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.