What Is Mainstream Fiction?

And so we come to mainstream fiction. I know, I know - just when you've grasped the differences between literary fiction and genre fiction, I have to go and confuse things by introducing a third type of novel!

Actually, though, mainstream fiction could well turn out to be the kind of fiction you end up writing if you...

  • Want to write a genre novel - a romance, say - but you don't want to stick to the strict rules, or "conventions", of that genre.
  • Want to write a novel which isn't covered by any of the genres - that is, the subject matter doesn't revolve around crime, horror, or any of the other traditional concerns of category fiction - and you find the whole concept of literary fiction too "highbrow" for your own tastes.

Still confused? Then you're not alone...

When I researched the subject myself, it was almost impossible to find two people who could agree on what these novels actually were (and I'm talking publishers and agents here). That's why I have come up with not just one but three definitions.

1. Mainstream Fiction Is Any Type of Novel That Sells Well

According to this first definition, any novel, whether genre or literary, which attracts a wide audience and sells in large numbers can be called mainstream.

Stick with me on this one because it's not altogether straightforward to explain...

Each of the fictional genres comes with an existing audience of readers who are fans of that particular variety of fiction.

(In the context of this argument, literary fiction can be seen as just another genre, in that it comes with an existing audience of readers who like the things that literary novels have to offer.)

Novels aimed at a particular genre will appeal to fans of the genre but not to a more general reader. For example, the fan base for a science fiction novel might well be very large (meaning the potential for big sales). But it is unlikely to appeal to fans of westerns or romances or literary novels.

But here is the thing...

When a genre novel (or a literary novel) reaches beyond its "traditional" audience and is bought by people who aren't normally fans of that variety of fiction, it can be said to be mainstream fiction...

  • Stephen King, a horror novelist, might also be considered a mainstream novelist by virtue of his huge popularity and his ability to attract readers who wouldn't normally read horror novels written by less well known writers.
  • The English Patient, a literary novel, also became a mainstream novel when it was bought by people who wouldn't normally buy literary novels and it sold in huge numbers (helped, no doubt, by the Oscar-winning film adaptation).

So that is the first definition and, let's be honest, one that isn't particularly helpful to you as you try to decide what type of book you are going to write!

After all, if your genre novel or literary novel becomes hugely popular and gets classified as "mainstream" by the publishers and booksellers, it still remains a genre novel or a literary novel...

  • It will just have a bigger marketing budget behind it.
  • It will be displayed more prominently in the bookshops.
  • And it will make your bank account grow fatter, of course!

The next definition is more useful, though.

2. It Is Genre Fiction That Breaks the Rules

Genre fiction is governed by "conventions" which must be stuck to, more or less, if the novel is to be a recognizable member of its genre. (If you are unclear on this, check out the second part of the article looking at Genre Fiction.)

In the case of a detective novel...

  • Conventions dictate that a body should show up in the first three chapters, and preferably in the first few pages, but your murder isn't committed until halfway through.
  • Conventions dictate that the guilty should be brought to justice by the detective in the closing pages, but your murderer gets away with it and an innocent man is arrested in his place.
  • Conventions dictate that the bulk of the plot should be devoted to the detection of the crime, but you spend a large chunk of your novel describing the detective's troubled home life.

The question is, have you written a detective novel at all? Yes and no...

  • No in the sense that it rips up the rule book for that particular genre and really couldn't be marketed as a part of that genre.
  • Yes in the sense that, well, it features a murder and a detective attempting to solve the crime.

The solution, therefore, is for the publishers to market your novel to a more general audience, one which won't care about all the traditional conventions of detective fiction having been broken.

They might even market it not as a detective novel at all, but a novel about a man's troubled home life (with the murder element becoming almost a subplot).

If your novel can't be marketed as a genre novel, would it be called literary or mainstream fiction?

Mainstream fiction, most likely, but perhaps literary fiction...

  • If the quality of the writing and the profundity of the ideas explored puts your novel into the prize-winning league, it would probably be classified as literary fiction.
  • If the emphasis is less on these things and more on good old-fashioned storytelling, it will be marketed as mainstream fiction.

(I should point out that, by deliberately ignoring your chosen genre's conventions, you are also turning your back on that genre's established audience. On the plus side, you open yourself up to an audience with more general tastes that is potentially much larger. So it is more of a gamble, for both you and your publisher - but one that could pay off handsomely.)

And so that has dealt with my first two definitions of this type of fiction...

  1. It is genre or literary fiction that happens to sell well.
  2. It is genre fiction that breaks the conventions.

These are quite technical points I have made so far - and not altogether useful to you as you try to work out what type of book you want to write.

You see, I have been defining mainstream fiction only in relation to literary and genre fiction - rather than trying to define what it is in its own right. My third (and most useful) definition of mainstream novels does exactly that...

3. Mainstream Fiction Is a Self-Contained Category

This final definition of mainstream writing represents a category for those of you who...

  1. Don't want to write a genre novel. You simply aren't interested in murder or horror or science fiction or any of the other concerns of genre fiction. Okay, your novel will likely feature romance in some form (because most novels do), but you certainly don't see it as a romantic novel. The subject matter you are interested in revolves around the daily realities of life as experienced by regular people.
  2. Find the concept of literary fiction too "highbrow" for your liking. Not that you don't want to produce some "fine" writing. And not that you don't want to take the time to provide your readers with psychological insights into your characters and philosophical insights into some aspect of the human condition. But first and foremost, you want to tell a good tale.

If those two points are a fair representation of where you're at yourself then mainstream fiction is definitely for you.

A mainstream work of fiction, in this third definition of the term, takes as its subject matter the "stuff of ordinary life" as experienced by us all in the twenty-first century - hence its universal appeal.

  • Readers are interested in reading about people just like themselves in the same way that they are interested in knowing about the lives of their real-life neighbors.
  • Also, knowing how other people cope with the everyday dramas we all experience - deaths in the family, rebellious teenage kids, finding and holding onto love - helps us in our own lives.

Other than a universal subject matter, another defining characteristic of mainstream novels is an emphasis on good old-fashioned storytelling.

Fans of mainstream fiction will be more tolerant than genre fans of interruptions to the forward momentum of the story - when you stop to talk about a character's past, for example. But plot is still king.

If genre fiction is concerned with swift plotting, and literary fiction with deep characterization and exploration of the novel's theme, mainstream fiction falls somewhere between the two.

For anyone wishing to investigate this type of fiction further, the perfect example of a mainstream novelist, and one of my favorites, is Anne Tyler. Her novels are (mostly) set in contemporary Baltimore, and they deal with the day-to-day dramas of ordinary folks like you and me...

  • Her leading characters are not traditional heroes and heroines (though they can still act heroically in their own small ways).
  • Her plots are certainly not action-packed (though that doesn't mean the novels are not page-turners).
  • Her settings are not exotic (they take place in houses just like our own and restaurants like the ones we visit).

And if all of that sounds kind of commonplace, that is the whole point of mainstream novels. The pleasure in reading (and writing) such fiction is not to escape from our workaday worlds but to explore them in more detail than we can ever do in real life.

We all have a hankering, I think, to know more about the secret lives or our friends and neighbors. By reading mainstream fiction, we can do precisely that.

Wrap Up

Of course, there will always be novels which fall between the gaps...

  • At what point does a genre novel stop being a genre novel and become literary or mainstream?
  • At what point does a mainstream novel become literary, or vice versa?

Who knows? Who cares?

The important thing is that you are clear in your own mind how your novel should be categorized and write it accordingly. If your publisher wants to market it differently, that is up to them.