Home / Opinion / Columns /  Why it takes high talent to produce middlebrow work

There are no spoilers in the next line. In The Last of Us, the hit HBO web series, most of humanity dies in a fungi pandemic. The fungus takes over the brains of the infected, and manipulates them to attack and bite the healthy, who then become infected in a matter of minutes or hours or longer, there is no telling. Then, they too turn into rabid undead mushrooms. I know I should have just said it is a zombie story. But I was reaching out to some of you who may be infected by snobbery. Even though we will never be friends, I did not want you to deny yourself this series, which belongs to a broad class of storytelling that requires real artistic talent—the middlebrow.

What is considered highbrow is usually a product of self-absorption and narcissism, even when it is pure and really good. A highly networked megalomaniac with limited talent but a powerful personal experience or mental ailment can achieve highbrow. Its unspoken claim that true art is primarily anthropology and not entertainment is bogus. People who scoff at entertainment are usually people who are incapable of entertainment. Highbrow can be exquisite, but most of it is boring and designed to be extolled by the intellectually frail who wish to hide the fact. Lowbrow, on the other hand, is a gamble of merchants on what they think most people would enjoy. At the heart of the lowbrow is the notion that serious artistic talent is the enemy of entertainment. Yet, despite going by ‘what people want’, a large proportion of lowbrow creations fail, as bets tend to.

Middlebrow is art that reaches out. Its clarity is in its desire to succeed. Through entertainment, it attempts to win the right to say what might not be entertaining. It is hard to create. In comparison, the purity of highbrow is facile. Anyone can write a dense unreadable book about his mama’s dreams.

It is the middlebrow that requires talent. In its bid to be commercially successful, it does not aim to be extraordinary in every frame. What a good middlebrow work has is islands of excellence in an ocean of familiar tropes.

I am aware that terms like ‘highbrow’ and ‘middlebrow’ are abstract and subjective. What is highbrow to some might be middlebrow to others, and so on. When I first read Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, I was around 16 and I thought it was highbrow. Not anymore. Also, from a metaphorical point of view, only ‘highbrow’ makes sense because humans cannot or do not make their eyebrows ‘low’ or ‘middle’. Even if they did, they will not convey what the terms hope to. Middlebrow and lowbrow are derived from highbrow and are substandard metaphors. Even so, the creative works they represent are real. You may not agree with what I consider middlebrow, but that does not stop me from persuading you that semi-commercial-art is the greatest form of art.

I can, though, pass on a reasonable definition of the middlebrow. It is something that needs word-of-mouth to succeed. That is why the persistence and survival of the middlebrow is a triumph of fun-loving people, who are its patrons and evangelists. Review journalism and the acclaim industry usually do not celebrate the middlebrow. In India, especially, you will find more fuss around dull “issue-based" or “important" works than entertaining films and books. A middlebrow work of quality has to be familiar and cliched, but also have a reason to exist. The problem it must solve is how it can still surprise you. Everything that can be said has been already; there are no more new stories, or even characters. Audiences know all the tropes. Yet, they need to be startled.

The Last of Us, an adaptation of a video game, does that. In the process, this series exposes the ‘genre’ of a story as nonsense. Broad classifications like ‘comedy’ and ‘horror’ may be practical, but, generally, most labels that stories are given, like ‘literary fiction’ and ‘coming-of-age’, are marketing rubbish. In The Last of Us, which is a ‘zombie film’, there are episodes where you do not see a single zombie. Its science is more persuasive than the theories in Interstellar. One episode, which appears early, is almost entirely the love story of a gay couple.

I have never seen a bad zombie movie. That is probably because I have seen only five, including Michael Jackson’s famous Thriller music video. Zombieland, World War Z and I Am Legend were, like The Last of Us, better experiences than many “important" issue-based hours of drudgery I have suffered.

Good writers almost never write a story for the sake of the story. The origin is always something else, and the story then becomes a device to contain that purpose, which could be to show us a character, or to mine an emotion. Sometimes, what you really want to say does not need the whole expanse of a film or a book. When I think of the relationship between a story and the point of telling the story, I am often reminded of the zeppelin. Most of this old air-ship’s volume is just air, but its whole point is the tiny gondola where its passengers sit. In a middlebrow work, the story occupies disproportionate space, but the reason for its existence is that little thing that the eye may miss.

The most interesting element in The Last of Us is the interaction between its two central characters, a violent alpha male and an orphaned teenager (not that the alpha is not orphaned). It is possible that the whole purpose of the series was a writer’s attempt to portray a father-daughter relationship. If so, to embed it in a zombie story was a masterstroke. I would say if you have anything to say at all, anything important and dense, and complex, and thus with no market value, just frame it as a zombie story.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist, and the creator of the Netflix series, ‘Decoupled’

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