From Lowbrow to Nobrow

by Peter Swirski
224 pages,
ISBN: 0773530193

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The Same Struggles Go On
by David Helwig

Walk into a bookstore and you're likely to find shelves labelled Literature, Fiction, Best Sellers, Crime, Thrillers, Romance, Science Fiction. The bookseller knows by the packaging or the author's name or the blurb where to put each book so that a customer who enters the shop can read the label and get what's required on that particular afternoon.
Peter Swirski's book, From Lowbrow to Nobrow, is based on the belief that such distinctions have led to a snobbish discounting of the serious artistic quality of some of the books that are usually labelled crime or sci-fi. "Notwithstanding a growing number of integrated scholars, the inherited and tacitly embraced view of genre fiction can still be summarized by two equations. Popular equals bad because if it were any good it would not be popular in the first place; and popular equals generic equals bad because it appeals to so many by virtue of being simplistic, schematic and repetitivełin other words by exhibiting the distinctive traits of its lowbrow heritage."
Early in his book he looks at the current circumstances of publishing, and the plaint sometimes heard that in the days of movies, TV, DVD and the Net, books are threatened with extinction, and he comes up with some statistics to suggest that the doom of literature is still a long way off. "Total 1991 book sales," he points out, "were thirty-five times greater than in 1950." That's one statistic among many, and his argument is a telling one.
Implicit in what he's saying, but unmentioned, is the increasing industrialisation of publishing and with it a systematic attempt to identify the desires of different groups of readers and to produce and package what each group wants.
The most interesting and successful part of Peter Swirski's book is his account of three particular works, which, he believes, show the high level of creativity possible in books that might be identified as mere popular entertainment. The first of these is Karel _apek's The War with the Newts, which presents itself as some sort of fantasy adventure, but, in his view, goes far beyond. "The publication of this genre-bender caused a worldwide stir, running the gamut from calls for laurels to calls for lynching." Swirski makes the book sound both exciting and significant. It succeeds, he contends, "in lambasting the excesses of arms trade, science, religion, the League of Nations, modernism, intellectualism, anthropocentrism, historical objectivity, labour, (mis)management, nationalism, capitalism, expansionism, fascism, bolshevism, communism, colonialism, imperialism, racism, the media circus, the sensation-seeking press, fashion, and, not least, Hollywood's nouveaux riches and their studios' extravaganzas." Well, why not?
Swirski expends great energy is setting out to convince the reader that _apek's book has been underrated because it has its roots in pulp-fiction, and has been seen as failed sci-fi. His praise of the book is convincing, but his overall argument is weak. _apek has in fact been widely praised by serious writers, and Swirski offers little or no evidence that his work has been discounted because it has connections to popular fiction. He didn't win the Nobel prize? Welcome to the club.
Swirski argues that the three books he is analysing and praising are examples of what he calls the nobrow bookłthe book which begins as lowbrow but shows the inventiveness and depth of art. "Artertainment" is the ugly word he coins for this. His second example is Raymond Chandler's last book, Playback, not popular even among Chandler's fans, but in Swirski's view, a sophisticated and morally committed work that plays deliberate games with the form of the detective novel.
The third book dealt with in detail is The Chain of Chance by Stanislaw Lem. Once again Swirski's enthusiasm for the book carries conviction, and he offers an impassioned account of how Lem blends suspense, adventure and a knowledge of contemporary science to produce an exciting work. But since Lem, as Swirski points out, has been highly praised by any number of literary authorsłArthur Miller, John Updike, Anthony Burgess among othersłSwirski's argument in Lem's favour seems less than revolutionary.
There is something nanve about Swirski's thesis and his presentation of it is unclear. And while his writing has a certain exuberance, it is frequently awkward. "No one can, of course, exhaust the interpretive and socio-cultural issues dormant in these three novels. My efforts must perforce be limited to detailing the ways in which they crisscross the literary highs and lows in pursuit of what I call artertainment." Of the Lem novel he says, "Its central theme, albeit scientific and brainy, brings the sundry elements of its mystery thrillethon into a nail-biting focus."Alright, so this is pastiche; it's still awful. He persists in using "like" in place of "as" even in such an awkward phrase and "much like in". The only reason for this that I can imagine is that he is presenting himself as one of the boys, populist against the top dogs, and he doesn't want to sound literary, or even literatełthough he likes using Latin tags.
We are meant to assume, throughout the book, that there is a snobbish establishment turning up its aristocratic nose at popular literature, while gutsy Pete Swirski has the jam to tell it like it is. Much of his attack, however, is a thrashing of straw men. He talks slightingly of the canon and the university curriculum, but, as we all know, these things, (which have only a short history in their current form) have been under attack for years. Swirski is a university teacher, and his framework is academic, though he wants to present himself as an adversary of all that. "The literary canon today is chock-full of works written for the public agora and not for the academe (sic)." So what else is new? His best example of highbrow snobbishness comes from a Penguin Book published in 1956. However he quotes the highbrow T.S. Eliot about the way popular fiction catches in its narrative important elements of its time, and the equally highbrow W. H. Auden to much the same effect.
Early in From Lowbrow to Nobrow he says, "My point here is not that all genre fiction is good literature, because much of it manifestly is not." Is his point then that within the bounds of popular literature one can read with the same discrimination as in any other kind of writing? There is a complicated relationship between the apparently nanve and the apparently sophisticated in every period of literature. Chaucer adapted dirty jokes. Byron wrote verse romances. Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens pretty much invented the novel of crime. Jane Austen complained that novels were treated as trifling distractions.
What is new in our time is the size of the literate audience, the industrialisation of publishing, the range of marketing. The effect is to make it harder for anyone to keep track of what's going on. These issues are not considered in the bookłnor is there any study of the romance novel or even the books that my second hand store calls best sellers.
Swirski seems most concerned that not enough contemporary popular literature is being presented for academic study. It's true that once universities began to look at contemporary works, the question of which contemporary works became a vexed one, but in some sense the problem is not with the books but with the institutionalisation of literature caused by the vast expansion of the universities.
Storytelling is always old and always new. Circumstances change, but within the new circumstances the same struggles go on. Literature is just one human mind seriously engaged with a form of words. The restłlike too much of this bookłis blather. ņ

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