in a post about reissues and Yoshihiro Tatsumi Bill politely accused me of wanting to fetishize comics as trash. I volleyed back that, hey, I like Fort Thunder, and then I added this:

I have more problems with middle-brow…stuff that makes a pretense of being important but doesn’t actually have anything to say, and doesn’t make any effort to say it in an original way.that’s kind of problematical definition of highbrow vs. middlebrow, essentially calling highbrow what you like & middlebrow what you don’t like.

Bill seemed satisfied, but then Miriam called me out on the carpet:

that’s kind of problematical definition of highbrow vs. middlebrow, essentially calling highbrow what you like & middlebrow what you don’t like.

i’m sure adrian tomine would say he has something to say & makes an effort to say it in an original way (in “sleepwalk,” none of the stories has an ending, until the last one! that’s a unique approach in comics, albeit a stupid one).

“fun home” engages with ulysses, etc., & as i recall you didn’t like it. does that make it middlebrow because it failed, by your definition?

also, the earlier schrag high school chronicles weren’t terribly literary (in the sense of explicitly engaging with the literary canon). would you define them as highbrow, & if so, why?

So, okay, I will try to defend myself, more or less.

I haven’t read anything by Adrian Tomine, honestly, and I’ve barely looked at his art. To the extent I’ve seen anything by him, it didn’t make me want to look at anything else, but I can’t classify him as highbrow or lowbrow or even cueball bald without reading more (or anything) that he’s written.

Fun Home more or less defines middle-brow, I think, at least for me. I found it really boring and predictable — earnest anecdote, earnest anecdote, moment of clarity, moment of ambivalent trasncendence, earnest anecdote…I felt like she might as well have just cut and pasted the thing from random scenes from This American Life. Yeah, there were literary references, but every time she dropped one I heard the thud. And her art does nothing for me.

Schrag’s first book, Awkward, I think probably actually qualifies as low-brow in some sense; it’s a high-school journal in a lot of ways. She kind of keeps that all the way through too; in Likewise she sort of reinterprets Ulysses as a girlie journal. The way she maneuvers around high-art, low-art distinctions is one of the things I like about her, actually. I think it’s also part of the reason she doesn’t receive as much critical enthusiasm as she should — folks don’t quite know what to make of her.

As for Miriam’s broader point — she’s certainly right that I’m pretty much using middle-brow to mean “things that are pretentious but stupid” as opposed to things that are pretentious but manage to deliver (high-brow) and things that don’t have a ton of pretensions (low-brow.) There are a lot of problems with that definition obviously — for one thing, low-brow work often has pretentions to its lowbrowness — that’s the case, for example, with a lot of country music. And drawing a line between high-brow and middle-brow can be tricky. I guess one way to think about it is relationship to the avant garde, or to high-art modes. Fort Thunder is thinking about visual gallery art, which is definitely high-brow; Fun Home is thinking about memoir, which I think is middle-brow.

Just being high-brow doesn’t mean it’s good, of course…there’s lots of bad visual art, and it’s all still high-brow, not middle-brow. I think free jazz is generally pretty boring, but it’s boring high-art, not boring middle-brow art. The question, though, is whether I can think of any middle-brow art I think is good. I was going to float Marston’s Wonder Woman, but on second thought that’s really pretty clearly low-brow… I like Simon and Garfunkel, who I think are pretty solidly middle-brow; they have pretensions, they’re not necessarily all that smart, but it’s redeemed by formal elements like the songwriting and the harmonies (and I do find their twee lameness kind of appealing, I have to admit.) I like Joni Mitchell. I”m not doing well with the comics though…I think Y:The Last Man would qualify — it’s got major pretensions wrapped in a very accessible genre package. And I sort of liked it…though not enough to really say it breaks the mold. I don’t know…anyone want to float a better segmentation of high/middle/low brow than I’ve managed to come up with? Or tell me something that’s middle-brow that I should like?