Chris Baldick (Goldsmiths, University of London)
The Power of the Press in the Formation of British Middlebrow Culture
This paper attempts a broad survey of ways in which the cultural dominance of the popular press – including magazines, but here principally the mass-circulation newspapers – in the early 20th century reshaped the British literary world along sharper lines of division between a highbrow faction of cultural pessimists, for whom the newspaper was the most sinister antagonist of Art, and a substantial cohort of writers deemed ‘middlebrow’ for earning their livelihood in dialogue with an enlarged reading public of ‘book-lovers’. Various dimensions of the literary power of the papers are addressed through individual instances, including the newspaper book-page of reviews (Arnold Bennett at the Evening Standard), of celebrity author-gossip (Evelyn Waugh), of serialization of books and plays (Agatha Christie, Noël Coward), and of the sudden mass-circulation of poems (Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’). Coward’s musical-dramatic chronicle-play Cavalcade (1931) is examined as a work multiply informed by the Press, from its inception – inspired by features in the Illustrated London News – through its internal structuring by news headlines and datelines, to its circulation as a newspaper serial.
In response to Baldick’s investigation into the relationship between (the textual characteristics of) literary genres and the newspaper circuit, Alex Rutten will further discuss one of those genres, namely book reviews in daily newspapers, by comparing some reviews of Arnold Bennett with those of the Dutch critic P.H. Ritter Jr.
Dirk de Geest (KU Leuven)
Regional Literature as Middlebrow?
Cultural hierarchies are by no means coincidental factors in our thinking about literature. Rather, they constitute the very core of our common literary practices. In my lecture, I will discuss the problems related to processes of hierarchization in relation to regional literature (in the past and the present). In fact, regional literature may be considered both a very popular and a rather controversial genre. In the interwar period, for instance, discussions regarding the impact of regional literature were as important as the discussions regarding women’s literature. Yet, the phenomenon has hardly been discussed from a broad functionalist point of view.
In fact, middlebrow literature still remains closely related to the idea of a feminine reading public. However, in my opinion it may be fruitful to broaden the scope of the concept, in order to be able to analyze other corpora of ‘public-oriented’ and ‘popular’ novels as well. In my talk, I intend to discuss in this respect the impact of regional literature, both from a historical and a theoretical point of view. In fact, regional literature displays many of the characteristics commonly attached to the concept of middlebrow literature. Moreover, the genre was received favorable by some literary critics as well, although its value and certainly its innovative character were debated as well. In this respect, the notion of ‘middle’ has to be discussed further in order to refine the methodological framework scholars use to ‘define’ the phenomenon. Generally speaking, this case demonstrates the intriguing dynamics of cultural hierarchies, both on an historical and on a literary-theoretical level.
Respondent: Mathijs Sanders
Lise Jaillant (University of Manchester)
Middlebrow Pleasure: Publisher’s Series, Hedonism and Hierarchy
In the interwar period, publisher’s series and other middlebrow institutions targeted an audience that longed for elite social status and pleasure. Advertisements for these cheap series of reprints displayed scenes of an expensive, voluptuous, leisurely lifestyle filled with transatlantic yachts and stylish women reading in bed. At the same time, modernist writers were denouncing mass-market pleasure that appealed to the lowest instincts and debased the mind. As Laura Frost has shown, modernism valued “unpleasure” – not the negation of pleasure, but a kind of satisfaction “attained through tension, obstacles, delay, convolution, and pain.” Yet, reprints series did not privilege one reading experience over another. They published all kinds of texts: novels that we now see as “middlebrow,” but also difficult modernist texts by James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein and others. In doing so, they educated readers to appreciate various literary pleasures – from the obvious appeal of Edna Ferber’s Show Boat to the more convoluted attraction of Stein’s Three Lives. Their imagined readers were “civilized” precisely because they did not limit themselves to specific genres and cultural categories. For middlebrow institutions, I claim, the subversion of cultural hierarchies enabled readers to access a wide range of reading pleasures, and to display their open-mindedness as a sign of distinction.
In her reaction, Meriel Benjamins will focus on how the juxtaposition of the concepts of middlebrow and broadbrow can lead to an extended understanding of middlebrow culture and its flexible boundaries, relating Jaillant’s findings on the history and characteristics of middlebrow culture, highbrow culture and the Modern Library series to the specifics of middlebrow in its Dutch context.
Tom Perrin (Huntingdon College)
The Stakes of Form: Why Close-Read Middlebrow Texts?
Close reading – the mode of interpretation that still lies at the heart of English as a discipline – has long been obviously applicable to complex canonical texts that more-or-less require scholarly elucidation in order to be legible. More recently, the methodology has proven valuable for analyzing mass-cultural artifacts, on the grounds that such texts both engage and repress their engagement with the social anxieties that produce them. Thus, close reading mass-cultural texts possesses value as so-called symptomatic reading, bringing repressed content into the light.
The value of close-reading middlebrow texts has not, however, proven so obvious. Indeed, the very term middlebrow has often been read as designating a position within the cultural field, rather than a particular set of formal characteristics. Furthermore, as Gordon Hutner has written, middlebrow literature has no repressed content; it “wants to be available.” Instead, the value of such literature lies in the study of, say, the methods by which it was marketed and distributed.
