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Rundle's long read: The rise of the upper-middlebrow novel (and reader)

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Is it possible these days to write a long review of a serious novel without asking some questions about the genre as a whole? It is, but only if you are so bound up in the form that its ever-multiplying contradictions do not disturb you — or you are dealing with such a genuine masterpiece that the question of what the genre is recedes a little to the background. That’s rare, and so is the long review. What’s more usual is the mid-length piece –700 to 1000 words — in such book pages as remain, in such newspapers and magazines as remain.

These pages have existed for more than a century-and-a-half, and their current priorities for about half that. They are pretty universal — some high-profile non-fiction, half-a-dozen new poetry volumes bundled up in a single review every few months, the occasional A-list thriller, and leading the pack, whatever novels big and small have hit the stands. The novels that get reviews are from a relatively narrow band. Genuinely experimental fiction doesn’t get a go — even headliners such as Christine Brooke-Rose and B.S. Johnson found themselves all but unreviewed in the ’90s and 2000s — and so, until recently, did multimillion-selling degree-zero writing such as Dean Koontz or Jeffrey Archer, unless it is done as a sort of sociological exercise. In the middle, highbrow conventional writing such as David Foster Wallace is constructed as avant-garde, and everyone below gets a similar upgrading. So middlebrow writers like Martin Amis or Donna Tartt become middle-highbrow, novels of “ideas”, and lower middlebrow stuff like Ian McEwan or Anita Brookner becomes middlebrow, the novel of “social life”. Below that, there’s a layer of marshy betwixt between writers who take on middlebrow forms to deliver gussied-up romance/suspense. Those who do it well enough, like Elizabeth George, often get a review, those who dip below, like Jodi Picoult, often don’t and cry all the way to their private island on their jet.
But it’s the upper-middlebrow novel that dominates — dominates the review pages and the book festivals, and has a cultural role as the place where thinking is enacted. It is defined by what it is not — the genre novel — but that does not mean it is non-genre. Rather, it has a meta-genre, a set of abstract rules that dictate content (where genre has concrete rules). The upper-middlebrow meta-genre novel is broadly realist, even when magical elements intrude. Its characters have psychological unity, and if they lose it, it is part of a process of “going mad”, not as a questioning of the idea of such unity. Within a three-act structure, though time may be disordered in the telling, it uses a number of rhetorical structures — paradox, crossover, parallelism, etc — to create a sense of thematic convergence that coincides with the quickening pace of the plot to create grand finish. Most recently, this structural trick has been done through historical incongruity, mirroring current preoccupations. Find yourself a 15th-century Hapsburg transvestite who is the object of study of an agoraphobic ice-fisher in the Yukon, and when a former political analyst thrown into crisis by 9/11 moves to town to be healed and scarified by Inuit shaman, you’re away. If you haven’t spotted that this story ends with an erotic stabbing in a Dusseldorf hotel room and the War of the Austrian Succession, you don’t read enough novels.
This sort of thing can be done well or badly — usually, as wearied creative lit teachers will attest, the latter (as will publishers rejecting the work of wearied creative lit teachers) — but what is most remarkable about it is first, its profusion, and second, the outsize cultural importance accorded to it. Compared to the tight-patterning of genre, a Patricia Cornwell or James Patterson (TM), such novels appear to have their form driven by their content. In fact, their meta-patterning is as tight as a garotte. Whether the characters succeed or not, both they and the novel’s world-sense are driven by the constructed urge towards wholeness, integration, redemption. The story is driven by these urges through the various structural rhetorics, and thus highbrow readability is created. The meta-genre flatters its readers — who are overwhelmingly drawn from a “meta-” social class, the tertiary-humanistic educated world of culture, knowledge and policy workers — that they are pursuing the very opposite of by-the-numbers genre fiction (though they read that, too). They flatter the meta-genre’s writers too, who believe that the content alone is structuring their creativity, that they are breaking new ground.
That is not to say that such novels are not more various, inventive, reflexive (within strict limits), etc, than most genre fiction. They represent an advance, and they in turn have improved much genre fiction. But such books present themselves and are presented as something more than entertainment and reflection — as something that might unlock reality for us, make us see the world radically other — rather than as the engaging frolics that they mostly are. Such over-rating is a hangover from the high modernism at the heart of the 20th century, when the straight realist novel was busted open by Joyce and then Beckett — the Official and Provisional wings of the movement — Stein et al. Much of what followed was a recrudescence — neither stream-of-consciousness nor subjectless narration became a staple of standard novelistic technique — but the urge for the novel to be more than entertainment persisted.
