Books

Highbrow vs Lowbrow: Carody Culver defends Lowbrow Literature

by Carody Culver , June 6, 2014Leave a comment

Last week at the Highbrow vs Lowbrow Cultural Showdown, six of our favourite writers faced off to defend their preferred cultural forms. This week, we’re publishing their speeches in full for your edification. Here, Carody Culver defends lowbrow literature.

pulp-pardon-my-body Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to introduce you to a close friend of mine commonly known as lowbrow literature.

Lots of people love lowbrow. He’s a popular guy. He also makes a tonne of money because he’s really good at turning questionable ideas into insane profits, and I’m mostly talking about teenage vampires and fifty shades of pretend bondage.

But, weirdly, no one likes to admit that they’re friends with lowbrow. ‘Lowbrow?’ they say with faint, barely disguised disgust. ‘No, thank you… I don’t’.

Why, ladies and gentlemen? Why this blatant denial, this inability to acknowledge our voracious appetite for trash? I’m here to defend lowbrow. I’m in his corner. I’ve got his back. I’m rewriting his story and I’m taking you with me – because frankly, there are times when I feel like I’ve had just about enough of highbrow books. Their earnest ideas, their lyrical prose, their fancy awards and their cover quotes from people like Jonathan Franzen, and – and this almost goes without saying – their size, I mean good god, just look at The Luminaries. I can barely lift it.

Full disclosure: yes, I read highbrow books. Sometimes, I even enjoy them. I work in a bookshop and I spent my days telling people to read David Vann, Tim Winton, Jennifer Egan, Donna Tartt, and – of course – Hannah Kent, and that’s because I love their books.

But do I read them all the time? No. I need to be in the mood. My arms need to be up to the challenge of holding tomes like The Luminaries. And just as there’s a time and place for highbrow, there’s an equal time and place for its less intellectually regarded, but more commercially successful cousin.

Lowbrow is versatile. Lowbrow is fun. Lowbrow caters to many tastes. You want action, romance, horror, sci-fi? You want international conspiracies that illogically involve the Vatican, you want shipping magnates falling in love with their nannies, you want serial killers who never die no matter how many times they get shot, stabbed or beaten? Basically, do you want to be entertained? When most people get on a plane and make a last-minute panic purchase at the airport bookshop, do they look for depressing Russian novels featuring characters with names that go for pages? I don’t think so.

Look, I could give you hypotheticals all night, or I could give you cold, hard facts. Harlequin – the company that owns Mills and Boon – is currently worth $455 million. Fifty Shades of Grey is the biggest selling book of all time.

And yet still, many people don’t like to admit that they read lowbrow books because they think it makes them appear less intelligent, less discerning, more likely to name their children North West or Bieber. A 2011 British study found that a quarter of eBook readers are too embarrassed to tell the truth about what they’re reading: 55% had read less than a third of the ‘smart’ print books on their shelves and one in 10 hadn’t read any. Why? Probably because they’re too busy with those copies of Hunger Games they nicked off their housemate’s bedside table. And while we’re on that subject, it’s time to throw off the shame shackles and do away with ‘adult covers’ for popular YA books – you’re not fooling anyone.

We read for many reasons – to be informed, to be inspired, to look smart on the bus – but also because we want to be transported. It’s worth remembering that what we consider highbrow now – our classics, from Shakespeare to Austen and Dickens – was, in its day, what we’d now call lowbrow: popular entertainment. We shouldn’t dismiss something just because it’s a light and easy read. Highbrow is kind of like that intimidating hipster in the corner of the bar – the one drinking from a jar and wearing a waistcoat made out of an upcycled vintage saddle. Part of you wants to be their friend, but another part of you wonders if the effort is worth the return.

Lowbrow, on the other hand – lowbrow is like your hilarious cousin who always gets too drunk and ends up saying something hugely inappropriate but ultimately legendary. Lowbrow is the life of the party, and how is he repaid? By being given to Lifeline. It’s the literary equivalent of defriending someone on Facebook when you were the one who friended them in the first place.

