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Hack novel, hack critics. Both are writing to a formula and although it has a pretence of being "original" this pretence is sort of a spurious agreement among interested parties.

It's middlebrow, but only in the sense that a slightly more upmarket form of industrial genre fiction is middlebrow. Because that's basically what it is.

...must they so consistently valorize the mediocre?

The mediocre is the medium in which a lot of people live. They don't know how literature is more interesting; they've never experienced it.

Steven Augustine

The middlebrow rarely consider themselves as such and, the mediocre, almost never. Tread softly, for legions of both are reading your post (above) and quite a few (paradoxically) agree with it.

These internecine aesthetics-wars have always, and will always, rage with futile complexity, since most of those fighting in them are arguing the wrong cause. Consider the legion of Litbloggers who very redundantly "blog the classics" ("classic" defined as a text so deeply embedded in the canon that there is *already* more critical material addressing it than could be read in a lifetime)... a terribly (in my humble opinion), middlebrow activity... though I'm willing to wager that most who've given in to the urge to do so think of it as a highbrow activity.

Statistically speaking, the numbers are obvious, and considering the fact that "middlebrow" is used as a pejorative, how can it be otherwise (that writers aren't rushing to claim that middlebrow ID)? I.e., not only do quite a few of John Irving's, or Toni Morrison's, fans probably think of themselves as highbrow readers; I'm willing to bet a night with William Robins that the authors themselves would agree.

But why bother shooting ducklings in a barrel? (I'm reminded of James Wood's unnecessary rants against Amazon customer reviews). To paraphrase the ultimate middlebrow aphorist, the middlebrow will always be with us.

Dan, you're decidedly highbrow: wouldn't it be more enjoyable going after highbrow books (I'll go out on a limb here; let the "Giles Goat-boy" afficianadoes snicker) such as, say, Harold Brodkey's "The Runaway Soul"? Plenty of others of that anti-middlebrow complexity (translation: they've sold 5,000 copies or less) out there. Plenty of fresh and arcane discoveries to be had. Why not?

Steven Augustine

goddamn erratum: "afficionadoes"

Schopenhauer's bloody knuckles

Dan: please please please read (supposing you have not done so yet, but from your writings it does not appear that you have) Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil and the Gay Science. Nietzsche critiques the herd with amazing dexterity.

augustine: He should always slam the mediocrity that capitalism continually elevates and valorizes--its part of any intellectual's duty. Plato did it. Schopenhauer did it. Voltaire did it. Machiavelli did it. Sebastian Roch did it. La Rochefoucauld did it. Leopardi did it. c'est bon!

Schopenhauer's bloody knuckles

ps id also like to know dan's views on N+1

Steven Augustine


"augustine: He should always slam the mediocrity that capitalism continually elevates and valorizes..."

I sometimes wonder if it isn't a bit like digging a hole in the Ocean (to quote Uncle John); should the imperatives/tactics change with the medium/era? Is chiding a recalcitrant mass more effective than enriching a receptive minority? Is the hopelessly noble (Davidian) gesture enough... ?

Dan Green

I have read Beyond Good and Evil, and most of the rest of Nietzsche (and much of the critical commentary on Nietzsche.)

My view of n+1 is that I don't read it, since its editors won't deign to lower themselves into the muck by making its contents available online, and since what I've read of those snippets they do release to the online rabble have mostly been inane.

Most of the reviews I post here are reviews of small-press, experimental, and "indie" books. I'm planning to run a series of reviews over the summer of such books that mainstream book reviews have ignored or neglected over the 07-08 "season." But occasionally I do run a review of a "name" author or a book-reviewers' favorite, just to see what's going on in the "mainstream."


Why do we continually find it shocking that most people are mediocre and like mediocre works? That's the very essence of mediocrity! And of course in a 'Democratic' society what appeals to most, most broadly, is best. Not excusing it, just positing that perhaps, in these cases, ignorance is virtue.

Steven Augustine


"...since what I've read of those snippets they do release to the online rabble have mostly been inane."