Can we, then, close-read middlebrow texts? And what can we learn thereby that we cannot learn from treating them in other ways? I will argue that close-reading middlebrow novels contributes to our understanding of the nature of reading, by implying the existence of a disavowing reader. Standing in opposition to the symptomatic reader, the disavowing reader experiences literature in accordance with Octave Mannoni’s famous formulation of disavowal, “I know very well, but all the same.” The disavowing reader knows very well that the world is not orderly or benign in the way that it is made to appear in novels, but, all the same, is able to read novels and illegitimately believe that they constitute some kind of solution to a disorderly world.
In reaction to Tom Perrin, Erica van Boven will further elaborate on the significance of close reading middlebrow novels, focusing on examples from the Dutch literary context. Is it true that middlebrow novels have no repressed content?
Pieter Verstraeten (University of Groningen)
From Adventure Tales to Literature (and Back). Domesticity and Adventure in the Dutch Middlebrow Novel
The emergence of modernism brought along significant changes in the system of novelistic genres. As Nicola Humble argues in her seminal book on middlebrow fiction, “the status of the realist novel was dramatically altered by the coming to public consciousness of the modernist and associated avant-garde movements”. Several realist subgenres (such as the family saga, the rural novel, the domestic novel) outlived realism. They even flourished in the interwar years, and yet their position in the hierarchy of literary genres had fundamentally changed, as they survived as popular middlebrow fiction. Conversely, other genres (such as the psychological novel, the autobiographical novel, the novel of ideas) were reinterpreted or reinvented along the lines of modernist doxa and became increasingly prestigious. As a result, the modernist novel in general has often been portrayed as profoundly anti-domestic, as it finds itself entrenched in a continuous battle against (among others) the domestic novel, one of the most powerful forms and enduring forms of novelistic realism. This division of genres – with its axiological overtones –, however, is increasingly brought into question, for instance by scholars who draw attention to the fascination for the ordinary in modernist fiction (Olson 2009), and to the crucial role of the home, private life and domesticity in the modernist imagination (Rosner 2005, Clarke 2015).
In my contribution to the conference, I want to develop some ideas about the distinction between a supposedly anti-domestic highbrow modernism and a supposedly domestic middlebrow realism, by focusing on the revival of the genre of the adventure novel in the Dutch middlebrow literature of the 1930s. By systematically exploiting the adventure tale (Letourneux 2010, Williams 2013) as a structural narrative device, bestselling novel writers such as Johan Fabricius and A. Den Doolaard tried to develop an alternative for the long standing tradition of the domestic novel, without resorting to the stylistic innovations and techniques of internalization inherent in the modernist fiction that gained ground at the same time. Their efforts, I would like to argue, can help us to expand our understanding of middlebrow fiction beyond the borders of domestic realism; they reveal the complexity of the category of middlebrow writing and show how generic ingredients can migrate through different strands of literary culture (from lowbrow popular writing to modernism, and back again).
Respondent: to be announced
Adriaan van der Weel (Leiden University)
Tensions in the Early-Twentieth-Century Democratisation of Reading Culture
The late-nineteenth-century expansion of literacy gave rise to a new and increasingly diverse reading culture, with new readers, new genres, and new institutions. In the economic and social conjuncture of the following decades the world of books and reading — always characterised by opposing cultural and commercial imperatives — became further complicated by a unusually intricate interplay of the forces of education, language, horizontal stratification, religious belief, internationalisation, new media and legal frameworks. How did these forces affect the new reading culture with its new readers, new genres, and new institutions?
In response to the contribution of Adriaan van der Weel about the import and distribution of popular fiction from the anglophone world, Mathijs Sanders will elaborate on the translation and critical reception of popular foreign authors in the Netherlands during the interwar period, focusing on the institutional trajectory of (translated) books by among others Edgar Wallace and Maurice Dekobra.
Emma West (Cardiff University)
‘What the Public Wants’: Strategies of Cultural Positioning in Interwar British Magazines
This paper considers both the theory and practice of cultural hierarchies and boundaries in interwar Britain. In reference to both popular and critical sources (books, magazines, newspapers), it explores how spatial metaphors were used to define and place cultural boundaries. In particular, I will discuss the characterisation of the middlebrow as something ‘in-between’.
Having explored how boundaries were formed and maintained rhetorically, I ask how these boundaries worked in practice. Drawing on Jan Mukařovský’s theory of the ‘aesthetic norm’, it examines how three magazines from across the cultural spectrum (The Royal, Form and Tyro) either explicitly or implicitly placed themselves in relation to cultural boundaries in order to appeal to particular audiences. Specifically, I pay close attention to how each magazine engaged with the art/commerce binary, both in terms of their literary content and the design of the magazines themselves. Through an examination of literary and ‘periodical codes’, my paper surveys the complex and often contradictory ways in which each magazine reinforced and disrupted both this simple binary and wider categories of high, middlebrow and low culture.
Ryanne Keltjens will elaborate a bit further on the institutional dimension of cultural boundaries in the interwar period. She will argue that tripartite cultural hierarchies functioned on different levels at the same time: besides the positioning of magazines, she will focus on the attribution of symbolic capital to literary works and the self-profiling of reviewers within the critical hierarchy.