Thursday, September 02, 2010

Of Necks and Brows

As most of you know, I belong to a proudly stubborn and stiff-necked people, celebrated as such in Howard Nemerov's delightful "Debate with the Rabbi":
You've lost your religion, the Rabbi said.
It wasn't much to keep, said I.
You should affirm the spirit, said he,
and the communal solidarity.
I don't feel so solid, I said.

We the people of the Book, the rabbi said.
Not of the phone book, said I.
Ours is a great tradition, said he,
And a wonderful history.
But history's over, I said.

We Jews are creative people, the Rabbi said.
Make something, then said I.
In science and in art, said he,
Violinists and physicists have we.
Fiddle and Physic indeed, I said.

Stubborn and stiff-necked man! the Rabbi cried.
The pain you give me, said I.
Instead of bowing down, said he,
You go on in your obstinacy.
We Jews are that way, I replied.
Unfortunately, as of yesterday that metaphor has taken on a "stubbornly" literal meaning for me. Can't turn my head to the right, or lean my right ear down towards my shoulder. Not sure if this is from over-turning it at some point the day before, or from spending too much time looking to the left while typing up notes and quotes for an essay. In either case, it'll be a week or so before I have my range of motion back--and in the mean time, reading, writing, driving, web-surfing, etc., run the gamut from just-a-tad-awkward to sharply, gaspingly painful.

Ah, middle age!


If you're one of my handful of regular readers, you may have noticed a small change to the site two days ago. Under the picture of me getting hugged by Jeepers, Koala of Love (tm), I've added a tag line: "Proud Members of the Middlebrow Network."

What's the Middlebrow Network, you ask?

According to their website, the Middlebrow Research Network is
an AHRC-funded project that provides a focus for research on the loaded and disreputable term 'middlebrow' and the areas of cultural production it purports to represent. The network is both transatlantic and interdisciplinary: we work to foster discussion and collaboration across geographical and disciplinary divides.
Their Very Useful Website offers a range of materials, including a database of researchers (you'll find me there), links to events and publications (which I've just begun to browse), and some handy descriptions of "middlebrow" art and its audience from critics past and present.

Several of those definitions quite struck home for me:
"The B.B.C. claim to have discovered a new type, the 'middlebrow'. It consists of people who are hoping that some day they will get used to the stuff they ought to like." Punch, 23 December 1925.
(Hey! That's my birthday. Kismet.)
"It is not true that men don't read novels, but it is true that there are whole branches of fiction that they avoid. Roughly speaking, what one might call the average novel - the ordinary, good-bad, Galsworthy-and-water stuff which is the norm of the English novel - seems to exist only for women." George Orwell, 'Bookshop Memories.' (The full citation is on their website.)
At this point, I mostly read a branch of fiction that men avoid. Not sure what "Galsworthy-and-water" means, but the rest seems apposite enough.
"The broad working definition I employ throughout this book is that the middlebrow novel is one that straddles the divide between the trashy romance or thriller on the one hand, and the philosophically or formally challenging novel on the other: offering narrative excitement without guilt, and intellectual stimulation without undue effort. It is an essentially parasitical form, dependent on the existence of both a high and a low brow for its identity, reworking their structures and aping their insights, while at the same time fastidiously holding its skirts away from lowbrow contamination, and gleefully mocking highbrow intellectual pretensions."Nicola Humble, The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 1920s to 1950s: Class, Domesticity, and Bohemianism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001) p. 11-12.
There's something quite negative about the details of Humble's description ("parasitical"? "aping"?), but I don't know the texts she's discussing, and don't want to assume that she's wrong. By the late 20th century, however, in the texts I know and love, there's a lot less primness in the middlebrow, while its mix of "narrative excitement" and "intellectual stimulation" remains intact.

I have a hunch--and it's just a hunch, so far--that this network and this term of inquiry will be quite useful to me in the years ahead, not just for my work on American romance fiction (which is often considered "lowbrow," but includes a large number of middlebrow texts as well, at least by Nicola Humble's definition), but also for my work on the pleasures of poetry. On which note, I look forward to reading Jane Dowson's conference presentation on "Poetry and the Middlebrow" over at the Network's Resources page, and posting on that in the future.

What's the brow-line on that Nemerov poem, after all?


Today's song: a little Hebrew qawwali for you, by Shye Ben Tzur. The lyrics (translated by someone on YouTube, so these may not be quite right) suggest that it's a devotional love song: "The Rose of my heart has unfolded / To you I shall sing / When I sing to you / The Rose of my heart unfolds / On my breast you have struck one beat / And within it you have planted endless rhythms / On the sail of my lungs you blow your breath / And within infinite compositions echo," etc. Enjoy!


Laura Vivanco said...

Ouch! Sounds very painful. I hope your neck gets better quickly.

As for the brows, at the Heyer conference Mary Joannou mentioned the Middlebrow Network and encouraged people to join, so perhaps not all romances count as lowbrow?

E. M. Selinger said...

"So perhaps not all romances count as lowbrow?"

Precisely! Heyer is an early example, but my sense is that much of popular romance today would also be middlebrow, rather than lowbrow work. I don't know category romance well enough to say, but certainly the single-title romance world is full of middlebrow authors--in fact, I think that's probably the norm.