To be fair, I've read some pretty interesting stuff in n+1, and its inanity quotient is a smaller figure than a lot of what is currently on offer online. I blame complacency, mostly, from all this chummy mutual blogratulation going on... lots and lots of online Lit reputations are grossly inflated (and based on far-from-original material).

The social aspect (which also undermined the authenticity of "print" Lit so terribly often) is a ten-times more virulent (quicker) problem online. I see more virtual alliances formed (and sundered) with fewer interesting ideas being generated. I see more copy-and-pasting and less original thought.

I know, of course: you get what you pay for. But, still. The paradigm shouldn't be "Bookworm MySpace"... should it?

Dan Green


All I know is that what I've seen as examples of n+1's "quality" from the online snippets are not good enough to make me fork over a subscription.

Schopenhauer's bloody knuckles

I agree with Dan on N+1; I saw one in Barnes and Noble of all places and tried to read through some articles....and it was just utter garbage. I have tried the snipets from the website a few times before reading the printed version and couldnt understand the hype, and when i finally got to look at the print i just wrote it off as being "nyc scene hype."

I find the elevation of the mild shocking because im an idealist ;p
And if nothing else, hitting the mediocre is great intellectual recreation.


Oh! I'm dealt with the same thing in adult fantasy. (Don't snicker, it's not polite.) I mysteriously absorbed all this fuss about a new "Lord of the Rings" -- I feel so ashamed for falling for this tactic when I was wiser in my teens -- and rushed out to purchase it, only to find it full of the same pedestrian copy of someone's copy of Tolkien combined with some D&D faux medieval nonsense. Since LOTR was something new in its time I thought this was the reason for the comparisons.

I complained only to hear that, "Well, actually, everyone praised it precisely because it did the same old thing well again!"


I'm still angry about being duped.

joseph duemer

I just dumped two copies of n+1 in the trash this morning as unreadable. The level of holier than thou Adornoesque philosophizing was more than a mortal soul could stand.

A note on those "specific details that creative-writing teachers are eternally begging their students to generate": As a sometime creative writing teacher, I would just note for the record that the reason we read & reread, say, Tolstoy, is exactly those specific details. The moment, early in War an Peace, when one princess slams a door as another princess sneaks up the back stairs in toward the dying nobleman's chamber in War and Peace, whole psychologies are revealed. It's not the use of such a technique as such, but its application to psychologically insipid material that one must object to.


The problem with middlebrow fiction is not that it exists, but that it is lauded as literary in this critical landscape.

From Shriver's review the book seems like a "good read" in the way you watch a "good movie"-- to be told a story, to be diverted. But the passages he quoted sound rather pedantic (and the thesaurus device? please.).

It does seem, from my limited experience, that editors are looking for exactly what Amy Bloom supplies in AWAY: a good story, "vivid" characters (which apparently can be constructed with a laundry list) and a ripping plot. Anything that is more challenging is not marketable. So if the market is steeped in mediocrity it's because that's exactly what the market wants.

Hey, even Virginia Woolf had to self-publish.

Robert Nagle

The problem with your criticism is that formulaic/middlebrow writers tend to focus on the story for its own sake and not its expressive and artistic qualities. That is a good thing, and these kinds of writers write intuitively and have a good ear for when something is not succeeding as a story. It takes a while for experimental writers to use conventional forms in order to subvert them.

Perhaps Stephen King isn't a great writer, but he has a good sense of how to get the reader hooked. That's very hard to do. (I consider it about 90% of the secret of great writing). The problem with King is that he writes with excruciating detail about things of trivial value to our society.

Nanowrimo novels probably are formulaic and not too brilliant, but I admire how writers can focus on output for one continuous burst and ignore trying to figure out whether the subject matter or approach is worthwhile. If you write fast, you aren't focusing on structure (or even imagery) and instead just focusing on how the story emerges. That is a very hard task, and if a middlebrow author succeeds on that, I feel I have no right to complain.

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