THERE USED TO BE THREE GENERAL CLASSES OF WORK: MAINSTREAM/COMMERCIAL, LITERARY, AND GENRE.
Where did the mainstream go?
I’m writing this post to dump the contents of my brain* about what has happened to the classification of novels on sites such as Amazon BECAUSE of the desire to categorize everything into smaller and smaller bins so the reader can find exactly the kind of book he is searching for.
It isn’t meant to be a scholarly discussion of any merit – and I welcome differing ideas, but would appreciate a general sticking to the question: Where did the mainstream go?
Mainstream fiction – as opposed to what?
This is a serious question. Type ‘mainstream’ into your Amazon search box and you won’t find the novels you expect. Maybe I should say that I’m older, and these aren’t the novels I expect.
‘General fiction’ brings up so much stuff I would consider genre fiction that it’s useless.
Although very well written genre work elevates a good story to a literary quality – which is where such novels as Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale are, in my opinion – it doesn’t make it mainstream or general fiction – the story is, in my mind, literary SF.
What IS ‘mainstream’ (IMHO)?
Mainstream fiction is meant to be appropriate and engaging for a majority audience.
Some books which I would call mainstream:
The Thorn Birds (when it came out)
Gone With the Wind (ditto)
On The Beach and Trustee from the Toolroom (Nevil Shute)
Airport (and many of Alex Hailey’s other books)
Hawaii (ditto, Michener’s work)
Exodus, QB VII (and others by Leon Uris)
Authors such as Sidney Sheldon (The Other Side of Midnight) and John Fowles (The Magus)
The Bridges of Madison County and the novels of Nicholas Sparks
Some of these books are now classified as ‘classics,’ but were mainstream when they came out. Others are currently classified as ‘historical fiction,’ but the same applies: they were meant for a very large audience of literate people, an audience that went from children/young adults to older people, male and female, and encompassed much of the educated population.
There were no conventions; this audience could handle a WWII novel, a novel about finances, or The Key to Rebecca. Or Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca.
Mainstream. Commercial. Epic. General fiction.
Or simply what used to be called ‘a novel.’
And the category used to cover what was called a ‘big book’ – books with large casts of characters and elaborate plots, whether or not they were well-written, encompassing a spectrum of writing quality from Dan Brown to Ken Follett and Mary Stewart’s Arthurian legend novels starting with The Crystal Cave.
Mainstream novelists. People who wrote for the broad center of the complete reading public. Writers for whom plot and characterization were important.
But most importantly, people who did not want the reader to have to stop because of the language. The writing quality was sometimes awkward, generally competent, but stopped short of going into literary rhapsodies – because that would stop the readers’ flow.
Literary fiction then and now
A category which used to encompass everything from Proust (A la de temps perdu) to The Color Purple, ‘literary fiction’ used to mean stories that were intended for a more discerning audience than mainstream fiction, one with a more educated group in mind – and people who were comfortable with and appreciated language and description and minutiae and nuance. People who expect literary allusions and epigraphs and quotations from English poets, who can read Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day with pleasure.
I can’t. That kind of fiction, with its exaggerated precision and lack of plot (on the more literary or experimental end), makes me itch. These books are often taught in English and American Literature classes (the box where I found my husband’s copies had a large number of books of that kind) as ‘good for you’ and requiring study. It often meant work that was tinier in scope and more enamored of language than most readers were looking for.
Oddly enough, ‘literary’ as a category on Amazon is now used heavily by the big publishers to indicate that their books are better (and worth the much higher prices charged). When Data Guy puts out the quarterly charts of book prices by genre, the columns above 9.99 for ebooks are labeled literary and occupied mostly by traditional publishers: big 5, medium and small presses, and university presses.
Worse, literary is now the keyword associated with work which is the same as everything else, only better written. Literary fiction writers are probably screaming about that.
The problem with ‘literary’ as a category:
On Amazon, ‘literary’ has come to mean ‘mainstream.’
Now, ‘literary’ means anything not in a specific genre such as SFF or Romance or Thriller.
I’m sure authors of true literary books are not pleased to find their category invaded by everyone who thinks they write better than average prose.
The rise of genre fiction, partly propelled by Amazon and search categories
Books such as Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy were clearly science fiction. And The Lord of the Rings has always been fantasy.
Romance is a relatively recent category, but Pride and Prejudice is not a Romance; it is mainstream. Jane Eyre is now called ‘literature,’ but was mainstream when it came out.
Thrillers, mysteries, and such have always been genre – and some of its practitioners have elevated these genres by writing so well that we could probably call them literary mysteries, etc. – but the general audience I’m trying to delineate wouldn’t call them mainstream.
NOTE: there have always been omnivorous readers (I was one) who read anything they could get their little hands on, but we knew what we were reading when we chose a mystery or a science fiction story like Dune. Same stuff – only very well written.
Amazon provides all these categories and subcategories and sub-subcategories, but it doesn’t curate the lists. If you write ‘literary’ on your fantasy novel, it says ‘fine’ and shows that book with the literary novels and the fantasy novels, depending on other things like reviews and sales.
Nobody curates these lists online – it takes too much human time and trouble. Algorithms do it.
But it renders categories almost useless when anyone can put a paranormal romance with werewolves into general fiction. Or call their work literary. And I’ve had writers tell me they do this because their appropriate category is too crowded. Aargh!
What to do about this – assuming anyone cares?
And I do care – because I WRITE mainstream fiction, and I aim for the literary end of the writing quality spectrum – careful language. With the very strong warning to myself that it is NOT allowed to stop the flow.
I label it ‘literary’ and ‘general fiction’ and ‘psychological’ and ‘contemporary Romance’ (it IS a love story.
And I cringe when I do it.
I want my mainstream back. I probably won’t get it.
NOTE: If you’d like to see what the heck I’m talking about, Pride’s Children: PURGATORY, the first book in my mainstream contemporary love story trilogy, is available on Amazon US in ebook and print. For other countries, it’s easiest to type in the book’s name.
Thanks to Stencil for the ability to create images. I use fewer than 10 a month, so I have one of their free accounts. When I need more, they have very reasonably priced services with a LOT of flexibility.
*How and why I noticed the disappearance of the mainstream
I’m ideally positioned to answer this question because of an accident: for the past twenty-seven years, most of the energy normal people use for reading and writing fiction has been denied to me due to the energy-sapping disease called CFS – Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
In the beginning, merely surviving the illness and coping with the children took everything I had. After a number of years, things improved a bit (or older children require somewhat less intense mothering), and I started thinking how to stay sane, not merely alive.
Writing was the answer – something I could learn to do and had always wanted to and planned to do.
We won’t argue names and etiologies here, but CFS has a constellation of symptoms, and my worst three are:
- Brain fog
The relevance of this is that I don’t have energy for reading AND writing, and, because I wanted to write, and had a story to tell, I have spent most of that time on the debut novel Pride’s Children: PURGATORY. And I didn’t read much during that period. When I woke up, ‘mainstream’ had vanished.
It’s a subject close to my heart – as I write mainstream fiction, and, as an indie, I’m having a very hard time connecting with the right readers. A collection of terms such as ‘literary’ and ‘contemporary’ and ‘romance’ does NOT add up to ‘mainstream love story which deals realistically with disability, fame, and integrity,’ does it?
‘Write the book you want to read’ is then followed by ‘find the people LIKE YOU who want to read the same book but can’t/don’t write it.’ The problem: I have no idea how I would attract ME to my book. And the categories aren’t helping.