This was challenged in the ’60s with an attempt to create a widening genre through the “new novel”, using subjectlessness, limiting rules, second-person point of view, in works like Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy, Butor’s La Modification, Brooke-Rose’s Between, and a fair slew of Burroughs. That this failed to become the norm may be due to deep structural principles of narrative, or the failure of the social-political revolutions of the late ’60s that might have busted us out of the forms of consciousness that the upper-middlebrow novel mirrors. The only place where such technique really lodged was in high genre. James Ellroy’s experiments with minimalism, point-of-view, etc, show that people are by now means bound to traditional form/content structures.
The second, more sustained, and vastly less threatening challenge to the upper-middlebrow novel came from postmodernism, from Pynchon’s V and Gravity’s Rainbow, through Foster Wallace and various very minor practitioners. Postmodernism reinhabited traditional forms — Gravity’s Rainbow is as close to Middlemarch as it is to Ulysses — by using the language, textures and motifs of a now all-encompassing popular culture, mixing high and low, serious and comic, authentic and kitsch. It bypassed the heroics of modernism to a cheerful nihilism. To modernists, this was the great defeat. No matter. By the late ’90s, the defeat was defeated. Once again this was due to cross-over. So much popular culture — from Seinfeld to R.E.M. — was now being created by people educated to no great end, in the abstruse humanities, that they not only had an audience that demanded  “modernist-light” entertainment, but also they themselves could not but create it.
Thus, the novel — the upper-middlebrow novel — has been in some trouble for a decade or more now. It was given some late oomph by the arrival in English of Houellebecq, who essentially parodied the form of the upper-middlebrow novel for what eventually became mixed novel-essays. The September 11 terrorist attack was a disaster, with the initial, promising declaration by a number of writers that they would not pursue fiction again — rather proving Mohammed Atta’s point that to get the attention of the West you really had to kill a lot of people quite spectacularly — followed by a welshing on that declaration, and a tide of the stupid pro-Western ideological confections as would stand comparison with the “German Invasion” novels of the early 1900s. At the end of a decade of this, Will Self recently published an essay that had the ring of getting it right” “The Novel is Dead (and this time it’s for real)”.
Yet if the novel was dead, as Self suggested – for many of the reasons suggested above — it has had a long afterlife. The crisis it is now in has nothing to do with the organism itself — people are still fronting up, ready to explore gender-hybridity through a tale of travelling Roma knife sharpeners and the Boston molasses flood of 1919 — but with the habitat in which it lives. Some might point to the major cultural and psychological changes from the iRevolution – iPhone, iPod, etc — and the way in which self-hood has become a matter of inflows and outflows, of a manner quite different to an earlier more bounded self.
But there was a similar aesthetic panic at when radio was introduced, and there seems no reason that a good serious novelist could not incorporate such flows into a new representation of consciousness and the world. The novel is a East African Giant Snail in that respect, hard to kill. What is easier to wipe is its habitat. For decades the cultural authority of the upper-middlebrow novel has been maintained by a closed system of publishers willing to chance their arm on such stuff — undergirding it with mass market fiction, and spreading the risk across numerous serious novelists — with a range of solid, but not spectacular advances.
It was reliant on fairly thick review pages, willing to cover all such output, and a downstream, channelled, mid-culture, which accorded authority to such a higher culture — everything from the Johnny Carson show, to the BBC and ABC. As it ever was, things burned brightest towards the end of that, in the ’80s, with a better-educated population turning an expanded demand for the upper-middlebrow into serious coin. That was the era when a six figure advance for Martin Amis — and his use of part of it for dental work — could become the fodder of global cultural gossip for weeks. That culture fell away pretty quickly, as the internet decentralised cultural authority, balkanised the last remaining general public sphere, changed a series of cultural imperatives – the search for self, for authenticity of action – followed by the ebook eating away at the hardback publishing model.
When newspapers began to decline in sales and authority, the bean counters started to take a long, hard look at bookpages, which had been untouchable hermit kingdoms for decades. Since novels no longer seemed to have the explosive authority, since there was no high and low, why did we need all these reviews of books that would be read by a small fraction of the public who watched even the poorest-performing TV shows? Why indeed? In the last five years, the unthinkable has occurred – tabloids have begun dropping book pages altogether, ex-broadsheets have winnowed them down. ‘Twas easily done at least in part because defending the material reviewed had become so difficult. What was it for? Sure, people like to write upper-middlebrow novels, others liked to read them. But they liked pigeon-breeding and monster trucks too, and they didn’t get six pages each Saturday. The up-mid novel suffered in part from the strategy its practitioners had adopted – the stories which called out to them – no longer writing ‘big beast’ books, trying to crack the Great War/American/Australian/Women’s/etc novel.