Of course highbrow has its place – we need great literature. But imagine a world without lowbrow. Lowbrow has to exist, or highbrow is just… brow. There’s room for both – and I’m here to tell the world that it’s OK to read books about vampires getting it on if that’s your thing. I want people to get the Mills and Boon out from under the bed. I want them to reclaim the Dan Brown from the garage sale (maybe). Would you prefer to read Ulysses or the Harlequin classic inexplicably titled Pardon My Body? I know which one I’d rather take to bed with me tonight. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some reading to do.

 

Carody Culver is Killings books columnist, and a freelance writer and editor. www.carodyculver.com

highbrowvslowbrow




capote-dog

The Outsiders: The early stories of Truman Capote

The recent publication of The Early Stories of Truman Capote – a collection of newly-discovered short stories from the archives of the New York Public Library – reveals the preoccupations of the adolescent Capote, drawn to drifters, exiles, and others living on society’s fringes. Read more »

CAROL

You Could Burn a House Down: Todd Haynes’s Carol

For many years, lesbians in fiction were punished for their social transgressions, condemned to a life of solitude, insanity, feigned heterosexuality and/or suicide. Radically, Carol portrays a lesbian love that doesn’t destroy or diminish its subjects, but enables them to transform, to grow and to be free. Read more »

21EMMYJP6-master675

Killings Columnists Pick Their Best of 2015

As 2015 concludes, we also farewell our fabulous 2015 Killings columnists. They’ve entertained and delighted us all year with fortnightly columns on culture, politics and society, and now they offer us a wrap up of their highlights for 2015 across their respective fields. Read more »

21EMMYJP6-master675

Killings Columnists Pick Their Best of 2015

As 2015 concludes, we also farewell our fabulous 2015 Killings columnists. They’ve entertained and delighted us all year with fortnightly columns on culture, politics and society, and now they offer us a wrap up of their highlights for 2015 across their respective fields. Read more »

18-gilmore-girls.w1200.h630

Tim McGuire

Progressive to a Point: Homophobia and Gilmore Girls

You can’t watch a TV show over and over again without picking up on a couple of its flaws, much as you might prefer not to see them. In the case of Gilmore Girls, the hamartia I didn’t want to find was a troubling and weirdly homophobic one, layered over with pithy dialogue, pop culture nods, and the small town charm that made the show’s seven seasons such a success. Read more »

ROSEANNE - On set in New York - 10/16/93 
Sara Gilbert (Darlene) on the ABC Television Network comedy "Roseanne". "Roseanne" is the story of a working class family struggling with life's essential problems.
(AMERICAN BROADCASTING COMPANIES, INC.)
SARA GILBERT

Rebecca Shaw

Out of the Imaginary Closet: Fictional characters who should have been gay

When you are part of a group that isn’t portrayed in the same way (or only negatively, or not at all) you become desperate for that glimmer of recognition. Here are several characters that I loved as a young person, who became stand-ins for the openly lesbian characters I wanted to see so much. Read more »

SPEAR_0014_Edward_Mulvihill copy 2

Lauren Carroll Harris

Eyes Open Dreaming: Spear and the potential for an Australian art cinema

Commercial success has long been prized as Australian cinema’s salve, and the values of that commerce-based vision of success have deeply permeated the national conversation. Spear sets this conversation aside entirely, raising in its stead the possibility of an art cinema in Australia. Read more »

CAROL

You Could Burn a House Down: Todd Haynes’s Carol

For many years, lesbians in fiction were punished for their social transgressions, condemned to a life of solitude, insanity, feigned heterosexuality and/or suicide. Radically, Carol portrays a lesbian love that doesn’t destroy or diminish its subjects, but enables them to transform, to grow and to be free. Read more »

