Well, for today, I thought that I’d talk about one of my favourite types of fiction – “middle brow” fiction. This is the type of fiction that includes all of the thrills, creativity and cool stuff you’ll find in “low brow” fiction, but with the level of characterisation, linguistic skill, thematic complexity, descriptive depth etc.. that you’ll find in more “high brow” fiction.
It is quite literally the best of both worlds and it is utterly awesome. Yet, it is annoyingly difficult to define. Ok, I could probably list examples of it that I’ve read (like “Box Nine” by Jack O’Connell, “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson or, the novel I’m reading at the moment, “Weaveworld” by Clive Barker), but it’s really difficult to spot it at a glance.
I mean, it’s easy enough to see whether a novel is a fun “low brow” thriller/horror/detective/sci-fi novel or a prestigious, intellectual and realistic “literary” novel just by looking at the cover. One has excitingly dramatic cover art and the other usually has trendily boring cover art that is filled with adoring critic quotes. But, things that fall in between these categories are usually a little bit more difficult to spot at a glance.
But, I guess that this is part of the charm of “middle brow” fiction – that brilliant sense of surprise when you sit down to read what you think will be an ordinary thriller, horror, sci-fi or detective novel only to find that it’s a lot more atmospheric, deep, intelligent, unique or vivid than you had expected 🙂 Or, when you think “I should read something intellectual“, only to find that the book you’ve pushed yourself to read is a lot more gripping than you’d expected 🙂
Yet, this type of fiction is really difficult to define. Is it genre fiction with extra depth and complexity? Is it literary fiction with an actual plot, some imagination and a proper narrative drive? Is it both of these things?
Surprisingly, it’s actually easier to think of non-book metaphors for it. It’s kind of like the equivalent of a more prestigious popular TV show like “Game Of Thrones”, “Twin Peaks” or “Boardwalk Empire” – which contains enough depth and complexity to be more than mindless Hollywood entertainment, whilst also still being entertaining enough to make you want to binge-watch entire seasons of it.
Another interesting thing about “middle brow” fiction is that it also reminds us of what popular fiction used to be like. Yes, there’s a lot to be said for more fast-paced, informal and “matter of fact” modern narration – it keeps the story wonderfully gripping and it also means that modern books can compete with smartphones, the internet, videogames etc.. for people’s attentions. But, at the same time, it can also lack a certain depth and atmosphere that even the most “low brow” of older novels often used to have.
To give you an example, take a look at “Erebus” by Shaun Hutson (1984). This is a fast-paced, ultra-gruesome horror novel about zombie vampires that I first discovered when I was a young teenager during the early-mid 2000s. It just seemed like a really cool, fun and rebellious novel back then. But, when I re-read it as an adult, I was surprised by how complex the writing sometimes was when compared to some of the more contemporary novels I’d read in the meantime.
Here’s a quote from “Erebus” to show you what I mean: “Elsewhere in the office things were at various stages of organized pandemonium as other reporters rushed to complete their assignments, hampered by the fact that their typewriting dexterity had not yet extended to more than one finger“.
This was “low brow” popular entertainment in 1984! A mere 35 years ago, a novel containing complex sentences like this was seen as a mindless “everyday” way to pass the time (like videogames, Facebook or Youtube would be these days). Just think about that for a second.
Another cool thing about reading “middle brow” fiction is that it’s kind of like a reward for having to read more dull “high brow” fiction in the past (eg: the set texts at school/college/university). Thanks to your prior experience, not only can you read it with relative ease – which feels like playing a videogame you’re really good at- but you also actually have fun at the same time. It’ll make you see the wisdom of having to slog through the works of writers like Shakespeare, Bronte, Dickens, Austen, Fowles, Woolf etc.. when you were younger.
Of course, as a side note, one amusing irony is that Shakespeare and Dickens were, at the time they were originally writing, “low brow” popular entertainment. I mean, just do some research into 16th century theatre audiences (eg: wild, rowdy, chaotic etc..) or into how many of Dickens’ novels were originally published (eg: popular serials in newspapers/magazines).
Anyway, “middle brow” fiction shows you that reading all of those boring books means that you can breeze through much more interesting books with a sense of ease and skill that may very well catch you by surprise and make you feel like some kind of expert or intellectual.
In short, “middle brow” fiction is totally and utterly amazing. Yes, it was probably more popular in the past than it is now (I mean, all of the examples I listed earlier in the article come from the 1980s/90s) but – in a landscape where popular modern novels often seem to be sharply divided between grim detective thrillers/ Fifty Shades Of Twilight and pretentious plot-less “literary” novels, there has never been more of a need for intelligent, well-written novels with a good gripping plot 🙂
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