The Cult of the Middlebrow
Written in response to:
Prize lists, which Ivor Indyk discusses in his brilliant and piercing piece ‘The Cult of the Middlebrow’ are symptoms of what constitutes literary value. There are, of course, other symptoms that indicate the system as a whole and at present we still lack an adequate understanding of middlebrow taste from a sociological and aesthetic perspective. In other words, we still need materialist critiques of the literary bureaucratic establishment. That this taste is so dependent on certain individuals, writers’ festival directors for example, but that there is much cultural agreement points us to the way in which power operates. In other words, the construction of thought leaders is matched only by the belief of readers as followers even as many possess little more than a journalistic, or undergraduate, critical sensibility that is profoundly ahistorical. This ahistoricity is coupled with an emaciated and continually attacked education system and a featherbedded review culture requiring the substitution of judgement for personal preference and networking. One need only witness Readings book reviews, which do little more than reproduce ad copy that is intended to help market the book as commodity. The bookseller in this case does a disservice to literature and to the ideal reader. In one iteration, this ends up in a refusal to retrofit, radicalise and re-think through the possibilities of suburban life and so what is hot paradoxically ends up being, in Martin Harrison’s phrase, ‘a narrow kind of talk’. But more importantly, it ends up as a type of nationalist boosterism that is aesthetically conservative and outdated. I cringed at the presence of two advertised poetry events in the recent Melbourne Writers Festival program including one with Quadrant icon Les Murray. How can a writers festival claim any kind of status, national let alone international, when there is effectively no poetry? Moreover, would MWF invite Keith Windschuttle? And if not Windschuttle why Murray?
Poetry, as Indyk points out in this piece and in many other pieces is marginalised but the kind of poetry that is important today for setting the aesthetic agenda for tomorrow is even more off the map. And this is where the lack of historicisation comes back to haunt us and why the anxiety seems so acute. The literary bureaucratic establishment, including prize judges, seem to ask why would we support inventive poets in our midst when we can import bygone celebrities like Salman Rushdie and Louis de Bernieres? To do so though is not only colonial, but deeply naïve, shallowly opportunistic and plain boneheaded. We should all strike for lack of taste.
R. D. Wood