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High and Low Culture. The story of a living dead

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High and Low Culture. - The story of a living dead

Hans Jørn Nielsen

Royal School of Library and Information Science

Aalborg branch


The Bestseller outside knowledge and culture

For decades cultural pessimists have made prophecies about the death of the book (Postman 1985; Birkerts 1994) while reality has shown a steady reading culture. A ministerial survey of cultural habits in Denmark has even documented reading of fiction as a growing activity since 2004 (Kulturministeriet 2012: 92). The same tendency is registered by a US survey:

For the first time in over a quarter-century, our survey shows that literary reading has risen among adult Americans (Reading on the Rise 2009)

Figures from retail trade confirm a growing sale of books 2004-2007. From 2008 onward the economic crisis stopped the jubilee years of bookselling, and shortly after printing houses and retailers began complaining. An effect of the economic crisis is interpreted as an effect of a liberalization of the book market in Denmark during the last ten years. Now directors and chairmen of printing houses want more regulation of book prices (Andersen and Tøjner 2013). Books are not like soap, they maintain, but that is nevertheless not quite true. Like soap books are commodities on a market. In good times they sell well, in bad times not so well.

Andersen and Tøjner are respectively director and chairman in the largest Danish printing house, Gyldendal. In their feature article they argue for political support of book production and distribution in Denmark, not as economic support of a hard pressed business trade, but of cultural support of a “bearing foundation of quality and distribution of Danish literature”1. It is not about economic competition but of “cultural values and aims”. Therefore (argue the writers) “we must leave the brutal bestsellerism which supersedes the role of literature as a source of knowledge and culture”. In the discourse the concept of the bestseller – and the “-ism” of the evil “bestsellerism” (in Danish bestsellerisme) – make up one pole. “Quality” literature, knowledge and culture make up the other pole of the dichotomous stream of arguments. The bestseller is in opposition to quality, knowledge and culture.

It is an irony that the book industry needs to demonize its best selling products in order to stage itself as a representative of knowledge and culture. Persons of the book industry have always been “reluctant capitalists” to use a very precise expression from Miller (Miller 2009). Miller documents that during 20th century both print houses and book retailers regarded themselves as guardians of culture. It was a practice that shop assistants tried to convince customers of buying “serious” literature instead of popular bestsellers. Today probably very few shop assistants would do the same, but the exclusion of bestsellers and popular genres from the kingdom of “knowledge and culture” goes on in public discourse.

The interplay of pleasure and meaning

Scholarly arguments have to go beyond this pattern of dichotomous discourse. Reading of bestsellers and popular literature implies processes of cognition, knowledge and culture. John Fiske (1989/90) goes further and argues that a book will not be a bestseller if it does not appeal to meaning making processes by its readers

If the cultural commodities or texts do not contain resources out of which the people can make their meanings of their social relations and identities, they will be rejected and will fail in the marketplace. They will not be made popular (Fiske 1990: 2)

This shows a way for studies of bestsellers and popular culture: cultural commodities are produced for a profit, perhaps, but only popular if they are relevant for the audience. As cultural commodities they may fail as artistic expressions (but not necessarily!). But nevertheless they are not outside culture but inside culture:

The people make popular culture at the interface between everyday life and the consumption of the products of the cultural industries (Fiske 1990: 6)

This was documented by Janice Radway in her seminal Reading the Romance (Radway 1984), a study of a community of women reading romance category books, and it was documented in large scale with Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club (Striphas 2009). Oprah’s book club was popular culture in more ways. Oprah’s book choice influenced the bestseller lists significantly in the club’s first period (1996-2003). As a popular television talk show of books it caused upheaval in the nineties among members of traditional book culture. Oprah was not supposed to be “serious”, and the writer Jonathan Franzen was worried about being identified with the talk show and its audience if he attended the show. The books/bestsellers were both new classics (Franzen, Toni Morrison) and popular genre literature. Franzen acknowledged the good choices “but she’s picked enough schmaltzy, one-dimensional ones that I cringe, myself …”, he expressed in an interview (Miller 2001). And then Oprah cancelled his participation in the show. A special US edition of the cultural dichotomy between high and low took place. As Laura Miller wrote in a commentary in Salon:

America’s book culture too often seems composed of two resentful camps, hunkered down in their foxholes, lobbing the occasional grenade at each other and nursing their grievances (Miller 2001)

Striphas (2009) gives a convincing analysis of Oprah’s Book Club. The practice of the book club confirms Fiske’s thesis that the audience “make meanings” of popular culture. The relevance to their own social relations and identities is assessed. Oprah appeals in the show and in the reading guides to make such connections. Striphas quotes her for saying: “…as with all our Book Club shows, it’s more about life than about a novel.” And he continues:

