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 Trollope, Dickens, and Thackeray. Books by these authors were popular in their time but quickly came to be regarded as classics. However, it is often forgotten that other writers who were once popular have disappeared almost without trace. George Orwell, who worked in a bookstore as a young man, said that Ethel M. Dell was a far more popular writer than Dickens for 1920s and 1930s readers, and that Warwick Deeping was second to Dell. Popular literature which survives the test of time becomes classic literature, but the majority of popular writing is forgotten.
The relationship between popular literature and classic or so-called “highbrow” literature varies. It depends on a number of elements. Sometimes, a book that is mainly considered to be a product of popular or mainstream literature turns into classic literature. Other times, classic literature might become more popular.
When Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre was first published in 1847, it became a bestseller right away. It was also considered more of a “naughty book” than a classic work of literature. Yet over time, Jane Eyre has appeared to have acquired that classic, highbrow label. There are several Penguin Classics editions and Oxford World Classic editions of Jane Eyre.
The same can be said for the novels of Charles Dickens. Most of his classic books didn’t start out that way. They were first published as installments. People eagerly awaited the next installment back then the way that some people eagerly await the next episode, or season, of their favorite television franchise. Dickens’s installments were quite popular. Now, they’re also generally considered to be a kind of classic literature.
Much of the relationship between popular literature and highbrow literature depends on the person making that distinction. A classic book isn’t automatically a classic for everyone. A popular book isn’t inevitably less thoughtful or substantial than a classic book.
Think about The Baby-Sitters Club. This is a series of popular books for young readers. Yet some people read The Baby-Sitters Club like its Dickens or some other classic book. They talk about it as if it’s a highbrow text.
Again, it seems like the most accurate way to describe the relationship between popular and classic books is as fluid, flexible, and subjective.
There are several differences between popular literature and classic literature. They include differences in authorship, purpose, audience, characteristics, style, and also in the frequency in which they appear.
First lets consider what is "popular" literature. This type of reading material refers to widely-spread literature that reaches a myriad of audiences, and which deals with a diversity of topics that, like the name implies, are of common interest to the general public.
The purpose of popular literature is either to entertain, inform, or persuade a vast audience, and its authorship is usually delegated to a person hired by the organization which publishes the literature, namely, magazines, catalogs, pamphlets, or newspapers.
Popular literature follows its own style of writing, and it is often preferred to be in the form of a third person omniscient and objective narrative. When it comes to editorials or personal columns sometimes first person subjective narrative is more evident.
One more unique feature that differentiates popular from classic literature is the frequency with which it appears. Popular literature can appear in the form of periodicals, bi-weekly publications and other publications. However, the most salient difference is that popular literature reaches the mainstream reader with current topics.
Contrastingly, classical literature refers to well-established pieces of literature that have surpassed their time. It is reading material that continues to have relevance, instill interest, or inspire audiences, even years after its first year of publication.
Classic literature may actually start out as popular literature. This is the case with Dickens's Pickwick Papers which, later on, are published in book form, becoming a classic.
This type of literature also aims to either educate, entertain, or persuade. The authorship is delegated to an author who works independently and the specific book publishers edit and distribute the final publication.
Again, the main difference between both kinds of literature is their survival through time. Anything that persists time and continues to be relevant to society years after it is first published automatically obtains a historical importance. This importance is what, ultimately, deems a work as a "classic".