In Defense of the Middlebrow
Middlebrow isn’t always a good thing. When it comes to food, the worst restaurants are often the ones that cater to the “average” diner. Not to name any names, but think of the restaurants you see on national TV commercials, with the same menu at each of their hundreds of locations across the country. These have their place, to be sure, but most of the time I’d rather have honest-to-goodness fast food, enjoy some hole-in-the-wall ethnic cuisine, or save up for a nice meal at a proper restaurant.
But when it comes to the intellectual life — the books we read, the critics who review them, and the speakers we pay attention to — the middlebrow is curiously neglected. The lowbrow is the realm of mass media: Fast and the Furious, Harry Potter, Joel Osteen, NCIS, cable news, and cookie-cutter novels from the big publishing houses. Highbrow is art house films, academic papers, literary novels, The New Yorker, and the like. This distinction is, thankfully, not just one of quality. What makes the Harry Potter books “lower” than, say, the novels of Elena Ferrante is the degree of accessibility and popularity, not just literary quality. The twilight zone in between the high and lowbrow can seem awfully barren. The film lover can seek out niche classics from the Criterion Collection or watch the latest entry in the Marvel universe at a multiplex, but she may not have many options in between.
As intellectual consumers, the search for middle-ground options can be frustrating. Even in outlets that are intellectually stimulating yet accessible to an interested generalist, the voices are concentrated among a particular credentialed class: professional journalists, or academics engaging with “the public,” for example. This is not a complaint about that class — I’m not an anti-elitist — but rather a call to notice the wide swath of contributors left out when a small subset of the country is producing most of its intellectual output. Although a third of Americans have at least a bachelor’s degree, an all-time high, it doesn’t always feel like discourse has become more democratized. It should go without saying, but having a degree is neither necessary nor sufficient to contribute to the conversations I have in mind.
There are definitely some positive signs. The advance of the Internet has massively lowered the barriers of entry to the intellectual market. Anyone can start a blog (or a Substack, Twitter account, etc.) and get to work cranking out middlebrow content. Some have succeeded on this path, like Matt Yglesias who now commands a large salary on his Substack account after starting as a blogger in the early days of the blogosphere. But even that’s not a great example, since his career path passed through Vox, a (newly) established media organization.
Even if there are trends toward opening up the middle of the intellectual market, we lack good models for what that should look like or a clear defense of its value. Why does the middlebrow matter? Who cares what a Jane or John Doe has to say about the Great Books or politics? We don’t want a medical dilettante when it’s time for brain surgery, we want a credentialed expert— so why should the realm of opinion and criticism be any different? When it comes to the intellectual life, aren’t we better off with the faculty of Harvard than the first two thousand names in the Boston phone book, to reverse Buckley’s quip about governance?
The answer should be obvious, but it’s often overlooked: the middlebrow matters because most people will never be thought leaders in their fields, but they still have valuable voices simply as human beings enmeshed in their culture, reading books and going to the theatre, arguing with friends and thinking about how best to raise their children. Scholars of classics will always be trusted authorities on the nuances of Homeric Greek, but this doesn’t mean that the interested lay reader of The Iliad should have nothing to say about his work. If art and literature matter, they matter to all of us. This is what we might call the humanistic argument for the middlebrow, as it is rooted in the universal human desire, and indeed the universal need, for the goods of the intellectual life.
My call to action here overlaps with Zena Hitz’s Lost in Thought, which issues a ringing endorsement of the value of an intellectual life outside the ivory tower— or as it might more accurately be called, the ivory silo. Where my emphasis differs perhaps is that it’s not enough for non-specialists to be consumers of intellectual products, to put it crassly. Yes, encouraging everyone to read widely and wisely past the years of their formal education is a good step. But beyond bare consumption, we need a healthy level of production from outside the academy and expert realm as well. Without those voices and perspectives, we suffer the effects of trickle-down intellectual economics.
Some outsiders to the intellectual life succeed by cultivating specialized interests in their spare time, which is no small task. Hitz catalogs some exceptional examples of these interlopers. But such cases usually involve acquiring the same specialized knowledge as the expert class, just without the credentials or institutional backing. My point is that we also need to hear from those eager generalists who dabble in multiple fields and can reflect on those interests in an accessible way. The scholar of Homer will never write a well-crafted essay on what it was like to read his epic poems late in life for the first time. For that, we need the passionate amateur.
Aside from humanism, there is a pragmatic argument for more widespread intellectual engagement: a healthy democracy depends on it. The active life of the mind forms practices that help us connect with each other in a more well-rounded way. A poetic imagination, for example, can bring empathy and creativity to an otherwise heated or, even worse, monotonous political discussion. There is no silver bullet here. Reading better books and making art is no guarantor of virtue, civic or otherwise. But these pursuits can remind us of the inherent human limitations on what politics by itself can accomplish.
The need for a broad “middle-class” of intellectual life is not just a bourgeois value ensuring polite cocktail party conversations amid political difference. It is also a profoundly liberating and at times subversive practice, as the attacks on artistic freedoms and on artists themselves in illiberal and totalitarian societies have made abundantly clear.
That novel you’ve dreamed of writing for years, the fragment of a poem you’ve been meaning to finish, the short film you could make with some friends on a weekend— these ideas burning a hole in your artistic pockets might never gain a wide audience, but they matter because your voice matters. Shaping the culture so that these voices form a polyphony rather than a cacophony is a hard problem, but one that must be tackled to avoid shortchanging our humanity.