Mainstream: when your writing category vanishes



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:

Love Story

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
  • Exhaustion
  • Pain

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.

What say you?

14 thoughts on “Mainstream: when your writing category vanishes

  1. Capricious Lestrange

    I’ve always had problems with all these categories and distinctions, too when searching for particular kinds of books as well. I honestly didn’t realize that what I was mourning was the loss of the mainstream category, but you’ve definitely put your finger on it. Modern day stories dealing with real life that aren’t as confounding and high falutin’ as the contemporary literature genre. Not romance, not fantasy, not thriller, just a great story that tells us something about the nature of people and the world around us. Where do you find those? I balk at reading romance as a category, but I like love stories, to me there is a big difference. I love my literature, my fantasy, so many genres really, but sometimes I just want to read a basic, good story.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      That’s exactly what I write! Big publishers have tucked a lot of these into the ‘literary’ category – and then push them like crazy to get onto ‘bestseller’ lists. Cf. The Goldfinch, and similar. Some ARE literary, others are just ‘big books’ in scope.

      I do the same – for the wont of a better system. ‘Literary’ also is coming to mean ‘written better than average.’ Ask the literary folk; they’re not very happy about the co-opting of their category.

      PLEASE consider Pride’s Children – a story of an impossible love – ‘a novel of obsession, betrayal, and love.’

      If you’d like to see – try the sample. This one, from the paper copy – is my favorite to view if you’re reading on Amazon’s Look Inside feature (the formatting shows); you can click on the ebook sample on the page, too, or download to your Kindle or computer.

      If you’d like an electronic Review Copy – no rush, no obligation – let me know. I won’t hold you to the review requirement because I know where you’re coming from, but would love one if you can.

      But if you’re at all curious, on the indie side I am relatively rare – no werewolves or demons, you see. Genre is fine – as long as you don’t delete my mainstream.


  2. Brenda Reed

    Reading used to be a mainstream form of entertainment. Now, I’m not sure what it is. I have read some chick lit books lately that developed characters by reciting the designers and price of the clothing the person wore. I think perhaps the mainstream audience has disappeared and the general reader wants fantasy of some sort to get through the dreary day.I began my blog related to my favorite Pinterest posts and hoped it would help me develop a readership. I realized, however, that successful blogs concentrate on one subject. I was selecting different images and trying to make my fine writing (I hoped) the glue. No one reads a writer for their writing skill anymore — perhaps that is what has happened to mainstream.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      I think I had that thought, too – but I never took the time to write posts of general interest.

      I love my readers – they pop by and we have the nicest talks – but I think a majority are other writers (the ones who comment, anyway), and no two of us write the same thing.

      So, general support, but our writing concerns are widely different as is our work.


  3. gracecrandallauthor

    ‘Mainstream’ fiction might have fallen into the category that’s now called ‘contemporary’… I keep seeing ‘contemporary’ pop up in descriptions of mainstream-type books, though I’m not sure if Amazon has a category for it 🙂
    And, genres have always annoyed me. I like a fairly even-keel selection of books, which one would think would all belong in one or two genres, but bookstores scatter them all hither and yon under headings of ‘literature’ ‘SF&F’ ‘young adult’ ‘middle grade’ and the somewhat all-encompassing ‘fiction’… Well for heaven’s sake, I just want to find a book!


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Good observation – contemporary pops up frequently. As opposed to ‘historical.’

      It’s usually accompanied, though = ‘Contemporary Romance’ or ‘Contemporary Women’s Fiction’ are two I’ve seen. I haven’t seen ‘Contemporary General Fiction.’ Typing that into the Amazon search box got me a lot of books – 600K+ – and some were novels. A bunch were Contemporary Romance, and others were compendiums of short stories. Since searches also depend on keywords and titles, that’s not surprising.

      It didn’t make me want to leap into that as a category, and it included at least one vampire book in the first two pages. ???

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Janna G. Noelle

    I envision mainstream fiction the same way you do. I would just add to the definition that it tends to be set in the real world with realistic situations and not a whiff of anything “supernatural” (i.e. magical/technological/mysterious/etc, i.e. genre) about it. They are the kind of easily digested books that many people have read and are often found on your older parents’ or grandparents’ bookshelves. Although, I also think of general fiction in the same way, so I’m not sure what the difference between the two (if any) was meant to be. I guess I never really given it much thought or even noticed the disappearance of mainstream since my tastes in both reading and writing have always fallen firmly within genre (the only mainstream/general books I read nowadays are the ones that receive a lot of buzz or that friends recommend, and I can’t even think of what the last one I read was).