Given the notion that no great truths were being sought, how could such books claim to be more deserving of attention than a series of novels about a New Orleans blind-deaf trumpet-playing detective who solves jazz crimes by touch? Perhaps an increasing number of novelists wondered that as well. What was it all for? Eleanor Catton, who won the 2013 Booker Prize for her NZ goldfields saga The Luminaries, said she that what she really loved was TV series box-sets, and writing the 800-page book was like ‘making her own box-set’, at which point one suspects some of the judges might have wanted to take the award back. Yet who could disagree that for many people who would have once formed part of the ‘literate middle-classes’ – the Updike-Spark-Styron-Jolley reading public – what represented the ultimate pleasure, the aesthetic experience with the least amount of dutifulness attached to it – was not the box-set? How could a novel mimic its encompassing cultural sway, without falling into the disastrous Tom Wolfe trap, of writing – after Bonfire -cloddish, sub-naturalist brick-size snoozathons about the most interesting places in the world?
So it was with desperate relief that the ‘literary establishment’, whatever that now was, leapt on the work of Karl Ove Knausgord (pictured above) as soon as it started to be translated into English. Innumerable feature pieces have told the story, here in brief recap — Knausgard, heading into his 40s with a couple of moderately successful serious novels, finds himself blocked for some time on his third, a block which becomes a full-blown crisis of purpose. Domestic duties following a messy separation and new family loom cliff-high over him — he feels as if he will drown in petty duties without a chance to achieve greatness. He begins to simply write, without thought for form, a novel of his current life, which he calls Min Kamp i.e Mein Kampf i.e My Struggle, a mildly unsettling joke about self-obsession and damaged morality.
The volumes come out more or less six monthly, concerning the death of his father and family chaos, separation and reconnection, and the third, most recently translated Boyhood Island, about his childhood. The books purport to be artless, uncinched between the interesting bits of life, detailing the full mundanity of getting cash out of ATMs, eating a sandwich, being bored while looking after one’s own children, the dead time of perfunctory family gathering, the vaguely dissatisfying static that takes up much of a relationship, and much much more. Tellingly, most male writers on the series, writers themselves, picked the pages-long scenes of unbearable tedium dealing with children’s inexhaustible desire for repetitive activity as the mark of something that had never been before done in art. The women writers tended to cite the endless family scenes, those quite unlike the usual, and usually melodramatic, heft given to such encounters. Knausgard is good on catching the simple sense of wasted time that goes with such compulsory activities, not significant enough to be tragic, or momentous enough to feel a missed connection, simply, blah, and long, endless reinforcement that you will never be close to people you must spend the rest of your life with. Knausgard is unflinching in portraying this undisguised, which is why most of his family won’t talk to him anymore.
Reaction to Min Kamp in the UK and Europe, and more recently Australia, has gone from the ecstatic to the plainly delusional. This is the book that is going to save serious writing, the most important literary event of our era, and so on, largely because it is held to be without antecedents. It isn’t, and it ain’t, which is not to say that Knausgard hasn’t done anything new or innovative. But what has he done and how, and how important is it? Boyhood Island functions as the best test of this, because, by being a memory-story of the author’s relations with his father, something of a defeated, mildly pathetic arsehole alcoholic of standard Scandinavian issue, it is dead on the territory of the bildungsroman, the novel of the artist’s becoming. Here, by tradition, the author finds access to an understanding of Being, re-enlivens the world for us. Even those who try to buck the retrospective trick of the genre – Joyce in Portrait of the Artist, rendering all the early sections, in the child-like language of someone at that age — cannot escape the effect of the author’s signature: this is how I got to here.
