The Case for Middlebrow

Defending the common man’s “simpler” sensibilities.

  1. What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died? That she was beautiful. And brilliant. That she loved Mozart and Bach. And the Beatles. And me.

    — First lines of Erich Segal’s Love Story

    Everything follows from this principle: that the lover is not to be reduced to a simple symptomal subject, but rather that we hear in his voice what is “unreal,” i.e., intractable. Whence the choice of a “dramatic” method which renounces examples and rests on a single action of a primary language (no metalanguage).

    — First lines of Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse


    Which book would you rather keep reading? Chances are: Mr. Segal’s. Love Story was a best-seller for seven months, while A Lover’s Discourse quickly bounced into remainder bins. But which book would you rather be seen reading? Chances are: Mr. Barthes’s. The most pernicious modern cultural taboo is the one against admitting that you like middlebrow. Not “like” it. Really like it.

    We live in a time when highbrow has never been so high—so removed from daily discourse. And lowbrow has never so mesmerized the masses or carried such highbrow chic. What’s squeezed in between—the siren call of creamy and proficient pleasure—has never been so decried. We have lost appreciation for the art that was once the mainstay of American culture and the unguilty delight of intelligent readers, listeners, and viewers: the art of middlebrow.

    Hounded for years by highbrow derision, by broadsides flowing scornfully from the pens...

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