Lowbrow vs. highbrow literature: The debate continues!

john-grisham_lForget the expanding congressional divide. Literature is seeing its own structural breakdown, thanks to an increasingly petty argument between two integral types of authors: highbrow and lowbrow. Nearly one month ago, Time book critic and The Magicians author Lev Grossman was criticized for his commentary in The Wall Street Journal in which he dissed high-minded “Modernist” authors: “The Modernists felt little obligation to entertain their readers…Conversely they have trained us, Pavlovianly, to associate a crisp, dynamic, exciting plot with supermarket fiction, and cheap thrills, and embarrassment…If you’re having too much fun, you’re doing it wrong.”

Then there is the latest dustup over the lowbrow book of the hour: Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol. British novelist Philip Pullman took the intellectual approach while talking to a U.K. paper: “All the usual literary things [Brown] just doesn’t know how to do, but he’s not interested in those and nor are his millions of readers…It is not great writing.” The Firm author John Grisham then responded to Pullman’s criticism of Brown by knocking classic literature as a whole: “I’ve read literature in the classic sense. We’ve all got those type of books on the shelves at home…I admit that I didn’t like them much. I couldn’t understand why they were said to be so good.”

I’m not sure which side I take, but I do know one thing: We seem one step away from a Twitter fight of Speidi-Ryan Seacrest proportions here. And it seems the debate will rage on. After all, sales for lowbrow lit only seem to increase (Hello, Stephenie Meyer and James Patterson!), while highbrow lit still garners all the accolades (not to mention an occasional endorsement from the big O). But since I would say a majority of us avid readers enjoy dipping in both reading pools, can’t we all just get along?

So tell me, Shelf Lifers: Which side are you on? Team highbrow? Team lowbrow? And are you, like me, feeling uncomfortable with the fact that Grisham knocked hundreds of years’ worth of amazing reads?

Photo Credit: Maki Galimberti

Comments (76 total) Add your comment
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  • Louise

    I’m on Team “Read Whatever You Want as Long as You’re Reading Something!!!”

    • Cait


      • aaron

        I like good books. I have no brow preference.

    • Michelle

      I’ve always held the belief that it doesn’t matter what someone is reading, as long as they are reading something! Whether it’s Twilight or Jane Austen. Any reading is a good thing in my opinion.

      • Natalie

        Agreed. I may prefer Jane Austen and Michael Ondaatje, but I have no problem with others reading Patterson or Brown. Not enough people read these days, so if Brown makes you happy, good for you!
        BUT don’t get me started on Harlequin “books”!!

    • Allie

      me too, louise!

  • Leslie

    I like both “teams”, it really just depends on what mood I’m in. After a semester of reading textbooks non-stop, sometimes I feel like reading something entertaining and interesting, but not so metaphorical like much of the “classic” literature tends to be. I think there is a place for both types of literature, & they both need to chill out & stop bashing each other.

  • Ben

    This is what my class is debating right now, today. We read A Prayer for Owen Meany, a #1 best seller, and we are discussing whether it is escapist fiction or interpetational fiction.

    What I find most interesting is many of the “classics” were written as popular fiction. Jane Austen, for instance, did not write her books with the intention of being a classic so much as wanting to tell and story and make money. Does that negate the classic-ness of the work? Hardly, but who’s to say what will be a classic two hundred years from now (although I certainly hope literary toilet paper like Twilight is not).

  • Paul

    I can see both sides… I had to forcibly drag myself through 100 Years of Solitude, but can’t stand the tacky airport novels with their generic plots and characters.
    If I had to choose one I’d go with low-brow, and I’m kind of ashamed to admit it.

    BTW, what do people think Harry Potter qualifies as. High or low, or even middle-brow…?

    • Leslie

      I was just trying to figure out what Harry Potter would be; people like Stephen King have bashed JK Rowling’s style of writing, so I guess that would make it “low-brow”. However, I love the Harry Potter books, & I think they are well-written and will stand the test of time.

      • Molly

        That’s not true. Stephen King likes JK Rowling, they even did a reading event together with John Grishman in NYC in 2006. I think you are thinking of Stephanie Meyer…he hated her.

      • Lori

        Wha?? Actually, King has praised the Harry Potter series to the skies! And did so in EW, no less. http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20044270_20044274_20050689,00.html

      • Leslie

        He has made comments about her use of adverbs. Maybe “bash” was a strong word.


    • Felicia

      Harry Potter probably wouldn’t classify as either. It has its own group “children’s fiction” although the low-brow probably more accepting of it as the high-brow wanted it off the New York Times bestseller lists even though a lot of the readers were adults.

  • Rick

    You’ll never find a book that everyone appreciates, but I think the problem is that the literature professors and critics have become so jaded that if a book doesn’t confuse the hell out of you, it doesn’t “matter.” The best books are the ones that speak to you while having a good plot, so many populist books really are good and show a lasting ability. To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men are good reads that speak to people. I firmly believe that Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption by Steven King and Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving will stand the test of time for the same reason, and they are about as populist as you can get.

  • Typ0

    I’m a switch hitter on this one. Every so often dig into a great bit piece of literature to see the amazing feats of acrobatics the English language is capable of. You can’t read “Lolilta” without feeling like a pitiful excuse for a writer. Modern “high lit” can be equally dazzling and leave you thrilled.

    That said, i mostly read lovely low brow books: Julia Quin, Sookie Stackhouse, Dan Brown, The Time Traveler’s Wife, Elizabeth Gilbert, Everything Matters… I refuse to be pegged into a genre. :D I simply love to read. :)

    • jennifer

      Have to agree with you. I love to read and don’t need to be edified to enjoy a book. The more I read the more I recognize and appreciate great writing, but I hate having to feel embarrassed to admit I loved Twilight. Reading any book is better than sitting in front of your TV for the same amount of time. I say enjoy the books that keep you turning the page.

