Monday Musings – Romance at the Bottom of the Class… again

 In Being An Author

Lowbrow

Merriam-Webster
: of, relating to, or suitable for a person with little taste or intellectual interest

Collins Dictionary
a person who has uncultivated or nonintellectual tastes

Cambridge Dictionary
(of entertainment) not complicated or demanding much intelligence to be understood

Oxford Dictionary
derogatory
A lowbrow person.

Four canonical dictionaries, all in agreement about the definition of lowbrow.

Forgive me for getting on high horse for a moment, but when I see romance novels and their readers tarred with the pejorative brush as lowbrow, I get quite annoyed. (Read: VERY annoyed).

The source of my annoyance was a study promoted by University of Western Sydney and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation over the weekend.

The ABC has helpfully called it in the title tag of the web page “Good taste, bad taste? – what your habits reveal about social class.”

The survey takes a very superficial and arbitrary look at reading, watching and listening habits of Australian and does a guestimate of age, sex, class and education qualifications.

Based on my answers I got:

  • 60+ (wrong)
  • Female (right)
  • Middle Class (right)
  • Post doctoral (wrong)

My husband got:

  • 45-59 (right)
  • Male (right)
  • Working Class (wrong)
  • Did not finish secondary school (wrong)

A Facebook friend fared worse:

  • 18-24 (wrong – she’s a mum of three teenage boys)
  • Male (wrong)
  • Working Class (wrong)
  • Vocational qualifications (wrong, she has a STEM degree and is practitioner in the STEM field).

Saturday night’s discussion proved illuminating. A straw poll of Facebook comments in the two places I posted my survey results revealed that 85% were erroneous in some or all categories and only 15% were broadly accurate.

To be honest, I’ve had better accuracy out of a jokey Buzzfeed personality quiz.

If you’re an Australian (which you’ll need to be for the cultural references), try the survey and let me know how you fared in comments.

Although I’m not a statistician, I am familiar with survey methodology and I have a lot of issues with the construction of the survey, and its very clear bias (and I’ll come back to this in a moment).

So, what is this survey in aid of?

Lead investigator on the Australian Cultural Fields project, Professor Tony Bennett (no, not *that* Tony Bennett, although I imagine he’s heard all the jokes – EEC) from the Institute for Culture and Society (ICS), says class remains significant in the daily choices and lifestyles of Australians, and that it is critical to the patterns of inequality in contemporary Australia.

“There are very clear connections between the cultural advantages that middle and upper middle class Australians derive from their home backgrounds, their educational successes, their later occupational careers and the cultural tastes they develop that distinguish them from other Australians,” says Professor Bennett.

“The role of culture in the inheritance of inequalities shows that Australia has a long way to go before it can truly be the fair-go country it claims to be.”

Not so fast. There is very strong evidence to suggest that IQ alone is a better predictor of educational and occupational career success than other background variables.

Read about it here, here, here and here.

What is the dominant causal mechanism for the results shown above? Is it that better family environments experienced by affluent children make them more likely to invent later in life? Is it that higher income fathers tend to pass on better genes (e.g., for cognitive ability) to their children? Obviously the explanation has important implications for social policy and for models of how the world works.

The authors of the paper below have access to patent, income, education, and military IQ records in Finland. (All males are subject to conscription.) By looking at brothers who are close in age but differ in IQ score, they can estimate the relative importance of common family environment (such as family income level or parental education level, which affect both brothers) versus the IQ difference itself. Their results suggest that cognitive ability has a stronger effect than shared family environment. Again, if one just looks at probability of invention versus family income or SES (see graph), one might mistakenly conclude that family environment is the main cause of increased likelihood of earning a patent later in life. In fact, higher family SES is also correlated to superior genetic endowments which can be passed on to the children.

It’s worth pointing out that the dataset survey in the Finnish study I linked to above is 350,000 people (out of a national population of 5,542,517 (2018) ). The Australian Cultural Fields survey dataset is based on… 1,200 people (out of a country of 24,772,247 (2018) ).

