It’s graphtastic, Mr. Bennett!

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, what can we learn from Google Trends? 

You may have noticed that I have an interest in graphs. You may even remember a couple of posts that drew on the wonderful Google Ngram. But you were probably asking yourself: “Okay. Ngram is all very well for looking into changes in the zeitgeist. But what about short term changes? What about trends? Isn’t there something that would show that?” Well, damn my eyes, there is! Google Trends. Do a search for Middlebrow and we end up with this:

Middlebrow

Highbrow:

Highbrow

Lowbrow:

Lowbrow

The letters refer to newspaper or magazine articles that led to a spike in that trend. For example D on the Middlebrow graph is an article in The New Yorker; F on the Highbrow graph is a Times Of India article on the highbrow prejudice against Enid Blyton and G on the Lowbrow graph is a San Diego Union Tribune article, Lauding the Lowbrow.

To get the full detail, including predictions, regional interest and related items here are the web pages:

Middlebrow

Highbrow

Lowbrow

When we combine all three we end up with this:

HIghbrow, Middlebrow, Lowbrow.

Middlebrow is that far below the other two, the peaks have flattened out and the media references have vanished. You can get the full results here (given that I wrote this post over the period of five days, the graphs may differ in detail but not in substance):

Combined

When we compare authors from each, Henry Green (high), Arnold Bennett (middle) and Zane Grey (low), we end up with this:

Three Musketeers

Check it out here:

Authors

Or in the case of Elizabeth Von Arnim (middle), Barbara Cartland (low) and Viriginia Woolf (high) we get this:

More Musketeers

Full results here:

Authors

Whichever way we cut the cake, the result is the same. It may be a highbrow cake with a lowbrow filling, but someone forgot to sprinkle it with middlebrow icing sugar. Middlebrow is not trending.

All is not lost. If we look at the results for Henry Green there is, I believe, a clue as to how to lift the middlebrow into a trending topic. New editions of Henry Green’s novels were published by Vintage in 2005, the year that saw his maximum trending peak of 100. In September The Guardian published an article by Sebastian Faulks on Henry Green. Sebastian Faulks had also written the introduction to the Vintage single-volume edition of Living, Loving and Party Going. Coincidence? Well, graphs based on a solid statistical base don’t lie. Also, have a look Virginia Woolf’s trending graph. It’s not as strong as it appears. It’s hit a bit of a plateau in the last couple of years. With that kind of vulnerability, it would almost be impolite not to launch an Elizabeth Von Arnim cultural counter attack.

So, here, in broad brushstrokes, is the middlebrow trending plan.

1. Reissue the works of a middlebrow author and include an introduction by a celebrity author. What happened with Elizabeth Taylor’s centenary this year? Were her works reissued by the Folio Society? Did Emily Griffin write the introduction? Exactly. A golden opportunity lost. What about Elizabeth Smart? She was born in 1913. Is she middlebrow? Would Marina Warner write an introduction?

2. Get the BBC on board. Given the academic interest in the middlebrow, is a programme on In Our Time too much to hope for? Has someone got Melvyn Bragg’s phone number? How about Book at Bedtime? If there’s anything suited to its format, surely its a work from the golden age of the middlebrow.

3. Design an app for the iPhone. The one that springs to mind is one based on Arnold Bennett’s fictional Five Towns. It could guide you though Stoke-on-Trent and highlight the principal settings for his novels. But there must be other middlebrow authors that lend themselves to an app.

Naturally, I have no idea how to go about any of this.

Next time, we return to the secure world of Britain in World War Two.

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8 Comments

  1. Techie detail: if you used the same colours for the middlebrow and middlebrow authors throughout, that would help give a sense of security as to what we’re looking at in each graph. Also, non-statisticians have no idea how to interpret any of this! I’m going to have to go find a translator. But otherwise, I really like this!

    Reply
    • Thanks Kate. Glad you enjoyed it. It was bit rushed, and done in-between or indeed instead of, writing school reports. Hence, the lack of colour coordination between graphs. Statistically, I see it all as pointing to Something Is Going On. Knowledge being power, and if we know that SIGO, why shouldn’t we be a little ahead of the game? Are the highbrow folk doing this? I doubt it.

      Reply
  2. Middlebrow is not trending? Damn. We are trying our best! (also with the Elizabeth von Arnim counter-cultural attack).
    I’m not sure I can see Melvyn Bragg getting on board with the middlebrow In Our Time, but Book at Bedtime – yes. And we could dare to hope for Woman’s Hour? Actually, Melvyn Bragg did do this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melvyn_Bragg_on_Class_and_Culture
    I love the graphs. I’m going to go and play around with Google trends now.

    Reply
    • I just did Google Trends, and it is interesting that middlebrow was a total flatline until 2007 – when academic work on the middlebrow really got going!

      Reply
    • Woman’s Hour? Perfect! Damn it, why shouldn’t the Daily Mail be involved too? I’m sure there’s nothing more they’d like to have to get at all the highbrow folk, than championing the middlebrow classics of the twentieth century. That should be a paper at one of the next conferences, Marketing the Middlebrow: 20th Century Novelists in a Digital 21st Century.

      Reply
  3. No coincidence there. I can’t think there was anything apart from the renewed academic interest in middlebrow that could have made such a difference in the change in its trending development. With another push, I’m sure middlebrow could at least lose its flat line appearance!

    Reply
    • The march of the middlebrow continues in academia – the other day I heard of a new middlebrow research group in Japan!
      And you know, I think that paper is very plausible indeed…

      Reply

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