But mainstream fiction could be perfect for you if you want to write a genre novel – a romance, say – but don’t want to stick to the strict rules, or “conventions”, of that genre.
Or maybe you want to write a novel that does not 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.
Confused? Then you’re not alone…
When I researched the different types of novels, it was almost impossible to find two people who could agree on what mainstream 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 Novel That Sells Well
According to this first definition, any novel that attracts a wide audience and sells in large numbers is a mainstream novel.
(Stick with me here because it’s not altogether straightforward to explain.)
Every single variety of fiction comes with an in-built audience of readers who are fans of that category of novel. When they visit a bookstore or go to Amazon, that’s the category they head for.
In the context of this argument, literary fiction is just another genre. Why? Because it comes with an existing audience of readers who like the things that literary novels have to offer.
Novels aimed at a particular audience will appeal to fans of that type of novel, but not to a more general reader.
For example, the fan base for a science fiction novel might be very large (meaning the potential for big sales). But it’s unlikely to appeal to fans of westerns or romances or the classics.
But here’s the thing…
When a genre novel (or a literary novel) reaches beyond its “traditional” audience to people who aren’t normally fans of that variety of fiction, it’s mainstream fiction. So…
- Stephen King, a horror novelist, is also a mainstream novelist. How come? Because of his huge popularity. And his ability to attract readers who wouldn’t normally read horror novels written by less well known writers in that genre.
- 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 award-winning film adaptation.)
So that’s the first definition. And let’s be honest, it’s not particularly helpful as you try to decide what type of novel you’re going to write!
After all, if your genre novel or literary novel becomes hugely popular and gets classified as “mainstream” by publishers and booksellers, it still remains a genre novel or a literary novel.
- It will just have a bigger marketing budget behind it.
- The stores will display it more prominently.
- And it will make your bank account grow fatter, of course!
The next definition is more useful, though…
2. Mainstream Fiction Is Genre Fiction That Breaks the Rules
Genre fiction is governed by conventions which you must stick to, more or less, for the novel to be a recognizable member of its genre. So in the case of a detective novel, for example, conventions dictate that…
- a body should show up in the first three chapters
- the detective should bring the guilty to justice in the closing pages
- the bulk of the plot should revolve around the detection of the crime.
But what if your murder doesn’t take place until halfway through? What if your murderer gets away with it and an innocent man is arrested in his place. And what if you spend a large chunk of your novel describing the detective’s troubled home life.
Have you written a genre novel at all? Yes and no…
- No in the sense that it rips up the rule book. (Meaning you couldn’t market it as a part of the crime genre.)
- Yes because, well, it features a murder and a detective attempting to solve the crime.
If you were to write a novel like the one outlined above, the solution is for the publishers (or yourself if you’re going it alone) to market your novel to a more general audience.
In other words, market it to folks who won’t care that you’ve tossed the traditional conventions of detective fiction out the window.
You 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 you can’t sell your novel as genre fiction, does that make it literary or mainstream fiction?
Mainstream fiction, most likely. But perhaps literary fiction…
- If the quality of the writing and the profundity of the ideas puts your novel into the prize-winning league, it’s most likely literary fiction.
- But if the emphasis is less on these things and more on good old-fashioned storytelling, it’s mainstream fiction.
By deliberately ignoring your chosen genre’s conventions, you’re 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’s more of a gamble, but one that could pay off handsomely.
So that’s dealt with my first two definitions of mainstream fiction…
- It is genre or literary fiction that happens to sell well.
- It’s genre fiction that breaks the rules.
Those are technical points. And they’re not altogether useful to you as you try to work out what type of novel you want to write.
So far, I’ve defined mainstream fiction only in relation to literary and genre fiction. My third (and most useful) definition covers what it is in its own right.
3. Mainstream Fiction Is a Self-Contained Category
This final definition represents a type of novel you could write if you…
i) Don’t Like Genre Fiction
You simply aren’t interested in 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.
Your preferred subject matter revolves around the daily realities of life as experienced by regular people.
ii) Don’t Like Literary Fiction
It’s not that you don’t want to produce some “fine” writing. And it’s not that you don’t want to provide your readers with psychological insights into your characters, or philosophical insights into some aspect of the human condition (in the form of a theme).
First and foremost, though, you just want to tell a good tale!
Do those two points ring a bell?
Then mainstream fiction is definitely for you. And it’s probably what you like to read, too.
A mainstream work of fiction, in this third definition of the term, concerns the “stuff of ordinary life” as experienced by ordinary folks (people like you and me) in the twenty-first century.
Hence its universal appeal. (And hence, incidentally, why Amazon sometimes categorizes it as “Contemporary Fiction.”)
Readers are interested in reading about people just like themselves in the same way that they’re 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.
What Else Defines Mainstream Fiction?
Other than a universal subject matter, another defining characteristic of mainstream novels is an emphasis on good old-fashioned storytelling.
Fans of mainstream fiction are 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.
Want to investigate mainstream fiction further?
The perfect example of a mainstream novelist, and one of my favorites, is Anne Tyler. She (mostly) sets her novels 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 still act heroically in their own small ways).
- Her plots are certainly not action-packed (though that doesn’t mean the novels are dull).
- And her settings are not exotic (they take place in houses just like our own and restaurants like the ones we all eat in).
And if all of that sounds kind of commonplace, that’s the whole point of mainstream fiction. The pleasure in reading (and writing) such fiction is not to escape from our workaday worlds. It’s 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 (and writing) mainstream fiction, we can do precisely that.
Of course, there will always be novels that fall between the gaps…
At what point does a genre novel become literary or mainstream? And at what point does a mainstream novel become literary, or vice versa?
Who knows? Who cares?
The important thing is that you’re clear in your own mind how to categorize your novel. You’re clear about what readers of that category expect, and you write your novel accordingly. If you get published traditionally and your publisher wants to market it as something other than mainstream fiction, that is up to them.
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