Middlebrow Literature – Really?

By November 8, 2015Literature

Middlebrow literature? Now there’s a term that is guaranteed to raise the reader’s hackles and that’s before we even begin to discover the sheer arrogance of the term and what those who deem certain books to be Middlebrow novels think of them.

What is Middlebrow literature? According to Beth Driscoll (Sydney Review) Middlebrow literature refers to those novels that appear in most book clubs, they’re the books most often found clutched in a commuter’s hand or in a woman’s handbag. They’re books to be seen with, the novels that will elicit a subtle nod of recognition from fellow Middlebrow readers. Books for a clique.

How can we identify a Middlebrow book? Well it will inevitably have a woman, or a child, or a mix of both on the cover as apparently Middlebrow readers regularly judge their books by the cover. The story matter will be-

“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.”

Nice huh?

According to Ms Driscoll a book’s literary value is diminished as it grows in popularity; one of the three Australian authors she highlights as producing Middlebrow novels, Stephanie Bishop is unimpressed with her opinion stating “Why would a large readership mean a lack of prestige?”.

It seems that perhaps Driscoll is an elitist reader, one who wouldn’t be seen dead reading popular books and one who regularly judges readers by the covers of the books they choose to read.

It appears that those of us who partake in Middlebrow Literature are easily pleased, influenced by book club stickers placed on covers, the mere mention of Oprah will have us queuing for the next must have piece of blandly predictable prose that has been packaged carefully in order to appeal to the mindless masses.

These books are specifically aimed at the largest reading demographic; that is women aged between 40 and 65 and as true as that may be, who are these people to demand that those who fit within that demographic should be pigeonholed into only ever reading variations on a theme?

I most certainly fit within the marketed audience but I don’t think I’ve read much in the way of Middlebrow Literature. Lowbrow? Oh most definitely, anything that you may find tucked away in the dark recesses of any book shop will have been read by yours truly but put a woman and a child on the cover? Unless they’re running away from some unimaginable horrors, I’m going to walk straight on by. Highbrow? Again, I have my fair share of classics, I have Booker Prize winners on my shelves but Middlebrow? I think I have a copy of The Girl on the Train and that’s about it.

Another requisite for Middlebrow Literature? It  must inspire sparkling conversation, because of course us women of a certain age just have to gossip don’t we and who wants to gossip about stark literature? Who wants to listen to someone who’s reading a book that leaves them discomfited? These books are designed to be a catalyst for chatter and their content is carefully choreographed to ensure that ladies that lunch, women who wax lyrical at wine bars and comfy coffee shop coteries share their reading experiences and thus expand the author and publisher’s audiences.

It’s all so very … Cheap sounding.

Or is it? Is it just that authors and publishers have found something that works? Something that doesn’t need labeling and something that certainly shouldn’t shape how an entire life should be viewed? Is it just critics wanting to court controversy that have decided to label best selling novels in such a derogatory fashion?

I found the entire article extremely condescending and well, simple for want of a better term. It implies that the readers of these Middlebrow titles are lazy, that they are influenced by cover art and a sticker rather than content. That they are fearful of pushing their boundaries and that they walk through life blinkered to opportunity in favour of the safety of the familiar.

In fact I found it downright rude!

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