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Highbrow vs Lowbrow: Hannah Kent defends Highbrow Literature

by Hannah Kent , June 6, 20148 Comments

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, Hannah Kent defends highbrow literature.

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I’d like to establish something before I begin my defence of one of the greatest loves of my life, and that is, I don’t have a problem with reading lowbrow literature. It has its place, much like folk dancing, or Taylor Swift. In small doses it can be entertaining, charming or even slightly titillating, but you don’t want to spend all your time doing it.

I also understand why many people have a problem with highbrow literature. ‘Intellectual snobbery’ is a common accusation, as though the reason people read and write the stuff is solely to intimidate their dinner guests. ‘Highbrow literature is for wankers,’ I hear them say. Well, ladies and gentlemen, so is Fifty Shades of Grey.

It’s no secret that highbrow books can be difficult, but it is a mistake to believe that this means they’re not pleasurable, or that they’re inaccessible. Highbrow books are complex, not for the sake of complexity itself, but because life is complex. They do not simplify characters and their motives. They do not fade out ambiguity to deliver readers with monochromatic simplicity. They do not handhold.

In lowbrow books, the writer dictates the reader’s experience. Nothing is implied, everything is explained. The reader’s engagement with lowbrow books is one of passive consumerism, and this is why it can be pleasurable. You don’t have to do anything. It’s the literary equivalent of a pony-ride at a fair. You’re led around by the bridle: it’s amusing, it’s fun, you don’t have to do shit, but once the ride is finished you’re exactly where you started. You are no wiser, no gentler, no more thoughtful.

Highbrow literature is different. Highbrow literature is a bareback gallop in the wilderness. At night. It isn’t harmonious with passivity, or a consumerist attitude, and there’s no one to hold your hand. It’s not sanitised. It requires something of you.

Highbrow books lead you into a new environment where you have to find your own way. In highbrow books you are not only a reader, but a writer also. You are called upon to fill in gaps, to come to your own conclusions, to find your own explanations. Highbrow books might not flatter you, or cater to your ego, but you know that that bareback horse is taking you somewhere.

There is a reason why the Iranian author and professor Azar Nafisi used to secretly bring together seven female students so that they could read and discuss forbidden classic works of literature. There is a reason why they read Nabokov, Jane Austen and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and not Dan Brown. Highbrow literature is steeped in knowledge of outer and interior worlds, and knowledge of this kind is powerful. An understanding of subjectivity – its mutability, prejudices, irrationality and individuality – not only gives us a greater understanding and therefore confidence in ourselves, but enables us to see where other people – unlike ourselves – are coming from. It is for this reason that highbrow literature is a powerful tool against dictatorships, fundamentalists and totalitarianism.

One of the greatest differences between highbrow and lowbrow books is this way in which the former shows us that other people’s beliefs and desires may not be what we believe and desire. It is the way in which highbrow literature exposes us to the inner thoughts and feelings of others that we might not identify with or ordinarily care about.

Late last year, The New School for Social Research in New York found that those who read literary works, as opposed to more lowbrow novels and non-fiction, scored most highly on tests of ‘the ability to decipher others’ motives and emotions’. In other words, highbrow books give people an increased capacity for empathy.

I am not against the reading of lowbrow literature. While it may be only highbrow books that make us empathetic, I acknowledge that book-reading of all kinds increases brain function, and it is only by reading all kinds of brows that we may distinguish certain kinds of literature from others. Read lowbrow literature, take what pleasure you can from it, but know that it is highbrow books that are most necessary because it is highbrow books that are of the soul.

For, I ask you all today, to make a choice. Imagine that all the highbrow books ever written are stacked in a pile. Imagine, also, that every lowbrow book published is gathered in a similar heap next to them. Imagine, then, that you are given a box of matches. Dear reader, if you had to choose between burning the highbrow books and destroying them forever, or setting fire to the lowbrow books, which pile would you set your match to? I rest my case.

Hannah Kent is the author of Burial Rites and Publishing Director of Kill Your Darlings. hannahkentauthor.com

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8 thoughts on “Highbrow vs Lowbrow: Hannah Kent defends Highbrow Literature

  1. Hannah, to even suggest burning a book gives me the horrors, although there are probably some that deserve such a fate. I completely agree with all you have said except…to divide all books into two distinct piles is to discredit the incredible diversity that sits across both camps. As with all things in life, there is a spectrum. Some books sit squarely in high or low brow, while many others sit somewhere in the grey space in between. These are the most important books of all because they will lead a book snob of high or low persuasion (and I think we must acknowledge that both exist) gently into the opposite camp so they can embrace what they previously rejected. These books don’t deserve to be burned, they deserve to be celebrated.

    • Hi Kate, thanks for your comments. This article was originally a tongue-in-cheek speech delivered as part of Kill Your Darlings’ Highbrow vs Lowbrow debate for the Emerging Writers’ Festival, and doesn’t reflect any serious ambitions to burn books or to even to lump them into piles. Personally-speaking, I completely agree with you. Unfortunately, for the sake of making the debate humorous and persuasive – like many of the other debaters – I had to forsake my private opinions.

      • Well that’s a relief. You didn’t strike me as the book burning type! Although lumping books into piles can be forgiven. It’s what they lend themselves to after all. ;)

  2. I have not been reading much, hardly at all the last several
    years, lost in my writing. But reaching a point when I needed a break, took to
    reading again. Coming across several good writers and well written books and
    then; I just a few hours ago finished Burial Rites and after a long moment of
    dealing with the ending, I wanted to stand and applaud. Superb writing and a wonderful
    -if painful- story. I told my wife, handing her the book: That’s how it’s done!

    If you love reading, high or low, Burial Rites is one of the books that should
    never, ever under any circumstances, be burned. It’s that good. Burn the Great Gatsby but not Burial Rites. I cannot praise the experience of reading it enough. It has a. . .balance to it, between what is
    told and what is left for the reader to fill in, feel or imagine. Just outstanding, Hannah.

    To cheat the question: blindfolded, you sweep half of each pile into a pile to be burnt (if you must).

  3. When Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice, it wasn’t considered highbrow. When Dickens and Gaskell wrote their *gasp* serials in newspapers, they were certainly not considered highbrow. The great unwashed read their works. It took many years for these contemporary writers of their day to be considered highbrow by our modern world. With your line in the sand, Hannah, these works would have been lost to us. There is no line in the sand required. A good book is a good book and who declares that? Academics? No. Readers? Yes.

    • Hi Fiona. This article was actually a speech at Kill Your Darlings’ very tongue-in-cheek highbrow vs lowbrow debate at the Emerging Writers’ Festival. Personally, I am against any serious argument pushing only highbrow OR lowbrow literature, but – having been assigned the defence of highbrow literature – the obvious fallibilities of such an argument had to be ignored in an effort to be humorous and persuasive. Let me reassure you that I have a great appreciation of all literature, and that this article (like all of those reprinted here from the EWF event) need to be taken with a pinch of salt.

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