Critic and self-appointed cultural watchdog Dwight Macdonald made a career decrying what he perceived as mid-century America’s susceptibility to well-packaged middlebrow culture. Especially that which disguised itself as art and consumed with high-minded self-congratulation, like so much Vitamin Water.
“It pretends to respect the standards of High Culture while, in fact, it waters them down and vulgarizes them,” he wrote in his work Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain (here’s a pdf of it nicked from a university). Recently republished in 2011, Macdonald’s observations have since made cameos in the cultural conversation, including a recent citation by William Deresiewic, who updates Macdonald’s taxonomy in Upper Middle Brow: The culture of the creative class, published in the American Scholar.
As Deresiewiczi writes:
“But now I wonder if there’s also something new. Not middlebrow, not highbrow (we still don’t have an avant-garde to speak of), but halfway in between. Call it upper middle brow. The new form is infinitely subtler than Midcult. It is post- rather than pre-ironic, its sentimentality hidden by a veil of cool. It is edgy, clever, knowing, stylish, and formally inventive. It is Jonathan Lethem, Wes Anderson, Lost in Translation, Girls, Stewart/Colbert, The New Yorker, This American Life and the whole empire of quirk, and the films that should have won the Oscars (the films you’re not sure whether to call films or movies).”
Deresiewicz admits to enjoying the works he lists above (as do I, and I’ll presume you too, since you’re my target demo, and, well, here we are). We could add to his list McSweeney’s, Mumblecore, and anything ever written in a Moleskine notebook. I’ve had an abiding affection for all of these, and yet, Deresiewicz’s essay has put me in mind of Michael Murphy and Diane Keaton’s characters in Manhattan and their “Academy of the Overrated.”
But in a good way. Or at least a way that’s made me consider that a) Deresiewicz is right, b) Woody Allen is upper middle brow and c) much of my own professional work has aspired (and mostly failed) to be upper middle brow. And now, naturally, I want to get the pluck out of the brow-game entirely and attempt something transcendent.
After a five year “lost weekend” writing humorous hit pieces about wine country living (middlebrow meets merlot with some legit laughs on the lifestyle beat) and an additional two in exile in the East Bay contemplating what it all meant, I’m beginning to remember why it was I got in this gig in the first place. It certainly wasn’t about penning pretentious puff pieces to keep the kid in childcare – grateful though we be. Nor was it to be in, as Terry Southern used to say, the “quality lit game,” which now sounds hopelessly Upper Middle Brow.
Though Deresiewicz accedes that the work he ascribes to the Upper Middle Brow is “generally good work,” the problem, he writes, “is it always lets us off the hook… It stays within the bounds of what we already believe, affirms the enlightened opinions we absorb every day in the quality media, the educated bromides we trade on Facebook.”
Check, check, and double-check.
In some ways, I think that Deresiewicz has thrown down the gauntlet. Perhaps it’s time to start rattling our own cages until the hinges buckle and we’re free to challenge, disrupt, upset, and ultimately ennoble. No need for clever comforts. There’s an Apatow for that.