Highbrow, Lowbrows, Middlebrow, Now

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I don’t know. I don’t read highbrow magazines as much now as I did, but I do think that The New York Review of Books has replaced Partisan Review as the highbrow’s literary magazine. And on the evidence of The New York Review , I’d say the highbrow is still pretty down on the middlebrow. On the other hand, The New York Review needs the middlebrow—that’s where the money is coming from.

It’s important in that context to realize how much confidence Americans have gained in our own artistic products over the past generation. Do you remember the special issue of Cyril Connolly’s British magazine—the issue devoted to America, published in England back in the late forties? The whole point was America’s lack of self-confidence. But American painting in the forties and fifties—particularly the abstract expressionist movement—showed the whole world that America had become the place where the action was. After that, we didn’t have to worry so much about whether what we produced was serious or not.

 

In 1949 you described a natural alliance, or at least affinity, between the highbrow and the lowbrow. How has that alliance been doing since then?

I think it survives. You see, the lowbrow is childlike in a way. This is a guy who doesn’t care about what you think of his taste; he just likes something, and says so. The highbrow point of view is that this is a real, honest reaction that comes from inside and is not a made-up reaction to impress somebody else. Therefore the highbrow thinks it is useful. The highbrow liked jazz for the same reason, and he still does. I don’t know what he thinks of rock, but I suspect he doesn’t like it.

Do you think that the middlebrow still tends to look up to the highbrow as a source of taste and guidance, as you implied he did in 1949?

No, I think the lower middlebrow, at least, now tends to look upon the highbrow as an intellectual fraud.

You associated academics closely with highbrows in 1949. Still true?

There’s an important point to be made here: the taste business is a consumer business, not a business of making something. Highbrow art is not necessarily made by highbrows; a highbrow artist in his life may be a straight middlebrow. The academic community’s job is interpretation of the arts, and that is a highbrow consumer activity.

But hasn’t the characteristic academic changed from then to now—a vast increase in his sheer numbers, for one thing?

The percentage of people who are highbrows, in or out of the academy, is probably a constant percentage. You have more academics now, and therefore more highbrow academics. But I don’t think the percentage changes.

You spoke of the book publisher as a sort of would-be highbrow. You wrote: “The conscientious publisher … spends a large part of his time on books that will not yield him a decent return on his investment. He searches out writers of promise; he pores over the ‘little magazines’ (or pays other people to); he leafs through hundreds and hundreds of pages of manuscript. He advises writers, encourages them, coaxes them to do their best work; he even advances them money.… Zn order to publish slender volumes of poetry he must also publish fat volumes of historical romance.…” Do you feel, considering the state of book publishing in the 1980s, that your 1949 view of the publisher has a somewhat nostalgic ring?

I’m afraid it does. I can vouch for the truth of that paragraph as of the time it was written, because I saw those things going on around me all the time. Now I have the feeling that there is an awful lot more pressure in publishing houses to publish anything that is going to make money and to neglect the other values—to not bother with the trade-off that I described. The little books, first novels, that are commercially risky are probably given less time and money than they were.

Do you think that an editor in a publishing house still wants to do the kind of thing you described, but that perhaps now his boss won’t be so ready to let him?

I can’t believe that any editor doesn’t want to do that kind of thing, because finding new talent and working with it is by all odds the most exciting part of publishing. I don’t know what goes on upstairs though.

In recent years many people have noted the relative disappearance in the arts of what was called the avant-garde. But the avant-garde is the fox that the highbrow is chasing, isn’t it? And if it’s gone, what does that do to the highbrow?