What this statement suggests—and what’s emerged time and again on episodes of

Oprah’s Book Club—is that Winfrey and her viewers/readers perceive the

content of specific books as valuable to the extent that it demonstrates a

clear connection with life, or that it resonates with their everyday interests,

personal experiences, and concerns.(Striphas 2009: 125)

I think this point of view gives a good entrance to the study of the bestseller culture, instead of observing the bestseller as strictly bad literature “outside knowledge and culture”. When bestsellers in the public discourse (or in the discourse of the cultural elite or of cultural politicians) are observed as bad literature, it rests on the point of view that books with success on the market are produced for the market profit. They are not produced in accordance with artistic necessity but are based on narratives, plots and characters with appeal to the largest possible audience. This judgement may be true (but again: not necessarily!). But it cannot explain why bestsellers have a value to their readers.

A dualstructured production system

Book production for a market was common in print culture from the beginning, i.e. at the end of 15th century (Febvre & Martin 1976), but with the growing production of cultural commodities in the second half of 19th century a cultural rift occurred. On one side developed what was called mass culture or later (with the Frankfurter School) culture industry: press, popular literature, forms of entertainment etc. On the other side defended intellectuals and artists of the bourgeoisie a culture of Bildung and art, independent of the market and of the new masses of the industrial society. Cultural legitimacy should be based on the last mentioned kind of culture, and cultural policy during 20th century was supposed to be a protection of non-commercial art and a safeguard against the market.

This cultural rift has been characterized by Bourdieu (1993) and other sociologists as a dualstructured production system consisting of two modes: a small-scale production of art and culture at a distance of the market. In this production mode cultural capital is the currency. Modernism becomes the artistic production mode with aesthetic value systems around artistic news, complexity and experiments. In contrast to this small-scale production developed a large-scale production mode appealing to the market. “A market logic” dominates in publishing as business (Verboord 2011), and around the market logic developed other aesthetic values: what has proven its value and popularity on the market is repeated (popular genres and serial literature, narrative structures and plots). A popular prejudice of the cultural elite is that all popular literature is repetition and stereotypes in contrast to quality literature. The prejudice clung to the connotations of the bestseller which was characterized as literature with formulas, stereotypes, seriality and repetitions, all features in opposition to the aesthetic value system of modernism.

Literary success on the market was valued as artistic failure. “The literary field is the economic world reversed”, writes Bourdieu (1993: 164), and therefore we have got the fierce cultural attacks on bestsellers. The literary field has established:

… a negative correlation between temporal (notably financial) success and properly artistic value (ibid)

The fundamental law of the literary field, Bourdieu claims, “is the inverse of the law of economic exchange”.

This value system has developed since the last half of 19th century. The dichotomous way of thinking left no room for positive criteria of aesthetic or reading values of popular and financially successful literature. Popular bestsellers and the growing amount of popular genre-literature were low culture, attached to the market and separated from the cultural capital, i.e. the classical and modern(ist) canon, the high culture.

Since the 1970’s the high-low dichotomy has been experienced as inadequate in scholarship of literature and media (but not in public debates or in cultural policy). A few alternatives have been suggested above. Sociology and cultural studies have made it clear that studies of popular culture (and bestsellers) must be based on studies of social relationships between classes and groups of a society and on specific uses and participations by audiences and communities. Some of the positions will shortly be outlined below, with special focus on the problematic sides.

Popular culture as subversive culture

Above I pointed at John Fiske’s points of views as fruitful ways out of the high-low-dichotomy, and with that a way out of the automatic discourses of the literary field. Fiske is an important figure of the cultural studies of 1980’s and 1990’s which took audience of popular culture seriously. Nevertheless he and the school of cultural studies create a new dichotomy with the thesis of popular culture as subversive. The audience and readers of popular culture are primarily accepted when their making of meanings in the act of reception has a subversive function to the class society in which they are subordinated. The consumption of capitalist mass culture is accepted because: ”There is always an element of popular culture that lies outside social control, that escapes or opposes hegemonic forces” (Fiske 1990:2). Popular culture “… always involves the struggle to make social meanings that are in the interest of the subordinate and that are not those preferred by the dominant ideology” (ibid). In the point of view of cultural studies the “interplay of pleasure of meaning” is of greatest value if it symbolizes resistance to the hegemonic culture of dominance. Again popular culture is not given equal status compared to art or mainstream culture. The girl fans of Madonna are appreciated because they “are resisting the patriarchal meanings of female sexuality and constructing their own oppositional ones” (ibid).

