Lowbrow to Nobrow

From Lowbrow to Nobrow

By Mark Heffernan

A review of From Lowbrow To Nobrow by Peter Swirski

Published on April 1, 2006

From Lowbrow To Nobrow
Peter Swirski

McGill-Queen's University Press
$22.95
paper
216pp
0-7735-3019-3

“We live in the midst of one of the most vibrant eras in literary history,” writes Peter Swirski, “…And even as curricular bias continues to equate literature with its highbrow margins, a popular fiction renaissance inundates the world with genre art that in some cases rivals the great masters.”

Swirski’s defense of popular genres is driven by his enthusiasm for an art that is understood by the masses, and by his passionate distrust of the elitism of those critics who define a canon of literature that excludes popular forms. There is Joyce, Musil and Kafka; but there is also Capek, Lem and Chandler. Swirski believes that the former were privileged by critics because of their very inaccessibility to the masses; the latter were barred from canonical inclusion because of their genre-driven stories-science fiction, detective fiction, fantasy.

Swirski begins with statistics and interesting facts on the history of publishing. In passing, he takes fly-sized swipes at the goliaths Theodor Adorno and Maurice Blanchot. The reader awaits Swirski’s own aesthetics – he has a chapter titled “Towards Nobrow Aesthetics”- but his ideas are somewhat diffuse. More rewarding chapters deal with the neglected genre writers mentioned above. He discusses Karel Capek’s War with the Newts (1936), Raymond Chandler’s Playback (1958) and Stanislav Lem’s The Chain of Chance (1975). In his enthusiasm to explicate in a lively and popular language, avoiding the trap of stuffy aesthetics, Swirski freely invents such words as ‘artertainment’ (good literature that’s fun to read) and the unfortunate ‘nobrow’ (ah, yes, the retrogressively simian ‘brow’ labels) of his title, his term for good genre writing that escapes the ‘high’ and ‘low’ categories.

Swirski’s presentation compiles biographical detail, accolades from other writers, plot summaries, and the cultural relevance of the works. He describes the recipe for Lem’s novel as “a blend of cliff-hanger narration and sophisticated science-smart philosophy” that “brings the sundry elements of its mystery thrillethon into a nail-biting focus,” and he praises Chain for its “likeable hero, hardboiled narration, and enough carnage to hook the generation raised on American Psycho.” It is obvious that Swirski is not aiming at the kind of exegesis found in Blanchot’s Rilke, Walter Benjamin’s Leskov, or Northrop Frye’s Blake.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with Swirski’s enthusiasm. The problem arises when he tries to place the works in the context of the classics and the admittedly demanding aesthetics that treat them. In the end he seems to be claiming, somewhat truculently, that he loves these books, and people love these books, and no one should say that the authors are not worthy of the Nobel Prize.

In 1975, when Lem’s novel was published, Saul Bellow completed his great novel Humboldt’s Gift. A brief comparison of the two works shows why Bellow might deserve the Nobel Prize (he received it in 1976) and not Lem. The latter ably follows the genre approach, which relies on stock-in-trade characters. They are vehicles for plots and ideas, from which the reader gets an adrenaline rush and a late night wow! Bellow’s prose, on the other hand, is rich in the nuances of individual perception. As he said to Philip Roth, “In becoming a writer I hoped to bring out somehow my singular reactions to existence. Why else write?”

Bellow tries to make this singularity pervade every sentence, while Lem writes in the staccato style typical of hardboiled fiction-stringing together pithy observations without the support of a rich, subjective presence. For readers who equate literature with the exploration of individualized worlds, there is something punishing about thriller prose.

Swirski writes intelligently, quotes copiously, and approaches his themes passionately. And yet there must be a mote in his eye if he has to rally T.S. Eliot to his support for genre fiction. Quoting the latter’s essay “Religion and Literature”- “it is just the literature that we read for ‘amusement’…that may have the greatest and least suspected influence upon us”-Swirski fails to mention that Eliot’s next remark about this influence (in a calmly reasoned censure of secularism) is that it is potentially insidious. In other words, the opposite of what Swirski wants to say-raising legitimate doubts in the reader’s mind about the nature of his project.

mRb
Mark Heffernan is a Montreal writer.

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