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From Lowbrow to Nobrow [Hardcover]

Peter Swirski
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Oct. 24 2005
Swirski begins with a series of groundbreaking questions about the nature of popular fiction, vindicating it as an artform that expresses and reflects the aesthetic and social values of its readers. He follows his insightful introduction to the socio-aesthetics of genre literature with a synthesis of the century long debate on the merits of popular fiction and a study of genre informed by analytic aesthetics and game theory. Swirski then turns to three "nobrow" novels that have been largely ignored by critics. Examining the aesthetics of "artertainment" in Karel Capek's War with the Newts, Raymond Chandler's Playback, and Stanislaw Lem's Chain of Chance, crossover tours de force, From Lowbrow to Nobrow throws new light on the hazards and rewards of nobrow traffic between popular forms and highbrow aesthetics.

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Review

"This superb book will make all previous studies in popular culture moot. Swirski demonstrates that in cultures there are no brows whatsoever. This book must be owned by all libraries and cultural studies scholars." Ray B. Browne, author of The Guide to U.S. Popular Culture "I would rank this book among the top five in popular culture studies." Gary Hoppenstand, editor of The Journal of Popular Culture and Popular Fiction: An Anthology

About the Author

Peter Swirski is research director at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies (HCAS) and professor of American literature and culture at UMSL. He is the author of ten books, including the National Book Award nominated Ars Americana, Ars Politica (2010).

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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars As good as it gets Oct. 6 2006
Format:Paperback
This book deserves a wide recognition among scholars and students of popular culture, social and cultural studies, American fiction and literary theory in general. It's a rare example of that dying breed of academic publications that engages not only with the studiousness of analysis but with the breathtaking scope of its literary knowledge and reference, and not least with the colorful and fast-moving style.

The fist part of this fast moving and colloquially written study covers the subject of "lowbrow" (that is popular) fiction, approached from a number of perspectives: esthetic, sociological, statistical, comparative, game theoretic, and historical. The second part is an indepth analysis of several twentieth- century texts that support the author's thesis about the rise of "nobrow" literary culture. The snappy, humorous introduction and conclusion complete this compact but dense with evidence volume. I am currently teaching it in one of my classes and the students love it.

In the words of Ray Browne, cited on the cover, this is one book that every student and scholar of literature should own.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback
Peter Swirski is on a mission!

Peter Swirski's book From Lowbrow to NoBrow is a compelling and ambitious work in the area of literature studies. As has been mentioned, Swirski's main argument lies in the fact that he is trying to "wipe the brow" (pun intended) of distinction amongst works of literature, essentially calling for the banishment of the title "lowbrow" for those books deemed "not sophisticated enough for serious academic study". Swirski contends that while there are many books out there that don't warrant said serious academic study, there are just as many that do, and should be examined through an academic framework.

