Thursday, December 15, 2011

John Seabrook: Nobrow

Here's "Nobrow" in a nutshell.  It would be very possible to end this review here: John Seabrook has culled his book down to the essentials. The "story" lays out the premise of the book, the style the book is written in, and sums it all up: once there was "highbrow" and "lowbrow"- a way for Americans to divide make class judgements by culture, and now this is rendered useless by "nobrow": consumer culture as a source of status. He even uses some of his examples: fancy mass-produced furniture, buying produce, installation art, etc.

The problem with "Nobrow" (the book, not the story) can be summed up quite simply: Seabrook is a New Yorker writer. This in itself is not a problem; in 2009 I even mentioned one of his articles as one of my favorites. The problem is that sometimes New Yorker authors can translate their long articles into books and sometimes New Yorker authors can't translate their long articles into books. Unfortunately I think that Seabrook falls into the latter category. His subject (summed up in the subtitle "The Culture of Marketing + The Marketing of Culture") is fascinating but his approach falls short. Seabrook strings together some New Yorker articles that he's written- a piece on (then) child prodigy Ben Kweller, an inside look at George Lucas and merchandising, even a fascinating look as the New Yorker as a purveyor of culture before, during and after the Tina Brown years.  The book is a look at the relationship between culture and marketing that is part personal journey with hints of Bret Easton Ellis, part investigative journalism, with a hint of academic sociology writing. It just doesn't work. Do read the short version, as the concept is quite interesting. I'd love to see Seabrook put together a follow-up, post-internet version of his thesis, also as short version. Seabrook, you out there?