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It’s not about the snobbery, it’s all about reality: At last, I finally understand hatred of “middlebrow”

I remember reading Dwight Macdonald and others slamming “middlebrows” and thinking, what’s the point? The classic argument from the 1940s onward was to say that true art (James Joyce etc) was ok, and true mass culture (Mickey Mouse and detective stories) were cool, but anything in the middle (John Marquand, say) was middlebrow and deserved mockery and disdain. The worst of the middlebrow was the stuff that mainstream newspaper critics thought was serious and uplifting.

When I’d read this, I’d always rebel a bit. I had no particular reason to doubt most of the judgments of Macdonald etc. (although I have to admit to being a Marquand fan), but something about the whole highbrow/middlebrow/lowbrow thing bugged me: If lowbrow art could have virtues (and I have no doubt that it can), then why can’t middlebrow art also have these positive qualities?

What I also couldn’t understand was the almost visceral dislike that Macdonald and other critics felt for the middlebrow. So what if some suburbanites were patting themselves on the back for their sophistication in reading John Updike? Why deprive them of that simple pleasure, and why hold that against Updike?

But then I had the same feeling myself, the same fury against the middlebrow, and I think I understand where Macdonald etc. were coming from.

It came up after the recent “air rage” story, in which a piece of PPNAS-tagged junk science got the royal treatment at the Economist, NPR, Science magazine, etc. etc.

This is “middlebrow science.” It goes about in the trappings of real science, is treated as such by respected journalists, but it’s trash.

To continue the analogy: true science is fine, and true mass culture (for example, silly news items about Elvis sightings and the Loch Ness monster) is fine too, in that nobody is taking it for real science. But the Gladwell/Easterbrook/PPNAS/PsychScience/NPR axis . . . this is the middlebrow stuff I can’t stand. It has neither the rigor of real science, but is not treated by journalists with the disrespect it deserves.

And I think that’s how Macdonald felt about middlebrow literature: bad stuff is out there, but seeing bad stuff taken so seriously by opinion-makers, that’s just painful.

P.S. Let me clarify based on some things that came up in comments. I don’t think middlebrow is necessarily bad. I’m a big fan of Marquand and Updike, for example. Similarly, when it comes to popular science, there’s lots of stuff that I like that also gets publicity in places such as NPR. Simplification is fine too. The point, I think, is that work has to be judged on its own merits, that the trappings of seriousness should not be used as an excuse to abdicate critical responsibility.

40 Comments

  1. Colin says:

    So… science that is covered by NPR/mass media is junk? Categorically? This seems like a major overstatement. Or, if you mean something else, I’ve definitely missed it here. We have to translate science all the time. This will always bring you to “middle-brow”, trading off specificity and generality.

  2. Rahul says:

    Could it be just “distance” / competitive threat? Dwight Macdonald didn’t regard Detective stories as competition to the sort of stuff he wrote or critiqued. Or the crowd that read them as consumers of his work.

    So also, a silly news items about Elvis sightings has no effect on consumers of your work. But Gladwell/Easterbrook/PPNAS/PsychScience/NPR can be a competing good for something you produce or may produce?

    Just a thought.

  3. Ethan Bolker says:

    Andrew

    Does your new appreciation for Macdonald mean you’ve changed your mind about Updike and Marquand (both of whom I like too)? I doubt it.

    I _think_ what you’re saying is that you understand the distinction he’s making, but not necessarily the items he relegates to the middlebrow category. Since you didn’t make that explicit, you had to clarify for @Colin.

    • Z says:

      Yeah, I like Updike a lot. I also thought he was generally critically acclaimed (by serious critics). Is he widely considered middle brow?

      • Rahul says:

        +1

        Hearing Updike being called middlebrow caught me by surprise.

      • Kyle C says:

        >>”
        In a brilliant, hilarious review in 1998, David Foster Wallace said that Updike’s principal character Rabbit Angstrom is “symptomatic of the prison of self-absorption and egoism that afflicted so many Americans”. He memorably called Updike “just a penis with a thesaurus” and, referring to his enormous output, asked, “Has the son of a bitch ever had one unpublished thought?”

