Confessions of a Middlebrow

May 22, 2014

Multiple Pages
Confessions of a Middlebrow

So I was in the downstairs study, idly surfing the Web while the Mrs. watched TV in the next room. The door was open—gotta keep ’em in sight—so TV noises drifted in.

Among the indrift I caught the tail end of a commercial. I don’t know what was being advertised; some labor-saving device, I guess. The punch line was: “… so you can concentrate on writing the great American novel.”

It sounded quaintly antique. Are there still people who think of literature in those terms?  Are there people who think about literature at all, other than schoolteachers and college professors who are paid to do so, and their captive audiences? So far as the rest of us are concerned, hasn’t fiction pretty much completed its migration from print to the visual media: movies, TV, Hulu?

For most who are much under sixty, I’m sure it has. The reason I’m sure is that until twenty years ago it was a common thing for people—people not employed in edbiz, I mean—to say: “Have you read X? Oh, you’ve gotta read it, it’s really good!” At the bond brokerage where I worked in the late 1980s, everybody—including paralegals and secretaries—was reading Bonfire of the Vanities (which Steve Sailer thinks may actually be the great American novel). OK, Bonfire’s about a bond trader. But Lonesome Dove got a not-much-inferior reception from the same audience at roughly the same time, and that’s about cowboys.

“Shallowness can anyway be redeemed by breadth. Life is short. You get around four thousand weeks. That’s not many: you can count to four thousand in an hour or so, and there they go—gone.”

I haven’t heard “Have you read X?” from a nonacademic since the mid-1990s. What I do hear a lot is: “Did you watch X?” Most recently I heard it from a family friend in regard to the TV series Breaking Bad. My own interest in TV is close to nil; but our friend enthused, my wife was curious, so we’ve been renting the thing from Netflix, one disc per week.

Not bad, once you’ve swallowed some implausibilities. (A schoolteacher with no health insurance?  Does such a thing really exist in the U.S.A.? New York City schoolteachers don’t just get full coverage, they get it for free.) Breaking Bad has a good narrative pull that keeps you watching, making it whatever is the video equivalent of a page-turner.

We geezers still like to turn actual pages, though. I’m taken with the urge every few weeks, and treat myself to a good thick middlebrow novel. I’m currently halfway through Ken Follett’s historical blockbuster The Pillars of the Earth, which is about 12th-century England.  

Likewise not bad, though I don’t feel at all sure Follett gets into the mentality of the period. Did Norman kings really hug their earls on meeting? (Page 453.) Did aristocratic youngsters speak in psychobabble (Page 388)?:

“Is it because of Father?” said Richard sympathetically.
“No, it’s not,” Aliena replied. “It’s because of me.”

Follett certainly hasn’t caught the weird intensity of medieval religious belief; but then, perhaps no one could. Consider Fulk the Black’s penance, for example (A World Lit Only by Fire, Chapter 2):

Shackled, he was condemned to a triple Jerusalem pilgrimage: across most of France and Savoy, over the Alps, through the Papal States, Carinthia, Hungary, Bosnia, mountainous Serbia, Bulgaria, Constantinople, and the length of mountainous Anatolia, then down through modern Syria and Jordan to the holy city. In irons, his feet bleeding, he made this round trip three times—15,300 miles—and the last time he was dragged through the streets on a hurdle while two well-muscled men lashed his naked back with bullwhips.

Follett keeps me turning the pages, though, and that’s what I’m mainly seeking. In my youth I had aspirations to be highbrow, and I still now and then make a sally in that direction. For the most part, though, coasting down to the finishing line, I’m content with middlebrow entertainment.

I think I was always that way inclined. Sure, I read Ulysses—well, most of it—but I preferred Somerset Maugham, the quintessential middlebrow novelist.

It’s been the same with music, although middlebrowness in music is trickier to define. For one thing, there is the distinction between classical music and pop music. (More properly: between concert music and pop music. “Classical” is the name of a mere episode in musical history, between Baroque and Romantic. That’s pedantry, though, and the true middlebrow is not a pedant.)

Your middlebrow music lover doesn’t eschew either classical music or pop, but he only goes so far with either. Play me a little night music, by all means—emphasis on “little” there, please—but Bach partitasLate Shostakovich? Sorry; I’d go to the concert with you, but that’s the night I PedEgg my corns. Same with pop: The preset buttons on my car radio get me News, Classical, or Golden Oldies. That’s it.   

Opera makes things double tricky. A big swath of humanity regards fondness for opera as highbrow in itself. The merest acquaintance with truly dedicated opera buffs will set you right on that. To them, brow-height-wise, the bel canto style that owns my affections—which is to say, early 19th-century Italian opera—ranks somewhere down there with roller derby and monster truck shows. 

As can be seen from all this, the main charge against middlebrowness is that it’s shallow. We middlebrows don’t plunge too deep into things.  Perhaps we’re afraid of what we might find there; or perhaps we’re just lazy. I’ll go with lazy: I’m not aware of being scared of anything, other than of course women and the po-lice. So I’m lazy. So sue me.

Shallowness can anyway be redeemed by breadth. Life is short. You get around four thousand weeks. That’s not many: you can count to four thousand in an hour or so, and there they go—gone. We all have to make a fundamental choice regarding our enthusiasms: shallow and wide, or narrow and deep. You can wade for clams or dive for pearls. I believe my pearl-diving days are over. From here on out, it’s clams all the way.    


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