Earlier this week, in the guise of reflecting on Pete Wells's New York Times dope-slap review of Guy Fieri's American Grill and Bar, I managed to sneak an essay on middlebrow culture past the editors at the City Paper. As is usually the case, my first draft was considerably longer, and I had to chop out a lot to keep from putting the paper's entire readership asleep.
Originally, I had more material musing on the high-, middle-, and low-brow split and why being middlebrow was so contemptible. Here's just a little of it:
Ever heard of the novelist James Gould Cozzens? You might have if his much-anticipated 1957 novel By Love Possessed hadn’t been labeled by Commentary’s Dwight MacDonald as “the latest episode in The Middlebrow Counter-Revolution”, sinking him without a trace from the American literary canon. Cozzens, MacDonald charged, was writing the kind of pseudo-intellectual garbage that made upper-middle-class insurance salesmen feel like they were reading great literature, and off course no self-respecting high-brow would want to come anywhere near that.
Of course, the vacuity of middlebrows has long been ridiculed in literature and film, from Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt to that one damning word in The Graduate, “plastics”, which sends poor Benjamin Braddock plunging to the bottom of a swimming pool. (Am I the only one who thinks that was actually sensible career advice for a young man?)
There’s always the question of bias when critics take on the middlebrow, as Mr. Wells can bear witness. Are they lashing out at the thing itself, or do they just not like what the thing represents or the kind of people who like it? Highbrows rarely show disdain for the low, but, of course, the lowbrow poses little threat. The lines are murkier between middle and high. Those booboisee a critic is mocking may well be the exact sort of people the critic came from they came from and desperately needs to separate ones. One's parents from Des Moines might think a night at Guy's American Grill and Bar quite delightful, especially after seeing the matinee of The Jersey Boys and shopping at the Disney Store
To me, that's what makes wading into the waters of reviewing middlebrow restaurants so perilous. Can one step back and ask, am I slamming this thing because I simply don’t like the food and the experience? Or, is it because I don’t like the whole concept of the restaurant? Because I don’t want to be associated with the type of people who like this type of thing? It's a hard line to navigate, but I think it can be done and should be done.
So there it is. And I'm sure all you highbrows out there appreciate it. Not appreciating it would be so, well, middlebrow.