What are the differences between highbrow and popular literature?

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clairewait eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The current debate over "highbrow" literature versus popular or "lowbrow" literature is one that rages, currently, even in the very definitions of what makes a book "highbrow" or "lowbrow."  To speak plainly, if not somewhat stereotypically, lowbrow or popular lit, has also been called "grocery store literature" or "dime novels."  Two very popular and successful writers who have been labeled under this category include Stephanie Meyers (for the Twilight series) and Dan Brown, for his books like The DaVinci Code and more recently, The Lost Symbol.  Essentially, the argument is that what these novels lack in thematic depth, character development, and sophisticated vocabulary, they more than make up for in a fast-paced and entertaining plot.  They are considered "easy reads" because they are written at the young adult fiction level (6th-8th grade comprehension), but aren't necessarily targeting a young audience.

Conversely, highbrow literature includes books that are written and must be read on a more intellectual level.  While certainly this category once included canonized classics, even in modern literature, it means books which require thought and analysis for true appreciation.  Arguably, authors producing highbrow literature are losing popularity currently, and statistically speaking, such literature has been declining in sales on the whole, for the past decade.  It seems our technological society is more interested in plot and entertainment, even in book choice, and would rather have a "quick-read" than a difficult read.  Outside of the classroom, Oprah's book club is the biggest endorser of modern highbrow literature and even classics, but despite this influence, lowbrow or pop-lit continues to rise much higher in sales.  For the same reasons, young adult fiction has been gaining popularity even among adult readers, but can often escape the "lowbrow" label because the targeted audience is specifically teenagers.