Knausgard has to escape it by rendering the tedium of childhood, playing down it coruscating wonder, the emergence of Being and Beings, for the tedium that arises from its powerlessness, the limits of time spent waiting, making do with limited options, playing along with other kids dumb obsessions etc. The trick is that it is nothing like his champions describe. Boyhood Island is not a deliberate record of mundanity – it is not, like Foster Wallace’s Pale King, an attempt, per Auden, to ‘become the whole of boredom’ – nor is it, like Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual, an attempt to capture the enigma of passing time. It is a shaped story of childhood ‘hanging out’ and mates, and bikes, and angry, vaguely threatening dads, and in that respect is simply of the genre of a mass-market book like Stephen King’s Stand By Me, or that curio that every Victorian kid read for a few decades of state-based curricula, Don Charlwood’s All The Green Year, but it is extended by two things: leaving about 140 per cent of the final length in that anyone conventional edit would likely cut out, just record and record and record about where we went on our bikes, and six meetings with a character where one would do and so on, and secondly, discursive infill that the first person narrator of the story has no real access to, but the 20-page-a-day mid-life-crisis novelist has much on his mind.
That is chiefly, the socio-cultural surrounds, the arrangements that made his childhood what it is. For what makes Knausgard’s novels compelling is that they are not phenomenalist, not describing surfaces without meanings, but are always interpretive of the particular place they are in, a country of not social, but socialist-democratic heritage. Norway, like all of Scandinavia, has by now lost much of the rather, to our eyes, drab surface of post-war socialist-democracy, but much of Boyhood Island is about what that was like: about a place where almost everyone lived pretty much the same, where collectivity was a core of life, without having to be spoken about, where the self was a very different thing to the twitchy, hyper-individualistic selfhood to be found in a Dave Eggers or a Jonathan Safran Foer.
Indeed, it is bizarre that people do not recognise that Knausgard – whether he knows these antecedents or not – is in a tradition of novelists of the mundane, arising from more storified English realism. Half-forgotten books such as F.M Mayor’s The Rector’s Daughter or Flora Thompson’s better-known Lark Rise To Candleford, managed to develop this sort of close attention, by taking the full, lovingly detailed stories of the Victorians, and leaving out the story bit. In post-war English fiction this reached an apogee with the works of Barbara Pym, memorably described by Philip Larkin (whose poem ‘I remember, I remember’ about passing through his childhood town of Coventry, remembering nothing about it, and concluding that ‘nothing, like something, happens anywhere’, pretty much anticipates Knausgard in three stanzas) as someone who writes about people who realise ‘in autumnal moments, that they are going to miss the big things in life’. Rejected by publishers from the early sixties onward, she wrote an upset letter to the authors’ society newsletter about it. They refused to publish it. She was mundanity hardcore, rescued from obscurity in the late ’70s by Larkin and others, and republished.
The idea that Knausgard is not artful, is laughable. Here he is, describing schoolteachers: “Many of our teachers were borm before the first world war…grey haired and dressed in suits, they never learned our names,,,there was also a new generation, the same as our parents or even younger…our new teacher Helga Torgensen was one of them. She was what we called ‘nice’…. the headmaster…his name was Osmundsen ..and he had a beard…’
Now that is simply the repertoire of teachers one has had at every school ever, but it is too neat, there is too little variation. It os the core common issue of teachers, the hardass, the wimp, the would-be aesthete. It is the go-to list for anyone doing a sitcom about a school, about a school common room, doing a teen movie, or anything. Whether Knausgard had these teachers or not is irrelevant, though reviewers have fetishised a ‘realness’ of his work. What matter is that, in the realm of high culture, he has summoned the archetypes that would be drawn on by mass culture. What he is not doing is an unfiltered realism. What he is doing is a shaped realism, with a point-of-view ‘trick’ – a first person limited which busts out into omniscience where necessary – and which is declared to be revolutionary because it is, by the canons of upper-middlebrow form, bad writing. Here’s the weird thing: I’ve seen writing this good in the end-of-year journals put together by creative writing courses (usually called something like Syzygy! or Theodolite), and usually damned with faint praise for being too sticky, too obsessed with time and place the author came from, and to pay more attention to form.
But there is an answer beyond either, and that is represented by a book like J0nathan Meades’ An Encyclopaedia Of Myself . Meades’ memoir will not make it into most bookshops, even in his native UK. He too is a forgotten object of modernity, as inexplicable as a brutalist-style state-run youth centre in a northern town. His books circulated for a while in Oz, and then everyone gave up. Pity, because with a select few — Iain Sinclair, Anna Kavan, WG Sebald – he is a master of a certain type of prose and attention, the obsessive exploration of the failed utopia of post-Attlesque England. Like anyone who can rise to this challenge, he is a product of that period — free education, big state, cheap housing, national culture, bold urban reconstruction, a socialist landscape — with a remnant of its pre-socialist past. Meades made his name making docos about new architecture for the Beeb, which is the sort of thing you could do in the ’60s. He got good because he had to describe buildings and say why they mattered. His love of England was so great he did the only thing possible — moved to France — and through a couple of experimental novels, some short stories, carved out a rep.

