I was surprised and saddened once again to read the work of John Fowles described as ‘middlebrow’ this week. Partly because I thought we’d done away with that appalling term, a product of a literary generation obsessed with their own cultural superiority, too snobbish to conceive that anything other than experimentation in style could be of benefit to mankind (that is, the ‘highbrow’), a term popularised by a rather terrible snob, Virginia Woolf. Partly because the writer of the article in question didn’t seem to have noticed that this same cultural superiority and snobbishness defined the entire plot of the novel in question, The Collector. Partly because I’ve heard the term used for Agatha Christie’s work as well, which means a true ‘highbrow’ is going to have to be dismissive of everything between Fowles and Hercule Poirot, which is a hell of a lot of interesting literature. Partly because, if post-modernism has achieved nothing else of value (debatable), surely it’s proffered the idea that ‘highbrow’, ‘lowbrow’ and ‘middlebrow’ ideas can also be mashed together in the same piece of art, making nonsense of them all. And partly because it’s confirmed my suspicion that ‘middlebrow’ has now joined ‘middle-class’ in the pantheon of ‘words which are no longer well-defined and rarely relevant, which we use whenever we want to insult someone.’
A quick definition, then; OED says of middlebrow, “Demanding or involving only a moderate degree of intellectual application.” Wikipedia, proving once and for all that it’s capable of more nuance than people give it credit for, defines the term as “a certain type of easily accessible art, often literature, as well as the population that uses art to acquire culture and class that is usually unattainable”. The point of both of these, then, is that ‘middlebrow’ literature simply isn’t hard enough; it gets its ideas across too easily, in a form which less cultured types can understand. Which is, obviously, disgraceful.
The problem all begins with a rambling, ranting letter Woolf wrote in 1932, in which she honours ‘lowbrows’ (as she terms them, people who live through their bodies alone);
“I love lowbrows; I study them; I always sit next the conductor in an omnibus and try to get him to tell me what it is like — being a conductor.” She also hints, in case that doesn’t have you frothing at the mouth enough, that ‘lowbrows’ are lacking in self-consciousness; only the ‘highbrow’ can understand the meaning of the lowbrow life.
Highbrows, meanwhile, are – tellingly – people of “thoroughbred intelligence”. And she goes on to give a list including three or four authors who might, by any vague understanding of the term, be considered ‘middlebrow’. Dickens? How much intellectual application does it take to read Jane Austen, exactly?
Then we get on to the middlebrows, a strangely undefined sort who mixes with both lowbrow and highbrow. Her main grudge against them seems to be, to misquote John to the Laodiceans, that they’re neither hot nor cold. They write ‘entertainments’ that have some thought behind him, or thoughtful books that are entertaining.
‘Typical bloody Modernist,’ I muttered. Then I began to wonder whether Woolf was being serious. I still think she was – mainly because her Bloomsbury pranks weren’t so much filled with self-deprecating irony as they were very slightly dim-witted and self-indulgent. The person who dresses up in blackface is a very different, horsier breed of supervillain from the one who skewers classism by pretending to be an upper-middle-class snob.
Much more inclined to piss about with humanity’s constant need for tribal self-definition was Russell Lynes, who wrote a piece in response to Woolf’s opinions in Harper’s Magazine; you can read a very funny interview with him here, in which he’s asked to define various clothes, board games, furniture, etc., as ‘highbrow’, ‘middlebrow’, or ‘lowbrow’.
Not pictured: clear, accessible story-telling
But to move on from the personal attacks to an actually positive affirmation (boo), I’m reminded of a comparison with the alchemists, who were so concerned with layering their philosophical ideas in hokum, to stop the common man from discovering them, and who are now generally remembered in the West, if at all, as charlatans. The subtlety and inaccessibility Woolf would want to call ‘highbrow’ is all very well, as long as you’re sure you’ll be understood – pace to Joyce and anybody else who savours confusing the reader. But the power of ‘enjoyable’ reading and simple ideas delivered well should, most certainly, not be sneered at; in the hands of one author, it may be equally as powerful as a more apparently complex piece.