Much ado about ‘middlebrow’ #GetALife

Curtesy of reading Susan Johnson’s fine and latest novel The Landing and then following her on Twitter, I came to read this review. It’s an interesting read, but I was intensely irritated with its preoccupation with the category of ‘middlebrow’. It’s not a question completely without interest of course but it’s such an academic question. It’s also a question about the politics of literary works, rather than their literary content – again something that makes me want academics to #GetALife.

Who cares what market you’re fitted into?

Anyway, the three women whose books were thus reviewed all took issue with the review and wrote responses. But whereas the first two are in the form of spirited critiques of the original review (largely justified IMO – score responses 3 – original article 0), Susan Johnson’s response is a magnificent personal and literary meditation. It is the only contribution of reviewer or reviewed marked by its generosity (albeit a wounded and resigned generosity) – itself the natural product of its depth of feeling and reflection. It stands largely independent of the review that provoked it and I reproduce it below the fold.

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 Literaturecan 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.

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9 Responses to Much ado about ‘middlebrow’ #GetALife

  1. GrueBleen says:

    Yep, pretty much guaranteed to appeal directly to you, Nicholas. BTW, what did you think of the video of Judi Dench whispering her way through ‘Send in the Clowns’ as posted by Krugman yesterday ?

    However:
    “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.”

    Yair. middle class. middlebrow, white female society has just been paradise on Earth as long as any of us can remember, hasn’t it.

  2. john Walker says:

    Nicholas
    Its more than 50 years since Against Interpretation was first published. If anything ‘it ‘ : the academic ‘eros-less high culture’ , is worse now than it was back then.

    BTW
    When Phillip Guston first exhibited his (mid 60s) paintings of the New York cultural elite as cartoon gangsters and Klans-men, it was quite a shock to most , he was slammed by all the critics (bar one ) as a ” Mandarin posing as a stumble bum”.

    Guston was asked what he felt about it his, perfect, response was:
    ‘jez, what if they liked me?’
    And then quote from a famous speech of Issac Babel :

    “…everything is given to us by the party and the government and only one thing is taken away: the freedom to write badly. Comrades, we must not conceal that this is an important right, and it is no small thing to take away.”

  3. Tom N. says:

    It may have been middle brow, but parts of her response were still too high brow for a pedestrian fellow like me. Twas lovely all the same. Thanks Nick.

  4. GrueBleen says:

    You will surely have seen this item at The Conversation:
    http://theconversation.com/highbrow-and-middlebrow-are-irrelevant-when-it-comes-to-which-writing-survives-49951

    Full of passionate analysis of ‘the brows’ and praise for Don Quixote. And it mentions Beth Driscoll and her interlocutors.

    What else needs to be said.

  5. Patrick says:

    if you are going to talk about book reviews I feel that I have to recommend this one by Karl Ove Knausgard on Houllebecq’s ‘Submission’: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/08/books/review/michel-houellebecqs-submission.html

    I may be naive and ignorant, but I felt as if reading it took me through a short course on literature, and even beyond as a reminder of how the consistency of a ‘message’ is the key to communication.

    I think I am even going to try and read Knausgard now!

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Thanks Patrick, will try to check out. I read one of Houellebecq’s – Atomised – a while back and I’m afraid it was either overrated or over my head. (My guess is a bit of both, but perhaps I’m just being kind to myself.)

      • Patrick says:

        Just to be clear, I may or may not read Houllebecq, but it is the reviewer’s books that I am motivated to read!

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