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This item is taken from PN Review 194, Volume 36 Number 6, July - August 2010.

The term ‘middlebrow’ puts me in mind of Frida Kahlo. But the middlebrow is not an artist, is not uniquely beautiful, not haunted, wounded, not volatile and erotically unpredictable. The middlebrow as a category falls between the high- and lowbrow, not the right- and leftbrow: rather intelligent, rather inquisitive, rather comfortable, willing to be led. Like floating voters, wooed and flattered. Made to feel significant. Consulted, even on subjects about which it has nothing but the opinions fed to it in advance by those who set the questions. Certain that it has responsibilities and lured into believing it has choices. Coriolanus must bow before it, or else.

This is a paradox Derek Walcott addressed back in 1989. He used the word ‘democratic’ in relation to an educational system that did not enrich but impoverish readers. He said, ‘every poet has a tremendous sense of hierarchy. We all know where we are not at. We all know who our sublime superiors are. We all know we all struggle towards that.’ The hierarchy - which is also a genealogy - is inferred from what has come before. ‘So there is a very hierarchical sense in every poet of who is greater than whom. This does not defeat the function of the poet’s idea of democracy as a social organism, it’s not that, but some of that hierarchy has to be taught, otherwise everything is equal.’ Along with other poets around the table that day - Seamus Heaney, Les Murray, Joseph Brodsky - he was unwilling to transpose what was proper for the social organism on to the artistic: ‘once you enter literature you enter hierarchy and you must teach hierarchy’. It is hard, it is contradictory, but if the subject actually is poetry rather than entertainment, inclusion, therapy, or some ideological imperative, one goes to school with hungry and grateful self-effacement.

When Lionel Shriver won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2005 for We Need To Talk About Kevin she was grateful. After seven unsuccessful novels, like the Plagues of Egypt, she was entering the promised land. In June 2010 she won again, for the same book: this time the public itself, not a panel of judges, had spoken, and her 2005 novel was elected ‘winner of winners’ in the Waterstone’s/Orange competition, the event one of several to mark the fifteenth anniversary of a prize designed to single out the work of a woman writer.

This time Shriver was not fulsome. There were now too many branches of the Orange Prize: the more prizes there are, the less they mean to readers, writers and that elusive creature ‘the public’. A ‘youth panel’ selected Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces as its ‘winner of winners’, so ‘the public’ was clearly at odds with ‘the youth panel’. A Venn diagram begins to emerge with varying overlaps until, as in a General Election, everyone claims a portion of victory. Was the ‘youth panel’ balanced by an ‘age panel’? Lionel Shriver looked at the public’s choice (by plurality, not majority) and decided she had won the ‘dumb’ prize. This was not an assault on individual members of the public but on the arrogation to a collective of the considered judgement of the individual. A judging panel (however unqualified) can set forth reasons and be held accountable. ‘The public’ canvassed in such a context is inarticulate beyond yes and no.

Shriver went on to speak of the publishing industry today, its dependence less on editorial vision than on occasions such as these, on marketing, on middlebrow complicity. She wished she could encourage wannabe writers, but they ought to know the truth about the industry. Quality will not always out: a big spend on marketing creates bestsellers. ‘The odds are stacked against you,’ she said. ‘I want to give people enough of an idea of the capriciousness of the industry.’ How ‘awful’ Bret Easton Ellis’s latest book, Imperial Bedrooms, is, and yet it has forced its way in the market place thanks to marketing. She had been commissioned to review it at 1500 words. ‘The book doesn’t deserve the attention. It’s ghastly. In the meantime, there are lots of books that will not be reviewed.’

As she was speaking, ‘the public’ - in any event, the public in possession of Oxford MAs, of any variety - was electing, for the first time online, the Oxford Professor of Poetry after Ruth Padel’s election and resignation. Some had hoped that Geoffrey Hill - the Coriolanus in this context - would stand unopposed and restore gravitas to the post. Other serious contenders left the field to him; but it was suddenly crowded with, as one journalist put it, ‘screaming Lord Sutches’, mostly unknown. The result of this privileged plebiscite will be announced after PNR 194 has gone to press. It is unpredictable. The age demands entertainment even, or especially, from the arts. The middlebrow may not go for Hill: his poems make demands. Alabaster. Flaubert, writing to George Sand, says, ‘We must, by an effort of the mind, go over to our characters, as it were, not make them come over to us.’ We must go over to our poets, not make them come over to us. The middlebrow insists on being met more than half way.

In an age when the culture of critical reception has been displaced by market research, prizes and popular elections, the odds is almost gone; what is left remarkable will be appreciated by those Walcott evoked in 1989. There is a difference in kind between social and artistic structures and values. The original Anglo-American modernists aestheticised their politics, with dreadful consequences. The artistic electorate, abetted by publishers and marketeers, politicises the aesthetic. No wonder some writers dread the grinning, bland, emollient approbation, the most bloodless of Pyrrhic victories.

This item is taken from PN Review 194, Volume 36 Number 6, July - August 2010.

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