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Very good addition: no supernatural stuff. I’m not fond of that, so I wouldn’t even consider it.

      But where do you put Interview with a Vampire? I only saw the movie, and it has been a very long time, but would you call that genre fiction toward the literary end?

      And I really hate the way Dan Brown bashes the Catholic church – but his books are supposed to be mainstream conspiracy thrillers? Or thrillers – just popular with certain readers? Dunno where I draw the mainstream line there – intended audience? Some people actually think those are ‘real world.’


      1. Janna G. Noelle

        I’ve read the entire Interview with a Vampire series and would definitely call it genre. Yes, the writing it at the literary end and it’s even a little bit historical, but the supernatural elements in it are front and center (unlike the magical realism that sometimes occurs in literary books). It’s a really good series.

        I read The Da Vinci Code years ago and fond it a quick, fairly unaffecting yet ultimately enjoyable read. I think mainstream thriller is a good description for his work because whatever one thinks about how he portrays the Catholic church, his focus on this widely followed religion means that a large number of people have something in common with his books.


        1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          Did not know about supernatural elements (other than vampires living forever). In my defense, I never read it – I watched the movie with Brad Pitt very later one night (an INCREDIBLY long movie) on some channel (before Blockbuster, probably – yes, I’m that old) with LOTS and lots of commercials. I kept watching because I was too tired to stop, had already invested way too much time into it, and was hoping for some kind of resolution (I don’t think I got it).

          So if you say it’s genre, possibly at the literary end, I’ll take your word for it. I am NOT going to read it, ever, unless I’m completely incompetent in a nursing home and my aide is listening to it, and then I probably won’t care.

          That is MY religion, and, with all its faults, seems to be the last thing on Earth that anyone can poke at without an antidefamation league springing up. I loathe Dan Brown and the idea of the books. And I haven’t read them beyond a sample, because they’re unreadable (we may need to agree to disagree). Other than that, I agree they were wildly popular and made him a lot of money. On the other hand, I loved Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, which is also a conspiracy thriller set in the church – and I found it a compelling read. And also mainstream. But MUCH better written, and toward the literary end of the spectrum (I assume the translator didn’t change the literariness – for want of a better word – of the original). I don’t read Italian, so I couldn’t tell you.

          Too much? Tell me and/or tone it down. Or feel free to delete.


        2. Janna G. Noelle

          Lol, I can’t delete anything because it’s your blog, meaning you can be toned up or down as you want to be.

          Interview With a Vampire was a so-so movie. Brad Pitt did a great job capturing the main character’s angst and struggle with becoming a vampire and Tom Cruise surprised us all with his portrayal of Lestat. But, as always, they made some changes from the book, particularly the ending, that didn’t totally serve the story IMO. Interview probably has the fewest supernatural elements (yes, vampires living forever, but they also have special powers like reading minds and flying). But as the series progresses, we also encounter witches and demons, body-swapping, and less literary plotlines that firmly place it within genre.

          We can agree to disagree about Dan Brown. I’m neither a fan nor defender of him by any stretch; I do disagree with the concept of a book being “unreadable”, though. I’ve read plenty of books I didn’t like, books I didn’t finish, books that I considered either somewhat or completely offensive. But I subscribe to numbers 2 and 3 of the Five Laws of Library Science: (2) Every reader his/her book and (3) Every book its reader. I admit, the writing isn’t great literature, but it got the job done. I burned through it in a couple of days, remember next to nothing about the plot (about how slanderous or not it was to Catholicism), and sometimes, that’s all that a reader wants. It’s like TV that you can read. In the end, though, it’s both your choice and your right to not read his books.

          Regarding the lack of anti-defamation league for Catholicism, I know that a lot of Catholic thinkers have spoken out against various representations of the faith that they consider problematic, so there’s that. It may be, though, that because the religion is so dominant and powerful in the world – not at all marginalized compared to some other faiths and those who follow them – people believe that there’s nothing anyone can do or say that will ultimately hurt Catholicism, and thus don’t come to its defence.


        3. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          Jews are well distributed worldwide – and we have an antidefamation league.

          As for the blog – I thought I was on yours! Brain Fog!

          That’s actually quite funny – I have to watch that brain or it goes off and does its own thing.


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