  • Kelsey

    What a fantastic thread! If forced to choose between the two, I would have to pick low-brow literature, but I would sorely miss some of my “classics.” I think Ben makes an excellent point about how “low-brow” can evolve into something more if it weathers the test of time. Someday an English professor will look back on the last 20 years of publishing, give it a catchy name, and suddenly we’ll all be vindicated in our choice of literature.

  • Steffany

    As long as people are reading, how can I complain? I like some of the high brow reading, but since I graduated college with my English degree, I’ve been especially appreciating “low brow” works. I couldn’t get through Wallace’s “Interviews with Hideous Men,” but I could devour “Twilight” (it’s not like I’m proud!) along with Lionel Schriver’s novels.

    • Typ0

      I read “Twilight” just so i could figure out what they were talking about in the Popwatch blog everyday! LOL

  • mscisluv

    I just wanted to throw it out there that I’m really enjoying the new Shelf Life blog, and I am so glad that an entertainment website is paying attention to books!

    • mscisluv

      Oh and I’m on the “just read, whatever it is” train, but with a caveat: I think if teens (or tweens) are reading, we should help them to analyze the work, just so they realize it’s not necessarily indicative of real life. If Twilight is what kids want to read, that’s great, but I truly hope there is an adult discussing what actual relationships between young men and women should be like.

      • jennifer

        Totally agree. As an Adult I read Twilight and shuddered at Bella as a role model. However, when I was a young teen I gobbled VC Andrews novels with equally scary heroines.

  • Sam

    Both have value. My tastes generally run high-brow, although I can certainly appreciate a well-plotted “low-brow” book, as most of the classics I’ve read are more character-based than plot-based. Look at Atonement: extremely popular, deservedly acclaimed. I love authors like Nick Hornby and Zadie Smith, who aren’t really either. While I appreciate a challenge, not all highbrow works are difficult to get through. Books like Nabokov’s Pnin are unbelievably well-written, but are easy to read, not too lengthy, and funny. Want a good detective book instead of the supermarket thrillers? Try Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. I think when people hear “classics,” they automatically go for the most famous book first instead of trying the more accessible parts of an author’s canon; they’re often just as good. Don’t start with Ulysses–start with Dubliners! Also look to short story collections, a forgotten treasure of good authors.

    • Kelsey

      I would have to good-naturedly say that I would recommend Joyce to VERY few people. Even the Dubliners :)

      • machunny

        Love this thread. I tend to be a high-brow reader only because I can’t stand lazy writing (but count me out for Joyce, too). That said, I tore through all nine of Charlaine Harris; SS books in a week, then her “Grave” series after that. Not exactly high-brow, but fun books.

        Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Austen easily stand the test of time. Dan Brown, though he has interesting plots, is a truly terrible writer. I read a few Grisham books back in the day, but soon tired of reading about other women’s legs. I have legs; don’t need to read about legs.

        An aside: My heart was warmed to see “The Jungle” mentioned on Sons of Anarchy last night. Made me love the show all that much more. Almost turned Jax into a Vegan, indeed.

    • DarkLayers

      Would Zadie Smith really not be high brow? Did you read her comments in a Newsweek article on Jodi Piccoult.

  • mrkittysmom

    I would like to know where Lev Grossman would put his book, The Magicians – is sure isn’t high brow and although I have not read the Twilight books, I think it might fall between Harry Potter – which will be considered classics 50 years from now and the Stephanie Meyers books.
    There is good and awful on both sides – I think it is snobbery to say one only reads high brow – since I do not think you can always put a book in a definite category. I though The Magicians fun, but mostly angsty….my new made up word for today.
    I say John Grisham has a good point.

  • Jenny

    As an unrepentant book addict who’s read everything from VC Andrews to Euripides and everything in between, I think a book has value as long as it gets people reading today.

    Reading books is a dying habit. I saw this through my experiences working in the book publishing and book retail industries. So if a Danielle Steel book will get you to read, great! Maybe reading that book will lead a person to reading others in all areas of “browdom.”

  • colin

    Doesn’t this argument go well beyond books to a presence of intellectual curiosity, or a lack of it?

  • Keith

    I appreciate both, but I tend toward the high-brow, I guess. I studied literature in college, so I just tend to seek out that kind of fiction. When I’ve tried low-brow, I tend to get bored, not always but usually.

    But I am certainly of the opinion that as long as you read something, then your time spent is worthwhile. I worry more about book culture in general fading rather than any segment of that culture. Keeping reading alive is the main thing, particularly with the ever growing dominance of electronic media.

    Don’t really see how this conversation is any different than one about people who like art house movies vs. those who like summer blockbusters. These two camps exist in every form of art/entertainment. Some sports are even seen as high brow vs. other seen as low brow.

    Both classes of books still get published, for now, and the audiences remain savvy enough to seek out and find what they like.

  • Michi

    Not all classics and high-brow books are dense and hard to read, and not all low-brow and commercial books are terribly written. Quality is key and not restricted to high-brow, and readability is not only the purview of low-brow. I enjoyed Stieg Larsen’s terrific mystery “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (and the follow-up, “The Girl who Played with Fire”) as well as Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk’s “Snow”. And I agree, Sam, Chandler and Hammett are terrific writers, and yes, start with “Dubliners”. It’s a wonderful collection and a much easier introduction to Joyce than “Ulysses”.

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