ‘mainstream’. While mainstream can be defined in terms of numbers and is a way of signifying a majority, middlebrow instead implies an arrested capacity for aesthetic assessment, it implies an unrefined judgment of taste.
Because middlebrow is used here as a hierarchical term, those who are placed inside this category cannot freely move into the upper echelons of literature. Female authors who attain ‘mainstream’ success are automatically middlebrowed – according to Driscoll’s logic – and thus barred from being viewed as serious writers of literature. While by going unmentioned, and therefore remaining immune to this categorization, male authors retain access to this elite realm, even if they too have found what we might call popular success by drawing on middlebrow practices.
As an academic Driscoll specialises in the middlebrow, yet in this article her argument depends too much on a simplified version of the term used by Ivor Indyk in his complaint against literary prizes. Indyk, in his piece, mimics the phrase ‘middlebrow’ as it was used by the critic Jonathan Jones, when he complained about the outpouring over Terry Pratchett’s death. Indyk fails to assess the parameters of this category, and instead uses the term to broadly dismiss anything that has ‘appeal’.
Driscoll’s discussion hinges heavily on Indyk’s blunt use of the term and his subsequent argument, in which he asserts the exclusive scenario that Driscoll does little to rebut: ‘literary quality stands in an often hostile relation to popular appeal’ (Indyk’s phrasing). As a result, Driscoll’s piece reads increasingly like the follow-up to this complaint. The implied target of Driscoll’s piece — and Indyk’s before her — is the commercial publishing industry and the influence wielded by associated big media. But this is to assume that high literature is untouched by commercial practices. In so many ways this is simply not the case and the resulting argument is unnecessarily polarized and simplistic.
In terms of how it is used in this piece, middlebrow becomes a biased and unhelpful catchall category that withholds from middle class female readers the possibility of reading as intellectuals, and prevents any middle class woman whose writing might engage with middlebrow practices from entering the sphere of the literary. In Driscoll’s academic book on the subject of the middlebrow, male middlebrow authors are mentioned, they include Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Safran-Foer. Why is this not made clear in the SRB article?
The resulting piece is neither long-form evaluative criticism, nor is it a robust academic interrogation of the notion of the middlebrow. If it were to be a comprehensive analysis of middlebrow reading practices, middlebrow content and the middlebrow marketing of books, it would have done better to address this across a wider range of new and contemporary novels and assessed the field. A great number of novels more amply reviewed in the Sydney Review of Books, and reviewed on their own terms, also fall prey to this broad category by dint of content, readership, marketing or author identity: maybe they have pastel-hued covers, maybe their books have been promoted on a Twitter feed, perhaps the author has spoken at a writers’ festival, or perhaps the book focuses on the life of a family, or a group of middle class women, or follows the experiences of a middle class female traveller or emigrant. Why does Ivor Indyk complain that poetry doesn’t receive enough attention? Surely this is a sign that it is high and serious literature, untainted by the middlebrow.
So perhaps we do learn something from this piece after all. It has little to do with a comprehensive understanding of the middlebrow. Instead, what we come away with, by deduction, is a very clear understanding of what serious literature ought to look like: it would be written (and read) by a man not belonging to the middle class, it would be all too easy to put down, without compelling plot, it would be non-emotional, without ethical seriousness, it would be about academia and the professions, it would not be about relationships, the cover would in no way inspire you to pick it up, it would be a book that people felt no desire to discuss, it would be a book that people felt no connection with and it would be read by few.
From Susan Johnson:
I’VE LONG KNOWN that excellence in writing is linked to intelligence, that you only get the genius writing of Saul Bellow because of the genius of Saul Bellow. The fact that Bellow was an anthropology scholar, familiar with Hebrew and Hebrew texts, well acquainted with the works of Heidegger, Shakespeare and Schopenhauer – combined with being born Jewish at a particular moment in history – seemed designed to deliver him into the fullness of his own talent.
I believe too, as Hilary Mantel once wrote of JM Coetzee in the New York Review of Books, that some writers – especially those born under the regimes of the old Soviet Union and in South Africa under apartheid – are automatically cut a ‘slice of moral grandeur’ because of their place of birth, theirs for nothing as soon as they take up their pen. ‘Committed to seriousness, and bound either to emigration or delicate evasion of the censor, they need perhaps feel no obligation to entertain,’ she wrote.
I believe Conrad is Conrad because he was multi-lingual, gifted with an innate intellectual facility that allowed him not only to write in his native Polish but to write books of genius in English, as Russian-born Nabokov later did, and as Beckett later came to write only in French.
And yet – here’s the paradox – creativity is not measured by one’s quota of intelligence. The muscle of the brain is closely twinned with the muscle of the imagination but births something infinitely more mysterious – what is consciousness? What is creativity? Indeed, what is a person? What is this unique business that was once called a soul – and how indivisible, yet how enigmatic, the relationship between the smallness or vastness of the intellect with its imaginative creations!
For years and years – for all the almost-thirty years of my writing life in fact – I’ve known about this twinning, and yet I’ve worked on. Do good intentions, good will and good effort turn the struggle for apprehension into an artistic creation that succeeds in penetrating the reality of this everyday world? If my thirty years of work fails to rate a mention in, say, the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature can that work be said to exist? It seems to me that any debate between highbrow and middlebrow fiction is essentially one about reputation, and in the face of the building of a literary reputation the author is defenceless.
Roethke wrote ‘We think by feeling. What is there to know?’ The writer’s task is to navigate by feeling: facts, even history or what passes for it, or indeed all the thinking and cleverness in the world will not write our books for us. I’m a white, middle-class woman, with my own unchangeable portion of intelligence, born into the safety of the middle of the twentieth century. What stories can I tell? What is the narrative I can spin into the night of my life here on earth, compelling enough to keep your eyes open, to entertain you, a woman writer without a war, without an oppressive government, without a single slice of moral grandeur? I’m not even an Indigenous Australian.
What I do know is this: simplicity is not the enemy of intelligence. Feeling is not the enemy of thought. In the realm of the imagination, the moral duty of the writer is to uphold her own truth. I thank Beth Driscoll for taking my work seriously – middlebrow or high – for noticing that it exists at all in the reality of the impenetrable everyday world.
These three comments are in respond to ‘Could Not Put It Down’, an essay by Beth Driscoll published on the Sydney Review of Books on 20 October 2015.