It is my belief that Swirski is correct in this line of thinking; it is sad and indeed flippant to dismiss a novel and reserve academic study of it, because it is considered "genre fiction" or simplistic. There is a great distinction in the halls of academia concerning what is studied and what is not, what is worthy and what is worth glossing over or not covering at all. Swirski is saying, and indeed proving with his examples, that many previously glossed over works, which would be looked at with disdain, and more than a little contempt, need to be truly examined, and not simply pushed to the side because of their sources or content. It is a very provocative idea indeed to challenge the academic snobbery that is present in the study of literature, and even more admirable to submit that not only should the "canon" be studied, but things like genre fiction, at that, should be examined also, expanding the scope of investigation and getting a look at the whole picture, not just a segment of it.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Swirski's book a delight to read March 21 2006
Format:Hardcover
I bought this book before Christmas and enjoyed it thoroughly. It deals with the question of how pulp fiction is dismissed by the literary world as being unworthy of being called literature. Swirski argues very convincingly that some "lobrow" genre fiction is indeed worthy of a closer look, and uses several novels as examples to make his case. I really enjoyed reading his arguments as he built his case throughout the book, because they were so clear and each one built on the previous one.The writing is accessible and absorbing even though written by an academic, and would be great for both fans of fine genre fiction as well as for use in university courses.
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Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  14 reviews
64 of 65 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Nobrow again Aug. 9 2006
By academic reader Sam - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I have just finished this book and was struck that none of the previous reviewers mentioned what is surely the obvious point of comparison. For the record, this book actually mentions John Seabrook's Nobrow published in 2000, so relatively recently. Unfortunuately for John Seabrook, the comparison is one sided: From Lowbrow to Nobrow is a much better book. It shows how the critical job of analyzing the cenceptual nature and cultural significance of "nobrow" ought to be done. Almost all reviewers on Seabrook's site agree that his book is for the most part self-indulgent, although I admit that it has its moments, especially when blitzing through the various fads and cults that add up to movie culture. Swirski's book is not only better written but supplies what Seabrook's doesn't: a gargantuan amount of information about all aspect of popular and nobrow cultures on less than 200 pages. I currently own both but I am hanging on to one, the other's for sale (guess which).
51 of 52 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A five star experience Feb. 8 2006
By Timothy Hartley - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I purchased this book upon recommendation from an American friend of mine and I read it in one evening. This is a thoroughly delightful volume (and teachable), full of fascinating facts and details, and very informal without for a moment ceasing to be informative. The first part exposes any number of myths, misunderstandings, and patent inaccuracies that characterize the realm of popular fiction (let us be honest, the books that you and I read). The second part, meant to illustrate the general theses advanced in part one, is actually an independent discussion of "nobrow" literature. By the way, even as I share the preceding reviewers' enthusiasm, I must profess especial liking for the discussion of the three "nobrow" masterpieces in part two, especially Raymond Chandler. Can somebody set up a website for discussion of "nobrow" literature?
34 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars From Lowbrow to Nobrow - A Book WELL Worth your time! June 17 2007
By Zane Clarke - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Peter Swirski is on a mission!

Peter Swirski's book From Lowbrow to NoBrow is a compelling and ambitious work in the area of literature studies. As has been mentioned, Swirski's main argument lies in the fact that he is trying to "wipe the brow" (pun intended) of distinction amongst works of literature, essentially calling for the banishment of the title "lowbrow" for those books deemed "not sophisticated enough for serious academic study". Swirski contends that while there are many books out there that don't warrant said serious academic study, there are just as many that do, and should be examined through an academic framework.

It is my belief that Swirski is correct in this line of thinking; it is sad and indeed flippant to dismiss a novel and reserve academic study of it, because it is considered "genre fiction" or simplistic. There is a great distinction in the halls of academia concerning what is studied and what is not, what is worthy and what is worth glossing over or not covering at all. Swirski is saying, and indeed proving with his examples, that many previously glossed over works, which would be looked at with disdain, and more than a little contempt, need to be truly examined, and not simply pushed to the side because of their sources or content. It is a very provocative idea indeed to challenge the academic snobbery that is present in the study of literature, and even more admirable to submit that not only should the "canon" be studied, but things like genre fiction, at that, should be examined also, expanding the scope of investigation and getting a look at the whole picture, not just a segment of it. This is a rather bold idea, and Swirski, armed with his examples, wit, a wealth of knowledge about what he is writing about, and a little bit of attitude, tries to prove this to the reader.

Swirski blazes forward with his contention that genre fiction, whatever type it may be, may stand on its own merit, should not be considered "lowbrow". In fact, wait for it - the study of literature should not pit "highbrow" versus "lowbrow", and in the end, we should have "nobrow", simply evaluating books on their own strengths and weaknesses, not placing labels on them.

