Reading for Nobrows

Pleasure and power in the wake of the middlebrows

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If you've got the patience for one more list of the world's greatest novels, then I've got an unusual list to show you. I know: the end of the century/millennium generated rather a lot of these silly "greatest" lists, none of which satisfied anyone. Who needs another? Worse yet, lists like these are by their nature futile exercises in arbitrary taste making, so what's the point?

Ah, but in this case the arbitrariness of taste making is exactly the point. Britain's Guardian site features a list of—supposedly—the 100 greatest novels ever, one that tries to transcend the matter of literary taste itself. It's probably impossible to pull off a trick like that, but the result is nevertheless noteworthy. The effort is an example of middlebrow culture at the end of its tether. In fact, snapping its tether: This is a reading list for nobrows.

Check out the rundown. The list of the greatest works "of all time" tries to mix established exemplars of the traditional great-lit canon (Cervantes, Kafka, Proust, Joyce, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, etc.) with works by such "popular" authors as John Buchan, John Le Carre, Raymond Chandler, and J.R.R. Tolkien. There are quite a few "popular" 19th century novelists here, too, Alexander Dumas and Wilkie Collins among them. There are even such living authors as James Ellroy (LA Confidential) and Martin Amis. (There are many "small" British titles here, too, but never mind that; it's a British list.)

Robert McCrum, who was ultimately responsible for shaping the list (the occasion for creating it is a much-publicized "Big Read" campaign by the BBC), defends it as "a catalogue of just a hundred 'essential' titles." The assemblage "is partial, prejudiced and highly personal," he writes. "It reflects whim and fashion. And as we compiled it we began to see actually how difficult—even questionable—the idea of such a unified literary inheritance has become at the beginning of the twenty-first century."

Yet there was a time, not so long ago, when such reading lists were not only not "questionable," they were fundamental; indeed, they were inescapable elements of middlebrow culture. Middlebrowism, which dominated mid-century culture in the Anglo-American world, can be a complex subject beset by issues of status and social power, but at its heart lay the duty of all educated persons to become "well-rounded" citizens, especially by exposing themselves to great ideas, great art, and great literature. Who decided what was sufficiently "great" to spend time on? That's what cultural gatekeepers were for.

The Book of the Month Club, for example, used to run ads that featured not books, but pictures of the tweedy, pipe-sucking "judges" who made the selections. The whole point of subscribing was to buy into their cultural authority: They knew what you should read. One of these long-time judges, Clifton Fadiman, actually published a "Lifetime Reading Plan," lest you risk dying while still unexposed to one or another great (according to Fadiman) literary thought. (In fact, if you're in need of a lifetime reading plan, an updated version of Fadiman's überlist is still available.)

The underlying conceit of the middlebrow phenomenon—that cultural choices should be understood as cultural duties—made gatekeepers more than useful; it made them necessary. Middlebrow adherents, in their attempts at achieving well-roundedness, often spread themselves notably thin, listening to, say, Third Stream Jazz, attending exhibits of Abstract Expressionism, watching enigmatic Bergman movies, sitting through eventless Beckett plays, etc. This entailed a lot of heavy lifting, intellectually speaking, and gatekeepers could greatly ease the trial by telling you not only what works were worth your while, but also what they meant. It was the age of the influential critic, to whom culture consumers often yielded power in exchange for guidance.

Now, look at this British list again. How many of these works depend for their reputations on critics and historians? How many require authoritative guidance in order to surrender their meaning? Hardly any. Almost all of the choices involve books with powerful narratives and open meaning. These are, overwhelmingly, works that offer not heavy lifting, but pleasure. Most were written not for critical glory, but to entertain (and in numerous cases, entirely for the money). This distinction—glory vs. entertainment—is one that the middlebrow world greatly distorted by denigrating pleasure, but it is what has separated living literature from lifeless technique since the beginning of narrative. In embracing pleasure, this list acknowledges the return of cultural power to the consumer, and is ultimately engaged in an act of literary rescue.

What happened to middlebrow and the cultivated elites it empowered? As I've argued elsewhere, the precipitous decline in middlebrow culture is in large measure a function of technological innovation, which has had the effect of redrawing culture's sociological map. "Cable, VCRs, satellites, and the multidimensional changes wrought by the home computer have not only opened a vast array of new cultural choices to people, they are achieving something much larger: They are moving the consumption of culture out of the city and into the home. Cultural activity is becoming increasingly a private rather than a public matter, and the more culture is a private concern, the less status has anything to do with it. In private, people will immerse themselves in the culture they want. Thus culture—stripped of status concerns and reduced to authentic desire—is stranding elites in their own subculture."

Not everyone thinks that the decline of middlebrow is a good thing. The Wall Street Journal's Terry Teachout, for example, complained recently that "Just as city dwellers can't understand what it meant for the residents of a rural town to wake up one day and find themselves within driving distance of a Wal-Mart, so are they incapable of properly appreciating the true significance of middlebrow culture. For all its flaws, it nurtured at least two generations' worth of Americans who, like me, went on to become full-fledged highbrows…" Though Teachout grew up hundreds of miles from the nearest museum, he writes, "I already knew a little something about people like Willem de Kooning and Jerome Robbins, thanks to Time and Life magazines and The Ed Sullivan Show, and what little I knew made me want to know more."

Good or bad, however, middlebrow's eclipse is such that even its basic forms—such as greatest-ever lists—are now at the service of post-middlebrow values. The very claim to authority that justifies list-making has been dispensed with, replaced with an air of plaintiveness. At the bottom of the list, for example, Robert McCrum asks, "So, are you congratulating yourself on having read everything on our list or screwing the newspaper up into a ball and aiming it at the nearest bin?" McCrum even wants to know, "Who did we miss?"

"Writers such as J.G. Ballard, Julian Barnes, Anthony Burgess, Bruce Chatwin, Robertson Davies, John Fowles, Nick Hornby, Russell Hoban, Somerset Maugham and V.S. Pritchett narrowly missed the final hundred," notes McCrum, and wonders, "Were we wrong to lose them?"

Is this the tone of critical elitism after middlebrow's crash? What would Clifton Fadiman have said?