        Updike’s novels are not nearly as good as those of Saul Bellow and Vladimir Nabokov and his tame non-fiction does not match the coruscating essays of Norman Mailer and James Baldwin. In the end, for all his cataract of words, Updike not only failed to transcend the superficial and vacuous New Yorker values but also came to embody them.
        “<<

        So wrote one Jeffrey Meyers.
        https://newrepublic.com/article/117721/john-updikes-new-biography-adam-begley

        • Andrew says:

          Kyle:

          I followed the link. I found both reviews interesting, but this bit by Meyers was ridiculous:

          Begley’s biography is competent and readable but he is besotted by his subject. His book is weighed down (sometimes sunk) by an excessive amount of literary criticism and by protracted discussions of no fewer than 136 mediocre and transparently autobiographical stories and articles.

          To complain that a biography of an author has “an excessive amount of literary criticism”! Literary criticism is what I want in such a book: I read a biography of an author to learn about links between his work and his life.

          Meyers in his review comes off as a bit of a dick, for example when he writes, “As a boy and a man, Updike was weird-looking. He had a long, narrow face, a huge raptor’s beak, owlish spectacles, a shock of unruly hair and a high, braying laugh.” I mean, sure, I want to learn these things in the biography, but in the review this sort of thing seems more like a distraction.

          Anyway, having read these reviews, I definitely will go and read Begley’s biography. Even though I know it will make me sad to read about Updike’s sad life.

        • Steve Sailer says:

          I’d consider Updike high brow. My favorite book is his 1978 novel about African politics, “The Coup,” which he put several years of work into. The plot of “The Coup” eventually gets facetious, as political plots usually do, but the sentence by sentence brilliance is overwhelming.

          It’s also a very hard read. I doubt if many people below, say, the 98th percentile of reading comprehension could get through it. William F. Buckley, who was famous for the size of his vocabulary, published a column at the time about how Updike’s vocabulary usage was over his head. Here’s WFB’s list of word in The Coup that he was unfamiliar with:

          “Harmattan, diaphoretic, toubab, laterite, suras, euphorbia, extollation, jerboa, coussabe, sareba, bilharzia, pangolins hyraxes, pestles, phloem xylem, eversion, goobers, marabout, xerophytic, oleograph, cowries, chrysoprase, henna, scree, riverine, adsorptive, haptic, burnoose”

          Updike later switched to a book per year schedule, which caused a lot of the boredom and irritation with his massive output that we hear now. But in his late 40s peak of The Coup and Rabbit Is Rich, when he was working very long and hard on each novel, he was very high brow.

          • Andrew says:

            Steve:

            I never read The Coup. A few years ago I tried to read Roger’s Version—I’d had the impression that it was one of his better later books—but it seemed very poorly written to me! On the other hand, I liked his book reviews and short stories, all the way to the end, and even beyond.

            • Steve Sailer says:

              Updike was a sports fan (he wrote the famous article about Ted Williams hitting a homer in his last ever at-bat), and he was fascinated by the inevitable decline phase of athletes’ careers. His character Rabbit, for example, peaked in high school and the rest of his life is a decline phase.

              My impression is that Updike felt his peak as a novelist was his late 40s when he very energetically wrote the 3rd Rabbit book, Rabbit Is Rich (1981). After that he stopped trying to top himself and wrote a book per year, which allows you to virtually chart his decline like a baseball player’s. Updike seemed very sanguine in interviews about his declining powers and made them a subject of his fiction. He seemed pretty cheerful about growing old, maybe too unwilling to rage rage against the dying of the light.

              but I always wondered why he didn’t switch to a slower schedule that would let him put more work into a fewer number of books.

              Updike’s career is strikingly similar to Woody Allen’s, who has made one movie per year for, roughly, ever. His peak seems to have been his Annie Hall / Manhattan era in his early to mid 40s.

