The Strange Decline of the Middlebrow Novel

Middlebrow is not a pejorative. Its the kind of story that offers a third position between the two extremes of fiction. Classic novels are really mid-tier fiction that’s proven its quality with time, showing that the author’s use of genre and craft made what might be just a war or romance or crime story stand out and attract readers long after the author’s lifetime. It’s not a radical attempt to shake up traditional style.

There are two extremes in the world of modern fiction: cheap, junk food fiction exemplified by authors like James Patterson or Brad Thor and stale “literary” fiction churned out by the likes of Jonathan Franzen, Toni Morrison, and the products of MFA programs. Both styles leave something to be desired. The pulps may entertain but that’s it, and some of the “pulp” SF and thriller authors reject the notion of classics or a canon entirely. Their counterparts, the “literary” writers oddly do the same in order to transgress a cultural order that does not exist anymore–the conservative WASP ruling class. The two camps both leave something to be desired for the reader because they stay within their respective ghettos. Genre fiction authors conflate literature with literary fiction, and the academic lit-fic crowd assumes that just because a story is about detectives, a far-future conflict, or (ahem) international espionage it is a genre (the horror, the horror) and therefore incapable of having artistic merit. They forget this policy when the science fiction pushes a certain agenda [1]. Ideally, the distinction between the two wouldn’t be an issue; there is a hierarchy to all art, not just fiction. The problem is that one side tries to prove its superiority over the other.

What’s fallen by the wayside is the middlebrow novel that doesn’t try to break artistic boundaries or experiment in form. It also doesn’t cling slavishly to genre conventions. This style is best explemfied by the novels of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Marturin series. Even John le Carre’s work is middlebrow in many respects (His Smiley novels probably have the staying power to become full-blown literature). These kinds of stories use genre conventions (like any story), but give us memorable characters rather than the often two-dimensional ones that populate the lowest forms of entertainment fiction. The reading public, however, has responded to the dearth of these kinds stories at least in the science fiction genre. Sales of SF magazines like Analog and Assimov’s, former bastions of middle-tier science fiction have steeply declined over the past 20 years [2]. A small New York clique sets the tone for the reading public, and it’s not surprising people are turning away from mainstream books (if they read at all). What has happened that rather than a true diversity of books, corporate publishing gives us a shallower pool to draw from.

There is demand for these books that give you both a great story and contain ideas, and it’s not a trend emerging from the major New York houses. An indie novel I reviewed some time agoHUNTER by Robert Bidinotto, was both an excellent thriller and exploration of the American criminal justice system. Afghanistan veteran Samuel Finlay’s Breakfast with the Dirt Cult shows the inside of modern Army life, narrated by a frank and unfiltered protagonist who questions all of modernity. The common theme in these novels is that they relate back to broader questions: law and order, duty, and honor. They remain in conversation with the literary and historical past. Lit-fiction and entertainment play off and react to each other in such a way as not to engage with anything beyond style (in the literary camp) or giving the reader a McDonald’s novel–something to cheap to be read, digested, and then forgotten.

 

  1. For the record, I enjoyed Oryx and Crake and its follow-up. Margaret Atwood is a very talented writer. However, that novel (and most of her work) has clear political baggage related to environmentalism and feminism.
  2. Highbrow SF includes (in my opinion) Phillip K. Dick, Frank Herbert, and Heinlein’s heavier works: Starship Troopers, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and Stranger in a Strange Land.
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