After reading various writings about the brows — including, first of all, this unsent letter by Virginia Woolf and this 1949 essay by Russell Lyne, I find myself impatient and wanting to cut to the chase. I’ll come back to these matters later when I’ve had more time to think them over, but in the meantime, some Theses:

  1. A work of art can largely confirm the expectations of those who encounter it, largely thwart those expectations, or touch any point between those extremes. This is true of all the arts, but for present purposes I will speak only of fiction.
  2. These expectations can be of many kinds, but the most commonly invoked expectation involves difficulty: How hard-to-track, hard-to-comprehend do we expect and want a book to be?
  3. The reader who demands that all of his or her expectations be met is often called a lowbrow reader; the writer whose work habitually meets such readers’ expectations is often called a lowbrow writer.
  4. The reader who craves surprise, excess, extremity, who is impatient with work that confirms typical expectations, is often called a highbrow reader; the writer whose work consistently violates norms and transgresses standards is often called a highbrow writer. 
  5. N.B.: Higher-browed readers often want to have their aesthetic expectations challenged, but not their moral ones. Almost no one wants that. (But they get it sometimes, from some writers. George Eliot and Vladimir Nabokov are good examples — I’ll write about them, in this regard, one day.) 
  6. “Highbrow,” “middlebrow,” and “lowbrow” are all characteristically pejorative terms, meant to insult, though in some cases (e.g. the piece by Woolf above) a writer will claim and even treasure the insult. See for comparison the history of such words as “Quaker” and “Methodist.” If Virginia Woolf does not think that your novel sufficiently resists your readers’ expectations, she will call you and your readers middlebrows; Graves and Hodges in the same circumstance will call you and your readers lowbrows. (They don’t mention C. P. Snow in their book, but if they had they’d probably have called him a lowbrow writer, but something like The Search is clearly meant for the educated reader.) 
  7. The three brow-terms are most commonly used by people who are or believe themselves to be highbrows, though they may dislike that language and (implicitly or explicitly) put ironic scare-quotes around it.  
  8. Even the most challenging writer will not always want to read works that constantly challenge or repudiate his or her expectations. Auden used to say that great masterpieces demand so much of their readers that you simply can’t take one on every day, not without either trivializing the experience or exhausting yourself. 
  9. It is characteristic of highbrows’ use of these distinctions — see the Woolf letter quoted above and T. S. Eliot’s encomium to the music-hall entertainer Marie Lloyd, which employs the related socio-economic terms “aristocrat,” “middle-class,” and “worker” — that they articulate some alliance of themselves and the lowbrows against the middlebrow.
  10. Lowbrow readers do not know, and if they knew would not care, about this supposed alliance.
  11. Middlebrow readers and writers alike are often aware of the disdain of them felt by highbrows, and may respond either by defensiveness or mockery. (Think of Liberace’s famous response to his critics’ scorn for his music: “I cried all the way to the bank.” Funny to think of that line having a known origin, but it does.) 
  12. For a long time now there has been no genuine lowbrow reading. Those who insist on all their expectations being fulfilled can get that hit much more efficiently through movies, TV, Instagram, TikTok, etc.
  13. The brow-discourse is conceptually distinct from, but overlaps considerably with, genre-discourse. For instance, detective novels that adhere strictly to the conventions of the genre — the Ellery Queen stories, for instance — will often be called lowbrow, while those that frequently deviate from the conventions — the later novels of P. D. James, for instance, or Sayers’s Gaudy Night — may get called “highbrow” or, more likely, “literary fiction.”
  14. The tripartite brow-discourse is much less useful than a more nuanced and more detailed account of readerly expectations, one which is sensitive to the ways different genres can generate different sets of expectations, and respond to those expectations in diverse ways.