Friday, July 31, 2015

Middlebrow

The term middlebrow describes both a certain type of easily accessible art, often literature, as well as the population that uses art to acquire culture and class that is usually unattainable. First used by the British satire magazine Punch in 1925, middlebrow is derived as the intermediary between highbrow and lowbrow, terms derived from phrenology. Middlebrow has famously gained notoriety from derisive attacks by Dwight Macdonald, Virginia Woolf, and to a certain extent, Russell Lynes. It has been classified as a forced and ineffective attempt at cultural and intellectual achievement, as well as characterizing literature that emphasizes emotional and sentimental connections rather than literary quality and innovation.

The Book-of-the-Month Club and Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club have been widely characterized as middlebrow, marketed to bring classics and 'highbrow' literature to the middle class. Janice Radway in her seminal account of the Book-of-the-Month Club (as it was from its inception in 1926 to the 1980s before it transformed to a purely commercial operation) A Feeling for Books, argues that middlebrow culture is not simply a diluted impersonation of highbrow, but instead distinctly defined itself in defiance of avant-garde high culture. The club provided subscribers with literature selected by expert and ‘generalist’ judges, but held the personal, emotional experience of reading a good book as paramount, while simultaneously maintaining ‘high standards’ for literary quality. In this way, the club was in opposition to the general criticism of middlebrow culture in that it is forced high culture. Instead, Radway demonstrates that the middlebrow culture allows readers to simultaneously access the emotional and intellectual challenges that good reading provides. Radway also identifies the conflicting gender messages sent by the selections. While the club was marketed extensively to the female reader, including its emphasis on the emotional pleasure of books, the focus on intellectual, academic literature of the middlebrow trapped the reader into the constrictive masculine standards of value, classifying ‘great books’ as those that fell in line with male, technical classifications of excellence.

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