Fiske explicitly reverses the traditional high-low-dichotomy by emphasizing as positive some characteristics of popular culture: excesses, parody, subversion, and - more remarkable - superficiality. Popular texts have qualities because they are not “self-sufficient structures of meanings (as some will argue highbrow texts to be)” (ibid.: 6), because they are “refusing to produce the deep, complexly crafted texts that narrow down their audiences” (ibid.). This is a break with the norm-system of the literary field of modernism and New Criticism, and in that respect it reminds us of the postmodern movement in literature and art. But it is the subversive aspects of popular texts which constitute the spine of Fiske’s norm-system. The following quote echoes Bachtin’s idea of the carnival as a social reversal of classes.

[Popular culture] often centers on the body and its sensations rather than on the mind and its sense, for the bodily pleasures offer carnivalesque, evasive, liberating practices – they constitute the popular terrain where hegemony is weakest… (ibid.)

The break with the high-low discourse leads to a new discourse of dichotomy, a discourse of struggle and opposition between a hegemonic, repressing (high) culture and a (popular) culture of the subordinated. “Popular culture is the culture of the subordinate who resent their subordination”(ibid. 7). This is a leftist and slightly romanticized picture of the audience of popular culture. The discourse of cultural studies has a blind spot according to other kinds of interplay.

Postmodern hope for an emancipatory culture

Some of Fiske’s reversal of the high-low-dichotomy reminded us of the postmodern movement which we will discuss next in this very short critique of high-low reversals. Andreas Huyssen (1986) also focused on the “emancipatory” potentials of popular culture (or mass culture, Huyssen’s preferred term). In a historical analysis he argues that the avant-garde at a moment in the beginning of 20th century transgressed the modernist dichotomy of high and low. There exists a hidden dialectics between avant-garde and mass culture, and this was exposed when art like mass culture accepted technology. Walter Benjamin’s analysis of the art in the age of mechanical reproduction is the sign of this. His analysis of film as modern art is at the same time a break with the modernist discourse of art as an autonomous field.

It is in Benjamin’s work of the 1930s that the hidden dialectic between avantgarde art and the utopian hope for an emancipatory mass culture can be grasped alive for the last time. After World War II, at the latest, discussions about the avant-garde congealed into the reified two-track system of high vs. low, elite vs. popular. Which itself is the historical expression of the avantgarde’s failure and of continued bourgeois domination” (Huyssen 1989: 14)

So the dichotomy of high and low was broken for a moment by “an utopian hope for an emancipatory mass culture”, but was reinstalled; this time apparently as a travesty of modernist discourse as the mass culture after second world war began to make use of all the techniques of modernism

The boundaries between high art and mass culture have become increasingly blurred, and we should begin to see that process as one of opportunity rather than lamenting loss of quality and failure of nerve. There are many successful attempts by artists to incorporate mass culture forms into their work, and certain segments of mass culture have increasingly adopted strategies from on high. If anything, that is the postmodern condition in literature and the arts. For some quite time, artists and writers have lived and worked after the Great Divide. It is time for the critics to catch on (ibid.: IX)

The modernist discourse of high and low has become a travesty, and the boundaries between high and low has become blurred. So, have we finally buried the dichotomy? Unfortunately not. Like a living dead it begins walking around in Huyssens discourse. The audience of mass culture can look forward to the “utopian hope” for a better mass culture but for the moment it is trapped:

And yet – the utopian hopes of the historical avant-garde are preserved, even though in distorted form, in this system of secondary exploitation euphemistically called mass culture (ibid. : 15)

According to Huyssen we cannot leave the audience of mass culture to their own “interplay of pleasure and meaning” (Fiske), because this culture has no value, it is distorted, and in a Marxist term it is called “secondary exploitation” (the economic, capitalist system builded on wage labour being the primary). Here we have echoes from Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique of the “culture industry”. In other words: the popular culture, the mass culture, the bestsellers etc. are normally trash. On the other side the art and high culture are carriers of an “anxiety of contamination”, i.e. from mass culture.

Huyssens interest in popular culture is connected to his interest in a new art that “would draw both on the tradition of modernism and on mass culture” (ibid.: 43). This point of view puts some limits to his relevance to a sociology of popular culture or to studies of bestseller culture.

Nobrow as a new cultural norm

The “blurring” of the boundaries between high art and mass culture observed by Huyssen is also the starting point of Seabrook (2000) and Swirski (2005). Their introducing of the term Nobrow (cf. the titles of their books) indicates the final deconstruction of the dichotomy of high (highbrow) culture and low (lowbrow) culture.

Swirski makes a valuable deconstruction of the high-low-dichotomy attached to the popular genre literature.

