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‘Highbrow’ and ‘middlebrow’ are irrelevant when it comes to which writing survives

The distinctions between highbrow and middlebrow fiction are as old as literature itself. régine debatty

‘Highbrow’ and ‘middlebrow’ are irrelevant when it comes to which writing survives

Clearing out my office in preparation for a faculty move, I am faced with the dilemma of what books to retain and what to discard. With non-fiction it is easy: keep any reference books that might prove useful in later life, such as the Oxford Guide to Philosophy or Primates of the World. But with fiction, particularly Australian fiction, it is harder to decide.

What lasts, I ask myself, what writing survives? The Guardian critic Jonathan Jones bemoaned in August that a middlebrow cult of the popular was holding literature to ransom. My colleague Ivor Indyk in the Sydney Review of Books added in September that it was in the giving of literary prizes that:

the cult of the middlebrow seems now to have established itself.

The academic Beth Driscoll entered the debate, with a recent, wide-ranging article on the middlebrow, with particular focus on three recent Australian novels, by Susan Johnson, Stephanie Bishop and Antonia Hayes. To which the authors in question last week published their responses, in part taking umbrage at the description of their work as middlebrow because, in Hayes’ words:

it implies an aesthetic pecking order, and is more often than not used in a derogatory way.

The distinctions between highbrow and middlebrow fiction are as old as literature itself.

In the 18th century, novel-reading was regarded as frivolous and morally suspicious. Real literature was to be found in religious tracts, epic poetry and mannered letters written by the nobility. It was the duty of learned men to uphold literary standards against the rising tide of middle-class tastes.

Even Dickens was considered by many of his contemporaries to be too middlebrow to be a serious writer, and Edmund Wilson wrote of Raymond Chandler that he “remained a long way below Graham Greene”.

“Literature is bunk,” Chandler replied, “written by fancy boys, clever-clever darlings, stream-of-consciousness ladies and gents and editorial novelists.”

Would I ever read Graham Greene again? Probably not, I decide – all that Catholic angst – but I keep two novels by Raymond Chandler. If we can’t trust our literary academics and critics, to whom, then, should we entrust the judgement of literary quality?

The only answer is the passage of time. What is valorised today might not be read in 50 years. Quintus Servinton (1830), the first novel published in Australia, was written by a convict in 1830, but no one would ever describe it as literature. It survives for its historical value alone.

Eugene Hsu

In a 2002 poll by the Norwegian Nobel Institute, 100 international authors, including Nobel prize-winners, chose Don Quixote (1605) as the most important book of all time, ahead of novels by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. (No Australian writer made their list.)

In fact, Dostoevsky declared Cervantes book:

the final and the greatest expression of human thought, the bitterest irony that a human is capable of expressing …

And yet Don Quixote is neither highbrow nor middlebrow; if anything it is a satire on literary pretensions, on those genres — the epic and romance of chivalry — that preceded it. Yet for a long time Don Quixote was regarded as light literature and not worthy of serious study.

To talk about literature, therefore, we must ask what is literature? A common response is that it’s a force for change, or morally instructive, but these vague motherhood statements would exclude Rabelais, Henry Miller or the Marquis de Sade.

In a wonderful 2002 essay, Negotiating with the Dead, Margaret Atwood suggested there is only one question to be asked about any work — is it alive, or is it dead?

This is a far better measure of a novel or story’s worth than whether it is highbrow or lowbrow. The best fiction transcends brows. The playwright David Mamet suggested the purpose of literature is to delight.

“To create or endorse the Scholastic is a craven desire,” he wrote in 2000. “It may yield a low-level self-satisfaction, but how can this compare with our joy at great, generous writing.”

Great, generous writing that is alive. Now we are getting closer to answering the question: What lasts, what writing survives? And what books should I keep?

The only way a text can survive is through its interaction with a reader – “no matter how far away that reader may be from the writer in time and space,” Atwood wrote. Miguel Cervantes died in 1616 yet his creation Don Quixote de la Mancha lives on four centuries later, and no-one today reads a pastoral romance.

We all know what dead writing is, for we encounter it every day in managerial speak, in those densely-worded, multi-paged documents about course intended learning outcomes, quality assurance mechanisms and international benchmarking activities. All around us dead sentences are falling on the living.

But the writing that survives, great literature, reminds us of our existence in this world, and our connection with other living things.

Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1877) was written 140 years ago and yet most of it remains alive and vivid. There is something presumptuous, if not pretentious, about the term “literary fiction”. One can’t imagine Tolstoy telling Chekhov at his country estate that he was writing “literary fiction” or “highbrow literature”.

On the contrary, Tolstoy held an aesthetic that required fiction to be morally improving and accessible to the widest public. It is not the morally improving aspects of Tolstoy’s prose that we appreciate today; rather it is passages such as the scene of Konstanin Levin travelling through the Russian countryside, during which:

the tall grass softly twined around the wheels and the horse’s legs, leaving its seeds on the wet spokes and hubs.

This is what lasts, this is what survives, our joy of discovery at something simple and straightforward that connects us to the world. If the best fiction is a way of dealing with death, then it is also a way of learning about the inter-related nature of life.

That is the fiction worth keeping.