This is Not a Book Review: women, the middlebrow and the Sydney Review of Books

Not so long ago, academic Beth Driscoll published an essay in the Sydney Review of Books (SRB). This is an online publication which deliberately blurs the distinction between the review and the essay, scholarly writing and literary journalism. This essay, however, sat uncomfortably across these borders, because it took as its subject three recent novels by Australian authors, and it discussed them in relation to the middlebrow. It is commonplace to say that the middlebrow gets people’s backs up – Driscoll says this herself,  ‘it’s a provocative, loaded word that usually gets a response’. So of course her essay did get a response–unsurprisingly, from the people who were subject to this categorisation. Antonia Hayes, Susan Johnston and Stephanie Bishop responded, together and individually, to Driscoll’s essay. They were upset about being grouped together in an essay which looked like a review and which associated their work with the middlebrow.

I write reviews for the SRB, and I enjoy it because it enables me to read works of contemporary fiction slowly and carefully, to consider them in detail and with my scholarly habits of comparing them to other works and writing in probably boring detail about how they use narrative point of view. But because these essays are reviews, they also force me to do something that we as scholars are very wary of doing in public: deciding how good we think a particular work of literature is. These days, and for good reasons, the last thing most literary studies scholars want to do is to be (or be seen to be) gatekeepers of cultural hierarchy. But we are, and when we write reviews we have to do it ‘naked’ – as individual readers, with a public to judge our judgements.

Driscoll’s essay, and its subjects’ responses to it, reveal just how fraught it is to make contemporary fiction our object of scholarly interest, especially when we are talking about cultural hierarchy or literary value. While her project is in part to recuperate the middlebrow-to show the complexity both of the texts mediated by middlebrow cultural practices and by these mediating practices themselves-it is a bit tricky to talk about this in a form that is itself one of the most powerful ways of mediating  literary value: the book review. As Hayes points out in her response, the simple fact of her novel’s title and cover being associated on the front page of the SRB with the word ‘middlebrow’ is an act of mediation. These novels-like all new novels by not-yet-canonised writers- have not yet had their cultural status or value decided upon.  The vast majority of new novels, I think, are neither inherently literary or inherently mainstream, popular or middlebrow. They sit somewhere in between, waiting for the various processes that weigh up literary value to do their work.

When I was asked to speak at a ‘myth-busting’ event a few months ago on the subject of women and literary greatness, I found myself stating the obvious: literary greatness, as an idea, is gendered. Making deliberations about literary value is hard, and as has become clear in the discussions around the VIDA counts of women and reviewing, and around women and prize culture, there is a deep-seated, often unconscious bias at work in women as well as men who are involved in the publishing industry and the media. And it is old – as old as the novel, and heartily reinscribed at the turn of the twentieth century, as Andreas Huyssen argued in his famous essay, ‘Mass culture as woman’: popular culture is the feminised other against which modernism asserted itself. So the very idea of literary greatness, so shaped by modernism, was defined in relation to a feminised mass culture.

And this continues to tip the balance for women writers, for whom it is much more difficult to straddle the literary and the popular because of the ongoing association between women readers and the least edifying aspects of the mainstream or popular market.  Books by women are more likely to be subject to packaging and promotion that target middlebrow reading practices and mainstream audiences, regardless of the intention of the author. Literary value is unambiguously gendered. Female writers and readers are assumed to be less serious than male ones. This makes new works by women writers especially vulnerable to acts of mediation such as book reviews.

Bishop, Hayes and Johnston are all acutely aware of something that academic critics sometimes forget or disavow: when we write about books, we are involved in the processes of cultural mediation that we are studying. However careful our scholarly distance, we are doing a literary version of participant observation. So when the SRB publishes Driscoll’s piece, even though it is an even-handed consideration of these novels in relation to middlebrow practices it still categorises them as middlebrow, from the powerful positions of academic author and serious literary review periodical. As is very clear from the responses by Hayes, Johnston and Bishop, this has a material impact on their livelihoods, their reputations, and the perceived literary value of their novels.

It should go without saying that long-form literary journalism such as that published in the Sydney Review of Books is hugely valuable: it means that books can have the serious, detailed consideration that is often absent from newspaper books pages and Amazon and Goodreads reviews. It enables academics to be part of the public discussion of books, and bring their knowledge to bear on contemporary fiction. And it enables critics from outside the academy to have more than 500 words to present a careful and complex reading of a book. To my mind, book reviews and literary scholarship are not necessarily different in their approach to literary works, but whether we are writing in a scholarly journal or in a newspaper, if we are writing about contemporary fiction we are doing the particular cultural work of mediating its literary value. This doesn’t mean that we should shy away from critique, or assertions of value or otherwise. But it does mean that we need to be clear about the basis for our judgements and the nature of our audience. And we need to acknowledge that, when it comes to the gendering of literary value, we are all of us – publishers, editors, reviewers and academics – part of the problem, even if we don’t mean to be.

Image: Alejandro Escamilla

headshotJulieanne Lamond lectures in English at Australian National University. Her research and teaching focuses on literary culture at the turn of the twentieth century, especially that written and read in Australia, and the intersection between literary and popular cultures of reading. She has published essays on Australian writers (Rosa Praed, Barbara Baynton, Steele Rudd, Miles Franklin, Christos Tsiolkas), gender and Australian literary culture, digital approaches to studying the history of reading, and mass market fiction at the turn of the twentieth century. She is editor of Australian Literary Studies.

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