              In contrast, most artists slow their pace as they get older to try to keep up the quality level.

        • Steve Sailer says:

          I always thought it was kind of cheezy of David Foster Wallace to play the ever more fashionable anti-straight white male card in famous essay against Updike, since they were fairly similar individuals: straight white male jockish middle American moderate conservatives who happen to be hyper-intelligent. DFW, however, had massive problems with self-loathing, which Updike presumably did not, so presumably DFW writing about Updike is partly writing about himself, partly writing about a man who is much like him, except he’s happy.

          • Andrew says:

            Steve:

            I haven’t read Begley’s biography of Updike, but based on the reviews, it doesn’t sound like Updike was so happy. I agree that he projected a sunny, equanimous disposition, but it sounds like his personal life was pretty sad.

      • numeric says:

        My thoughts on this are at

        http://andrewgelman.com/2014/08/13/updike-ohara/

        and I see no need to change them.

      • Martha (Smith) says:

        I haven’t read much Updike. What I did read turned me off; I don’t remember any details, but just that it seemed to be concerned with upper middle class people who led what seemed to me like vacuous lives. Nowhere as interesting as the more heterogeneous group of people I encountered in my life.

  4. Self-Hating Critic says:

    I’m not familiar with the work of the original author of the ‘middlebrow’ theory, but it reminds me of a moto I used to have, ‘If you can’t be the best, you might as well be the worst’ aka ‘The worst is second best.’

    But more to your point, I think you have to consider what and how people consume news these days, and how news is supplied these days. In our ‘Instagram/Finger-Flick’ culture, all news needs to be ‘clickbait,’ light on detail, complexity, and esoterica. At the same time stalwart serious news outlets are cutting staff and operating budgets. So what you wind up with, for the most part, are reporters who troll the internet and social media sources for news content. Even us, self-righteous, high-minded, NPR news consumers are both culprits and victims of this new culture of news.

    The low hanging fruit of the psuedo-sciences are sources for quick and easy content, and just as null affirming hypothesis go largely unpublished, the editors at NPR need to provide fodder for the well established listening demographic: The high-minded middlebrow.

  5. chrisare says:

    What are the virtues of bad science that make liking it OK (like liking lowbrow art is ok)?

    • Anoneuoid says:

      I think about that on and off. It seems to make for a good jobs program. Many more people will do pointless/tedious tasks for less compensation if they think it is “for science”. This keeps them off the street for cheaper than policing them would, especially during their 20s. As a side effect, many of society’s most curious will be kept too busy to be heavily politically active, and wield less economic power if they do decide to try when older. Blurring the lines between science and psuedoscience also creates an impediment to development of destructive technologies (like nuclear bombs etc) that may be destabilizing.

      Some of those may seem legitimate to you, I know it warms my heart every time NPR tells me about how they found the gene that causes aging from a microarray of yeast cells, or that neuroplasticity is the key to recovery after stroke because a mouse turned around a few less times in a plus maze.

  6. numeric says:

    This came in on my ASA nightly feed:

    Though summer has gone, I still managed to read a novel at the beach last week and recommend Stoner by John Williams. It’s not exactly stats-related, but those of us working in academia might nevertheless enjoy it (given you like reading novels and do not find authors like Philip Roth too depressing). The novel was published 50 years ago with new editions in 2003 and 2006 (when it got a worldwide success). It’s about the private and academic life of the (ficticious) English professor William Stoner (though the subject is not essential, it could as well have been a Statistics professor, that’s why I consider it on-topic), whose marriage and academic career both are somewhat failures. But then, who decides what a successful life must look like, and why do we think to be automatically entitled to a successful life? If you have not read this book, this may sound a little boring, but it really is not. Let’s face it, most of us in academia will not revolutionize academic teaching nor will we establish a game-changing statistical procedure bearing our name, so we’re probably closer related to William Stoner than we might think. But beware, if you’re currently in serious doubts about the bright future of your academic career or about your forthcoming marriage, this might not be the book to pick up ;-)

    ——————————
    Hans Kiesl
    Regensburg University of Applied Sciences
    Department of Computer Science and Mathematics
    Germany

    Somehow the juxtaposition of Updike, middlebrow, and academia and then this rather forlorn comment struck me as relevant.

