So what if I’m a middlebrow?

A couple of novels my book group recently read have me thinking about my preference for plain, direct writing.

The latest was Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, a semi-autobiographical novel by a gay Vietnamese immigrant in the guise of a letter to his illiterate mother.

Widely praised by critics, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous was applauded by most of our book group too.

I welcomed Vuong’s topic of the immigrant experience, admired his raw honesty, and was saddened by his characters’ struggles. However, I thought the language overshadowed the story, and it often lost me. Vuong, who is a poet, writes poetry-like prose. Sentences such as “A page, turning, is a wing lifted with no twin, and therefore no flight,” left me wondering, “Huh?”

If this comes across as criticism of Vuong, that’s not the intent. I’m thinking about my own inadequacy. Although I’m a so-called word person, my appreciation for writing has limits. The direct, explicit, simple style of newspaper journalism, where I started my career, is also my preference in fiction. I dislike writing that calls attention to itself. I want to understand what an author is saying without having to reread.

What’s wrong with that? Nothing, if this were just about personal taste, but ego comes into play. I’m doubting that I have the capacity to understand lofty language or the diligence to try. If the comparison were just between Hemingway’s simplicity and Faulkner’s complexity, I could choose Hemingway without feeling intellectually inferior. But lyrical, figurative language — the opposite of my preference — is usually assumed to be the pinnacle of literary writing.

My favorite book is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which Flannery O’Connor dismissed as a children’s book, and Francine Prose derided as an example of books taught in school that are responsible for students not learning to read closely. Sure, it lands at the top of most-loved-books lists, but popularity is synonymous with middlebrow.

So I’m a middlebrow. How much do I care? Not enough to challenge myself to aim higher. If ever I had intellectual pretensions, in the eighth decade of my life it’s time to shed them. I don’t expect to comprehend economic theories or quantum physics; why must I comprehend all literature?

It comes down to personal preference after all. What I like will determine my fiction reading, especially at this time of life, when enjoyment can be unapologetically chosen over challenge. The exception will be in the book group, which ought not be hamstrung by my taste. I’ll read whatever the majority wants — and admit my problems with a book. It will be helpful to remember that while my reaction to On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous exposed my intellectual limits, it also spurred part of a good discussion. Shedding intellectual pretensions can have positive consequences.

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  • Marianne, I too am a middlebrow. I don't know how many times I've started to read a Faulkner novel, stopped, and never returned. Maybe it was the wrong novel. I say read what gives you pleasure and makes you think. With extra emphasis on the former. Great post.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    I have never read any Faulkner that was not assigned to me. That was bad enough.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Thanks for replying. It sounds like we're on the same page (pun intended).

  • I think reading books is becoming highbrow just because it's not reading screens. I lose track of how many books I will put down, never to return, because I am not enjoying it -- either on my "reader channel" or my "writer channel." If I don't find a character worth following and cheering for in fiction, I'm lost.

    As for non-fiction, I try to keep some going. I have studied some of the physics books I inherited from my dad. I told my sister I'd read them "someday," and a year later, the pandemic arrived. But even with "Einstein in Berlin," I valued the clear writing.

    Re-reading is often a treat for me since I leave bookmarks in good parts of novels. I just finished re-reading "God of the Hive," by Laurie R. King, in which one chapter is literally from a bird's eye view. The bird arrives, the chapter happens, and the bird flies away. That got a bookmark!

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    Margaret, I feel the same way you do about characters, and I also like a straightforward plot. Finding out what happens next drives my reading.

    Rereading for pleasure later on is great, but I don't like to have to reread immediately because I didn't understand.

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