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May 10, 2004


David Fiore

"All perfectly true, but, let us be honest – there are plenty of works, in any medium and any genre, that offer pretentious, shallow, or thoroughly diluted ideas, whether for the masses or the cultural elite or an audience of one. Take "middlebrow" out of play and we'll actually have to tell you in detail why American Beauty was overrated tripe, and nobody wants that, do they?"

You convinced me right there Marc! If we can all agree to equate "middlebrow" with determinstic writing/filmmaking/scholarship that trades on the allusive simplification of ideas that are beyond its depth, I will begin using the term with alarming frequency!



"We're as likely to see middlebrow interlocutors of the lowbrow as of the high; just turn on your cable."

Nice essay, but I'm not entirely sure I understand what you mean here, or I can't think of a good example. Failure of the imagination, I suppose, but I can see how it goes the one way, but not so much the other way.

J.W. Hastings


Thanks for the response. I think you're taking what I said too far, though. I'm arguing against a pejorative use of the term "middlebrow", but that doesn't mean that I want it to be used as a term of praise. My list of middlebrow masterpieces would be dwarfed by any list of middlebrow pieces of trash that I could come up with.

But my question remains: if you want to call a work shallow and/or pretentious, why not just call it shallow and/or pretentious? Using "middlebrow" as a stand-in can't help but bring in those elitist associations you hoped to avoid.



This makes me wonder what your thoughts are to the whole 'philosophy' behind the Ultimate books in general. (If you've already discussed them at length elsewhere, I apologize.)


Abhay - I was thinking primarily of the legion of cable shows that feature a faux punditocracy C-list celebrities gushing and/or bitching over 80s videos or entertainment news as if they were analyzing the war in Iraq or the Talmud. (Any suggestions that this description might also fit a blog about comic books and Tarantino will be met with an awkward silence.)

J.W. - about halfway through the piece I was no longer responding just to your or Dave's essays, but to the larger cultural argument that I saw them tending towards. Hope I made that clear.

I suppose I prefer "middlebrow" - in certain very specific circumstances - to "pretentious" because it's more complete and concise, capturing not only the pretension but also something of what the work or critic is pretending to, and their ultimate failure to meet their own standards. That does carry the danger of conveying all those other associations as well, but I'm willing to accept the trade-off if the word fits.

For another take that attempts to rehabilitate only the positive connotations of middlebrow, I recommend this Salon article from March 1997.

Chris Ekman

If you're shopping for rehabilitations of the middlebrow, there's a fairly recent one by Terry Teachout that's been well-circulated:


Teachout misses the broad, shared culture of middlebrow and wonders whether it might have been preferable to the atomized, niche culture of today. He admits he feels that way largely out of nostalgia, but still, you can see the appeal.

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