  7. Mark Palko says:

    I wonder if you might build a better analogy out of Feynman’s cargo cult science.

    http://calteches.library.caltech.edu/51/2/CargoCult.htm

  8. Mark Palko says:

    It is virtually impossible to apply Macdonald’s midcult/masscult framework consistently when dealing with popular art. Macdonald himself certainly couldn’t manage it. He often showed fairly middle brow tastes (the only director to be represented twice on his list of top ten films was D. W. Griffith), then came up with flimsy post hoc justifications for reclassifying the works he liked as high brow or folk art.

    This isn’t to say that Macdonald didn’t have some valid criticisms of middlebrow culture, just that the critical framework that goes with them generates almost as many exceptions as examples.

    Put another way, you don’t have to be ashamed of liking Marquand (and not just the Mr. Moto books).

  9. Thomas says:

    Good post. This is exactly what my critique of Malcolm Gladwell is about.

  10. Thomas B says:

    It’s always dismaying to be reminded, despite its terrible legacies, that the Arnoldian idea of culture as “the best that has been thought and said” — the roots of conservative elitism — is still in circulation.

  11. Applied Economist says:

    Hi Andrew,

    I share completely your frustration with bad work reported seriously as gospel by popular outlets. But I think the high brow/middle brow/low brow categorization taken to academia is, at least potentially, very damaging.

    In economics, my own discipline, anything “hard” is high brow (e.g. general equilibria theory a la Debreu, newer econometric methods e.g. on non-parametric identification etc., or computationally intensive dynamic programming models). See, e.g., the median Econometrica article. “Low brow” might be things published in e.g. the Economist or policy type publications such as by international organizations and think tanks. Nearly all applied work of the “reduced-form” variety, including the type of experimental or quasi-experimental work that now characterizes much of applied economics, would probably be classified as “middle brow”. Certainly all of development economics would, and probably much of what now characterizes applied work in labor/health/education/public economics. It is only in recent years that this type of work has become intellectually respectable. As someone who does this himself, and thinks his time well spent and (hopefully) socially useful, the endorsement of “middle brow” classifications sends a certain dread.

    Part of it has to do with disciplinary cultures – and economics is hierarchical in which journals and which fields are respectable. But I suspect this is probably true of other disciplines too. I imagine (with no personal knowledge) that similar respect for statistical theory over application might have once (or still?) characterized statistics. In anthropology or other qualitative disciplines, as well I suspect there is a similar distinction between work that is truly valuable and work that is, well, not wrong but too applied to be truly high brow. (Actually it would be great to hear from you of what the statistics norms on this are).

    Maybe I’m being a bit paranoid here but I think the “middle brow” category, in academia at least, is a trap that shall capture most applied work that does not advance method but does provide substantial (and methodologically sound) insight on sectors that our disciplines should be focusing on.

    Thanks for keeping a great blog!

  12. Steve Sailer says:

    One of the fault lines between high brow culture and middle brow culture is high brow tends to imply art for art’s sake, while middle brow tends to imply art for uplift’s sake. Nabokov’s novels, for example don’t really teach you anything useful while Michener’s novels were, in their time, incredibly informative, but also lacking in aesthetic pleasures.

  13. This piece and comment thread reminded me of one of my favorite anti-middlebrow songs, “At Home He’s a Tourist” by Gang of Four.

    To avoid some of the problems with the term “middlebrow,” I’ll try “high-end mediocrity.” I think it’s similar if not the same.

    There’s high-end mediocrity that I ignore, and high-end mediocrity that gets my blood boiling. What is the difference between the two?

    It bothers me when it affects daily live, policy, or conversation by making itself out to be greater, truer, or more important than it is.