An endlessly dynamic and self-organizing cultural formation, popular fiction is part and parcel of the same Plato-Longinus-Kant aesthetic axis and the same philosophy of art that legitimates our classics (Swirski 2005: 31)

Popular genres are also historical, dynamic, changeable forms, and they are interchangeable with the genres and forms of high literature. Swirski admits that there may be more bad popular genre literature than bad high literature but the reason for this is the fact that more popular genre literature is produced than high literature. Popular literature is accused of formulas and similarities with no originality. The same might be said of high or general literature, claims Swirski. Stream-of-consciousness became fashionable technique in “serious” literature through the first half of 20th century without accusations of formulas. And the same might be said of other acknowledged literary techniques.

What is highbrow and what is lowbrow rest on sometimes very arbitrary decisions by a very few writers and critics (ibid p. 28). Most of the written literature is excluded from literary history. Swirski quotes figures and numbers from the American Bookseller Association showing that 1998 figures “give the lion’s share of 51.9 percent to popular literature, with 3.9 percent going to Art/Literature/Poetry” (ibid.: 24). Literary critics and scholars normally only give attention to the 3.9 percent or even a small part of the 3.9 percent, as if the majority culture of literature reading (the reading of popular genres and bestsellers) is not part of the book culture.

Similar to Swirski’s claim that popular fiction is part of the same aesthetic paradigms as our classics (cf. the quotation above) one might claim that reading of popular fiction and reading of highbrow literature are part of the same western reading culture. Both are characterized by Fiske’s “interplay of pleasure and meaning”. The reading of popular fiction – e.g. popular bestsellers – is not an activity outside knowledge and culture but an important part of the same. Readers are reading for pleasure but at the same time they are producing meanings and identities by cognitive processing.

Unfortunately most of Swirski’s book does not contribute to the study of this reading culture. Instead of this he makes textual analysis of three literary works that exist on the boundary of highbrow literature and popular fiction. He selects three works which “draw both on the tradition of modernism and on mass culture” (to use the Huyssen quotation above). The three works are not “ordinary” popular fiction but fit to Swirski’s (postmodern) taste. Once again we witness an establishment of a dichotomous distinction. In the postmodern times the distinction between high and low goes on in other forms. The “interesting” object of study in Swirski’s book is not the bestseller of popular fiction, but the half forgotten work that was not integrated in the literary canon because of similarities with popular fiction and mass culture. Swirski’s selection is Karel Capec: War with the Newts, Raymond Chandler: Playback, and Stanislaw Lem: The Chain of Chance. These are books that “fall through the cracks in the literary system” (ibid.: 157). When Capek’s novel for instance almost is forgotten, the answer

“…lies in its refusal to succumb to the Procrustean hatchet of readymade aesthetic categories. Ot of the formulas of the scientific romance, adventure story, and dystopia Capek engineers a nobrow oxymoron, a hybrid of high modernism and popular art” (ibid.: 11)

The term of nobrow deconstructs the traditional dichotomy of high and low literature but only to construct a new elitist aesthetic norm. Nobrow does not mean a new optics of popular culture. Popular fiction is only interesting if it merges with high literature (even high modernism) to new, unique hybrids. To stress that such hybrids are art and not ordinary popular culture he invents a new category: “artertainment” (e.g. ibid.: 9ff)


The point here is not to deny Swirski’s right to expose three, apparently pre-postmodern literary works, and indeed he makes interesting arguments and analyses. To me the interesting point is that sensible suggestions to give up the dichotomy of high and low culture often end up with new dichotomous discourses. In public discourses in newspapers etc. we can recognize the traditional mindset that put bestsellers and popular fiction “outside knowledge and culture”. That is perhaps not surprising. But as argued in this paper even discourses of cultural scholarship are biased in their points of view. John Fiske (as a representative of cultural studies) recognizes the consumption of popular culture as an “interplay of pleasure and meaning” which is a fruitful point of view, but at the same time he interprets the popular culture as an expression of meaning from the “subordinates”. In a romanticized point of view he interprets popular culture as “subversive”. Huyssen and Swirski also give important contributions to a deconstruction of the high-low dichotomy, Swirski in relation to a critique of the essentialist understanding of highbrow and lowbrow. But neither of them is interested in the audience of popular culture. Their aesthetic point of interest is the merging of modernist art with mass culture in hybrid, postmodern forms.

Both cultural studies and postmodern critique contribute to a fruitful deconstruction of the high-low dichotomy, but in two different ways they also create new normative discourses which means new barriers in the understanding of readers’ interplay of pleasure and meaning.


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Verboord, Marc (2011).”Market logic and Cultural Consecration in French, German and American Bestseller Lists, 1970-2007”Poetics, 2011, 39(4): 290-315

1 Quotations from the article translated by me

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