‘The middlebrow woman reader […] ranges widely in her interests, encompassing many genres of literature, and combining high and lowbrow interests in a daring disregard for conventional judgement’
– Nicola Humble, The Feminine Middlebrow Novel
Welcome to The Middlebrow Reader. My name is Faye, and I am a researcher and aspiring writer living in South London with my librarian boyfriend and a cat called Frank. I’m also a red-head, a cheese-fiend, an endo-warrior, and (consequently) a semi-aquatic life-form very likely to be found in a bathtub. Most significantly, though, I am a middlebrow reader.
Let me explain.
‘Middlebrow’ was a derogatory term which sprung up in the mid-twentieth century as a response to changes in British literary culture. Access to books was no longer reserved for the rich and the highly-educated; thanks to cheaper production techniques, and institutions such as the Boots lending library and the Book-of-the-Month-Club (a subscription service which sent cheap editions of new titles direct to your door) more and more ordinary people could afford to buy, borrow, and read books. All good, you might think. But for some – highbrow modernist writers and intellectual academics – this democratization of the literary marketplace represented a threat to the cultural authority they had previously enjoyed. Their response was to lampoon these new readers as undiscerning, unintellectual, and lacking in true taste. These were the middlebrows.
What the middlebrow reader represented was a challenge to established hierarchies within literature. They disrupted the notion that some books are inherently more worthy of our respect and attention than others, reclaiming the right to decide for themselves what defined a ‘good’ book, rather than unquestioningly accepting as fact the opinions of their supposed intellectual superiors. When I first read Nicola Humble’s description of the typical, eclectic, mid-twentieth-century middlebrow bookshelf – children’s books alongside weighty classics alongside trashy romances alongside contemporary bestsellers – I looked around at my own collection and I realized, Hey, that’s me. Maybe it’s you too.
In this blog I will be reviewing all kinds of different novels. True to my middlebrow roots, I’ll be adopting a determinedly democratic approach: if history has deemed something a towering triumph, but I think its rubbish, I’ll let you know. Likewise, if a book has been popularly dismissed as a piece of trash, but I think its a staggering work of unrecognized genius, I’ll explain why. Either way, of course, its just my opinion. But hopefully, you’ll find something you can get on board with…
**If you’d like to learn more about the middlebrow, take a look at Nicola Humble’s book The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 1920s to 1950s: Class, Domesticity, and Bohemianism (2001) and/or Erica Brown and Mary Grover’s Middlebrow Literary Cultures: The Battle of the Brows, 1920-1960 (2012). You could also check out the Middlebrow Network’s website here **