What is the relationship between popular literature and high/classic literature?

The relation between popular literature and classic literature is fluid and subjective. Sometimes, books start off popular. Jane Eyre was an instant bestseller. Now, it’s generally considered to be a classic. Other times, people themselves might decide to read a book as if it were a great work of art. The Baby-Sitters Club Club podcast talks about the popular series of books like they’re classic texts.

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There is considerable debate about whether there is a meaningful distinction between popular and classic literature at all, and, if so, when this distinction came about. In The Intellectuals and the Masses, John Carey regards the dichotomy as a Modernist response to mass literacy. Even a highly allusive and difficult writer like Donne or Milton, he argues, did not write in a self-conscious way to exclude ordinary people from their readership, as James Joyce and T.S. Eliot did.

It is certainly true that the rise in literacy, and in circulating libraries, over the course of the nineteenth century changed the relationship between popular and classic literature. Alexander Pope's translations on the Homeric poems were popular by the the standards of the early eighteenth century, but this meant that it earned him £5,000 in subscriptions, a substantial sum at the time, but hardly popularity by nineteenth-century standards.

In the Victorian era, the popular classic emerged in the work of...

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