    So, for instance, I was mildly irritated by the Harry Potter fad. I tried to read Harry Potter but found it depressingly uninteresting (compared to, say, E.T.A. Hoffmann or Hermann Hesse). But I respect people who adore Harry Potter, so it’s possible I haven’t given the books a fair chance. On the whole, I let Harry Potter pass me by.

    When it comes to literature, I have little problem reading what I want to read, ignoring bad stuff, and trying to stretch myself appropriately. (Thrilled to see Nabokov’s Gogol biography mentioned in a comment, by the way. I have read that biography many times.)

    As for studies:

    As a teacher, I saw many specious research conclusions (for instance, that students who make gestures while solving math problems perform better). When I examined the studies, I saw at least one of the following problems: (a) the actual conclusions were more complex than the abstract implied; (b) the study was more limited in scope than the conclusion or abstract implied; and (c) the study had glaring errors, pitfalls, and omissions.

    Beyond teaching, I object to the huge “idea industry” that pretends to be grander than it is. Playing with ideas is fine. But when the culprits invoke false authority (of bad science), rake in huge profits, and set the terms of conversation, I see need to push back. I can ignore the whole thing, but it is affecting public dialogue. To have intelligent public conversation about anything, one must distinguish certainties from uncertainties. “High-end mediocrity” ignores such distinctions, and that’s one of its big problems.

    • I meant to add: When it comes to literature and music, one of my criteria is whether I would choose to read it or listen to it again (multiple times). I can usually tell this early on. If the answer is no, then I usually don’t want to be bothered with it at all. That goes even for textbooks; some textbooks are lasting (and delightful), others ephemeral. I might read an ephemeral textbook for a class, but I ask more of the textbooks I keep.

      One feature of “high-end mediocre” stuff is that it generally doesn’t reward more than one reading/listening, if even that. It isn’t intended for rereading. (Granted, some of this is a matter of taste. Some might insist that “Eat, Pray, Love” can be read many times; I was done with it after the first few sentences.)

  14. Chris G says:

    Jonathan Franzen, “Mr. Difficult: William Gaddis and the Problem of Hard-to-Read Books” – http://adilegian.com/FranzenGaddis.htm

  15. Anonymous says:

    I’m not sure that it is a good idea to equate ‘middle-brow’ in science with ‘middle-brow’ in culture. I know people who can condemn bad art in almost ethical terms (e.g. MacDonald) – I find such attitudes ridiculous and insecure and themselves an indicator of some sort of intellectual mediocrity. On the other hand I think it is entirely proper to condemn bad science in ethical terms.

    Middle-brow ‘science’ has consequences in that it influences the beliefs and behaviour of the most politically important part of the community, encouraging them think they understand something when in fact they do not understand, and likely even misunderstand. Middle-brow culture (no quotation marks) just means that those same people read books that [some critic] disdains, and make authors whom [that critic] disdains richer than authors whom [that critic] approves.

  16. Connor Flexman says:

    This is a fantastic example of signaling/countersignaling theory in economics.

    If sophisticated people dress well, the majority of people try to dress well, and the lower classes dress shabbily, you have the three tiers of high/middle/low-brow. The middle class has to differentiate themselves from the lower class, and consistently puts down shabby dress. The upper class is far enough away from low-brow that they feel no threat, and in fact, some take up the rags—but they will turn up their noses at those in the middle who try to emulate high fashion.

    This pattern occurs over and over in aesthetic preferences and cultural evolution.

    It is also why “posers” and “pretenders” provoke such a response. It is infuriating to our monkey brains to watch others praising a shoddy simulacrum of the thing we really care about. The onlooker wants to be clear that they are better than that, that the praise deserves to be given elsewhere—but people typically can’t readily differentiate skill levels more than about a standard deviation above and below their own, and the same goes for differentiating quality levels, so the high-brow is doomed to be underappreciated by the masses in favor of the middle-brow.

    • Rahul says:

      +1 See my comment above. I think I’ve a variant of the same explanation: It’s all about competitive threat perception.

      i.e. Middlebrow is lowbrow that has improved to the point that I feel threatened by it.

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