His best book is his collection of essays reviews and news-y tat, John Knows What Dick Likes, which was risque in the ’80s, when it came out – but which is as useful a guide to late modernity as you’ll get. Above all, it is done in a prose style which can’t put a metered foot wrong. Meades is in the tradition of Orwell, Waugh, Greene, Blythe, Lessing (by default) – who cared what a sentence did, how it worked. There are no essays here, just aggregations of sentences, machined like rivets for a ship. An Encyclopaedia Of Myself  is not criticism but memoir, but it is done by decnstructing the self, by means of going A-Z through youthful memories. Thus it begins with ‘Abuse, sexual, absence of’ going into a long disquisition about the failure to be be fucked up the arse in childhood, while later diverging into ‘anal, penetration’ and telling the story of violated chums and suddenly disappearing schoolteachers. Along the way, all the obsessions of the UK are covered. But what it is, above all, is de-subjectivated. It is neither the intense and overwrought subjectivity of Eyrie, nor the feint of  Swallows-and-Amazon-ish Boyhood Island. There is no ‘I’ in ‘aye aye’, but nor is there much else. Meades offers a new route into our way of being here, our lives – yet it will be ignored for endless overwrought, overwritten, pseudo-accounts of selfhood, couched as novels, rendered as love, that we are yet to get over.

[box] Main image: Karl Ove Knausgord. [/box]

4 responses to “Rundle's long read: The rise of the upper-middlebrow novel (and reader)

  1. Loved ‘My Struggle’ so far. It is an exploration of the human personality, and transforms the utterly mundane into universal experience. And what a relief not to have to
    ‘suspend disbelief’ as, increasingly, the contemporary novel demands.

  2. I’d read “a series of novels about a New Orleans blind-deaf trumpet-playing detective who solves jazz crimes by touch”. Go write it, Guy!

    1. I’m guessing this is a cryptic allusion to Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo – much beloved by Tom Pynchon & George Clinton both.
      Anyways another fine polemic, thanks

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