It is my opinion that Swirski takes a wonderful swipe at the "looking down the nose" of academia, and that he is successful at his attempt. By no means can this book cover all arguments and examples in terms of this debate, but it exerts a valiant effort to do so, and to change people's minds. "Leveling the playing field" in literature is a tall order, and Swirski has shown that he is more than up for the challenge. I highly recommend this book - prepare to have a shift in your "brows"!
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The master in the rise of novel literary-cultural formation! Oct. 15 2007
By Cheung Lisa - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
You would never forget such an impressive book cover, as it implies there is a need to turn over a new leaf in popular literature. As an English teacher with linguistics background at the University of Hong Kong, From lowbrow to nobrow, a recent bestseller, has enlightened me as to the crucial role of popular literature that has escaped most of the attention of both academic and general readership. While there is still widespread assumption that, popular literature (though the dominant art in our times) neither can be art nor would be so popular, From lowbrow to nobrow has set the scene for the rise of novel literary-cultural formation.

The author, Peter Swirski, is Honorary Professor of American Literature at the University of British Columbia, and Associate Professor and Head of American Studies at the University of Hong Kong. Swirski is a brilliant literary critic and has written nine books in American Literature and Culture, and has contributed more than fifty articles in various places. Swirski's works have been highly praised by numerous scholars and literary critics. In From Lowbrow to Nobrow, you will see why Swirski deserves wide recognition as a scholar in American literature, in the way he writes clearly, quotes intelligently, argues provocatively, approaches his portrait of nobrow culture with originality ...

What makes this book original and praiseworthy is Swirski proposes that both highbrow and lowbrow literary cultures have been interpenetrating each other from at least the early in the twentieth-century, i.e. decades before what John Seabrook proposes in Nobrow (2000). Swirski begins with some groundbreaking questions about the nature of popular fiction, defending with sound arguments an innovative way of viewing it as `artertainment'. He then moves on to give a history of popular fiction publishing with the support of some recent statistical data, followed by an insightful analysis of "nobrow aesthetics." As the heart of the book, Swirski evaluates three 20th-century novels, which have almost escaped the attention of both academic and general readership, to demonstrate they have innovatively established a wide spectrum of aesthetic qualities of popular culture. And pages in, you are amazed by the original mix of soul searching and thought provoking popular literature, as represented in Karel Capek's War with the Newts, Raymond Chandler's Playback and Stanislaw Lem's Chain of Chance.

From lowbrow to nobrow definitely is influening the way we look at popular culture. After reading, I recalled some popular fictions or movies, and started to realise they could have the nature of nobrow aesthetics, as Swirski proposes. Forrest Gump, starring Tom Hanks, caused much debate in 1994 after winning six Oscars, but it is a portrayal of life, conveying a message that any person, no matter how seemingly stupid, can change any person's life, no matter their stature. Some Chinese popular fictions written in Ming dynasty, such as Jin Ping Mei (The Plum in the Golden Vase), also play a significant part in ancient Chinese literary art, appreciated by everyday people not only in Ming dynasty but over centuries till now. The Last Mimzy (2007), starring Timothy Hutton and Joely Richardson, that is based on the acclaimed 1943 science fiction short story, Mimsy Were the Borogoves by Lewsi Padgett is an insipration and discovery of humanity's future ... Instead of "colour[ing] a colourless day" (p. 177), popular literature can lead us to a real discovery of life and culture. As Swirski argues, in many cases far from thoughtless pulp, "popular literature expresses and reflects the aesthetic and social values of its readers" (p.6).

Read From lowbrow to nobrow OR it's your loss!
17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A delightful read April 25 2006
By Ginette Gibeault - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I bought this book before Christmas and enjoyed it thoroughly. It deals with the question of how pulp fiction is dismissed by the literary world as being unworthy of being called literature. Swirski argues very convincingly that some "lobrow" genre fiction is indeed worthy of a closer look, and uses several novels as examples to make his case. I really enjoyed reading his arguments as he built his case throughout the book, because they were so clear and each one built on the previous one.The writing is accessible and absorbing even though written by an academic, and would be great for both fans of fine genre fiction as well as for use in university courses.
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