Bowie - The Image  1

The Art of Immortality: David Bowie and The Image

With the news this week of David Bowie’s death at the age of 69 from a long battle with cancer, watching The Image is an oddly reassuring experience: the shared, mass hope that it can’t be true, that he’s not really gone, is played out in this grainy, almost haunted relic now almost 50 years old. Read more »

21EMMYJP6-master675

Killings Columnists Pick Their Best of 2015

As 2015 concludes, we also farewell our fabulous 2015 Killings columnists. They’ve entertained and delighted us all year with fortnightly columns on culture, politics and society, and now they offer us a wrap up of their highlights for 2015 across their respective fields. Read more »

18-gilmore-girls.w1200.h630

Tim McGuire

Progressive to a Point: Homophobia and Gilmore Girls

You can’t watch a TV show over and over again without picking up on a couple of its flaws, much as you might prefer not to see them. In the case of Gilmore Girls, the hamartia I didn’t want to find was a troubling and weirdly homophobic one, layered over with pithy dialogue, pop culture nods, and the small town charm that made the show’s seven seasons such a success. Read more »

PLM

Matilda Dixon-Smith

Family Matters: Please Like Me and the Aussie TV family

In a recent episode of Josh Thomas’s Please Like Me, the bouncy titles run over three little scenarios: Josh cooks dinner for his mate Tom and his boyfriend Arnold; his Mum cooks for her new housemate Hannah; and his Dad cooks for his wife, Mae. The three of them stir, sip wine and dance daggily around their kitchens in a neat metaphor for this season’s fantastic, cohesive new trajectory. Read more »

ss_8df8236403f5aad45eeedd33d2bd545e45435b39.1920x1080

Katie Williams

The More Things Change: Choice and consequence in Life is Strange

You can either be a benevolent hero or a monster, but few games deal with the multitudes contained by actual people. And what does it matter, anyway? There’s no such thing as regret when it comes to in-game decision-making – not when you can so easily restart the game to see what outcome will result from choosing Option B instead. Read more »

svfw crop

Katie Williams

Silicon Valley Fashion Week?: Fashion, technology, and wearability

Last week saw the inaugural Silicon Valley Fashion Week? (yes, with a question mark) unfold in San Francisco. The show promised ‘drones, robots, and mad inventions’, and tickets sold out swiftly; attendees were clearly eager to see more inventive clothing in this heartland of nerds. Read more »

AnimalCrossing copy

Katie Williams

Digging For Meaning in Utopia: Storytelling in Animal Crossing

Animal Crossing is a series of games in which – as my partner once remarked incredulously – ‘nothing ever happens.’ In its latest incarnation, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, you become the unwitting mayor of a town populated by anthropomorphic, bipedal animals. Read more »

Sydney - January 20, 2016: This Is How We Die perfomed during the 2016 Sydney Festival (photo by Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival)

Impossible Futures: Tomorrow’s Parties and This is How We Die

These two shows ask: how hard do we need to listen? In each, minutiae can be discarded, at least in slivers of time. Tomorrow’s Parties and This is How We Die each allow your brain to detach for a moment: to spin off into the different worlds they create, before returning once again, as best you can, to the work at hand. Read more »

Tom Conroy and Colin Friels in Mortido. Photo credit: Shane Reid

Jane Howard

A Shining Nightmare: Mortido‘s Sydney

Sydney is a city of shine and reflective surfaces. The glint of the harbour follows through to city high-rises clad in polished glass, bouncing off the wide windows of the mansions hugging the undulating land before it gives way to the impossibly deep and wide water. But this beauty that can betray the darkness of the city and its people. Read more »

_85072354_hamlet3-pa

Angela Meyer

Outrageous Fortune: Seeing Hamlet as a Cumberbitch

Jazz swells, hushing the audience, and the solid black gate of the theatre curtain opens. It reveals the lounging figure of Hamlet, playing a record, sniffing his father’s old jumper. But what I see first is not Hamlet: it is Benedict Cumberbatch. Read more »