But let’s leave that aside for researchers to stouch it out in the equivalent of an academic cage match.

The ICS survey… is giving the Australian public the chance to reflect on their personal cultural tastes.

To reflect and repent perhaps? Since the entire premise of the survey is about showing middle and upper class (cultural elites, perhaps? The survey methodology uses the surprising term (see graphic above) but does not define it) have “good taste” in culture and lower and middle class people have “bad taste” in culture and pre-supposes economic disadvantages because of it.

Or specifically, as the University of Western Sydney has it, class difference are measured in whether they enjoy “lowbrow” or “highbrow” entertainments – terms coined, it must be pointed out,  in the US at the height of the now discredited and extremely racist phrenology and eugenics craze that swept the scientific world from the late 19th century and culminated in the Nazi pogroms.

The definitions of lowbrow are defined at the beginning of this post.

And so, what do we have here?

Direct from the ABC, University of Western Sydney survey:

In terms of literature, let’s examine, “Which kinds of books do you like to read for interest or pleasure?”

Genres are ranked from “highbrow” to “lowbrow”.

By whom?

  • The minuscule sample of 1200 survey respondents?
  • By the researchers’ own prejudice?
  • The ‘social and political elites’ which form part of the methodology?

At the bottom of this list is romance – the lowest of the lowbrow…

I’ve written before about the long and venerable history of romance as an overarching literary genre.

Romance gave us the narrative story-telling structure we are familiar with today,

Romance is the imaginative retelling over and over again of the heroic archetype as expounded by Carl Jung. Every author will instantly recognise similarities between the Hero’s journey and the goal, motivation and conflict structure used to guide the plot of a romance novel.

Romance stories are enduring because they cut right to the middle of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – Social Belonging which includes intimacy – the love story, the connection of a man and a woman in a life-long union.

Intimacy makes possible to bear the burden of striving for those Physiological needs.

Without Intimacy to share a life, Esteem and Self-Actualisation (such as the pursuits of academia) are pretty lonely aspirations.

And what does it say about the researchers’ attitude to women if one of the most popular fiction genres is cast as the dregs of “lowbrow” literary entertainment.

Readers of romance are predominantly women (but not exclusively) which is not surprising as women (generally, but scientifically speaking,) women are interested in people (and the expression of relationships and intimacy) , men are interested in things.

So who are romance readers really?

Well the University of Western Sydney get one thing right. According to Nielsen, romance readers are younger than the average reader (53% are aged 18-44)

US Romance Readers At A Glance

  • Age 30-54
  • College-educated
  • Relationship Status 59 percent are coupled, 84 percent are women, 16 percent are men
  • Average Income $55K – which happens to be be above the $52,500 US median average income.

I cannot find any equivalent Australian statistics to provide a direct comparison, although it worth noting the 2017 Macquarie Economics Research Papers Australian Book Readers: Survey Method


Results listed romance as the fourth most popular genre read by Australians. And the avid Australian reading for pleasure are more likely to be female, over 65, tertiary educated, and from an upper socioeconomic bracket.

It rather turns the pathetic and yet still pervasive old stereotype of a romance reader being a desiccated lower class lowbrow spinster on its head, doesn’t it?

One of my Facebook friends described it sadly as the continuation of the “pink ghetto” in which women’s interests and tastes in literature are dismissed as being unserious, light-weight, unintellectual – the very definition of lowbrow, by those of the ‘social and political elite’ feted by the University of Western Sydney.

It’s pathetic and sexist.

So, In the final analysis, it might be suggested that this is:

  1. a survey with flawed premise founded on
  2. deeply flawed methodology that
  3. reaches the rather obvious conclusion that more women than men read and enjoy romance and
  4. states they are stupid (‘low brow’) for doing so.

I hoped for better science from a top Australian university.

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Showing 2 comments
  • Sarah
    Reply

    I’m not sure either UWS or the ABC have done themselves any favours with this.. Seems a perfect case of a methodology being blown off course by a prejudice or six.

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