There was a discussion panel at Eastercon this year called ‘What do we mean by “mainstrean”?’, with particular reference to the works of Iain Banks – the reason behind it being that, even though it seems fairly straightforward to say that Banks publishes science fiction with a middle initial in his name, and mainstream fiction without, when you actually look at the range of what he has published under the name ‘Iain Banks’, he becomes a difficult writer to pin down (by the end of the discussion, the suggestion was that he’s often a gothic writer).
This topic is of interest to me, not because I’m particularly widely read in Banks (I’ve read only three each of the two ‘groups’ of his books), but because of how I’ve changed as a reader over the last few years. Even five years ago, I was primarily a reader of science fiction and fantasy; now those are just two aspects of what I read. What has happened is that, over the last few years, I have ‘discovered’ – grown to appreciate – mainstream fiction.
Or have I?
To explore what I mean, I’m going to refer to my list of favourite books read in 2009 (the first year when I both recorded everything I read, and made a properly considered list of favourites). Five of these twelve clearly fall within the field of the fantastic; two more are part of that field (by my definition), but were not published as such (and perhaps were not conceived as such, either); and five fall outside it. Of the five non-fantastic novels, there’s something unusual about the style or structure (or both) of four of them, and I’d suggest that even the fifth is not straightforward.
When I look at those latter five books, the term ‘mainstream’ doesn’t seem right for them to me.
(Interestingly, when I look at the sf/fantasy/horror works on my list, I find that they’re also quite unusual in their own ways, and I actually see quite a lot of commonality across the twelve. I’m clearly to drawn to that kind of book in general, a thought that’s borne out by my favourite reads so far this year.)
So, how would I define ‘mainstream fiction’? One could define it as ‘not genre fiction’, but I think that’s an artificial opposition, because it seems to me that genres overlap and merge into each other so much. One could define ‘mainstream’ in terms of popularity, but (though I haven’t any sales figures) doesn’t ‘genre fiction’ tend to be the most popular? The more I think about the term ‘mainstream’, the more elusive it seems to be.
Over to you, reader: what does ‘mainstream’ mean to you, and where does it sit in your personal reading spectrum?