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?


  1. Interesting question! To me mainstream fiction is anything that becomes a bestseller. Any book that appeals to a majority of people becomes mainstream fiction, whatever genre it happened to sit in originally. The Book Thief was initially a YA book, but with word of mouth it quickly became mainstream. The same has happened to numerous other books. I don’t think it is easy to pin down.

  2. Mainstream is a horrible word but I do find myself using it since it is so pervasive within the SF community. Basically I split all literature into the fantastic (matching genres: fantasy, science fiction, alt history, etc) and the mimetic (matching genres: crime, romance, literary fiction, etc) with slipstream in the middle. So when I use “mainstream” and refering to the latter group.

  3. David Hebblethwaite

    16th April 2010 at 3:12 pm

    Different ideas emerging already…

    Jackie, that’s an interesting way of looking at it — ‘mainstreamness’ depending on what happens to a book after it’s published, rather than what’s in it.

    Martin, that’s how I’d be instinctively inclined to use it, but I’m not keen on some of the implications (e.g. that sf can’t be ‘mainstream’). Agreed that it’s a horrible word!

  4. I dislike the categories, but it is hard to avoid them. A lot of what I write is mixed-genre, but saying that it is “slipstream” seems like writing “other” on the Census forms. Similarly, saying that a book is “mainstream” seems like using “Normal” in place of “Caucasian” on the Census forms.

    Putting my distaste aside, I think “mainstream” does mean “directed at the masses”, which means that it can be almost any genre if it is not too strongly genre. If a true sci-fi fanatic would tend to put it down as not geeky enough, but the New York Times would review it, that would be “mainstream”.

  5. Of the five non-fantastic novels, there’s something unusual about the style or structure (or both) of four of them,

    Yes, I find this a lot as well; on the other hand, I think books published as mainstream are much more likely to have a go at stylistic or structural variation, so although it’s unusual from the perspective of a primarily-genre reader, I’m not sure how unusual it is in the terms of mainstream publishing. (On the other hand, Booker-winners like Banville and Enright and Desai give the impression that conventionality of narrative is still desired by at least some arbiters of quality…) Still, I do think that what I look for in fiction is not so much the fantastic specifically as something more than conventional realism, and stylistic or structural playfulness may fit the bill.

  6. David Hebblethwaite

    21st April 2010 at 11:25 am

    Ben: Ah, “slipstream”, that could be a post on its own. One of those terms which I know broadly in my mind what it means, but wouldn’t want to attempt a strict definition…

  7. David Hebblethwaite

    21st April 2010 at 12:00 pm

    Niall: point taken about “mainstream” fiction being more open to stylistic/structural experimentation than “genre” – but, looking again at my wording, I think I actually understated the case for at least three of those books, and they are at the more unusual end of unusual, as it were.

    I think we’re on the same page with what we look for in fiction. Isn’t there a quote from Toby Litt in the BSFA survey where he talks about wanting “the world plus something else” from fiction? I know he was talking about sf, but broaden the idea out, and it encapsulates what I most like to read.

  8. define fiction is so hard ,to me mainnstream is ora roberts ,brown and the ilk as jackie says books from lit ,crime or sci fi can become mainstream ,maybe ones you can buy at supermarket ,most stuff i read is translated so don’t have much to do with mainstream books anyway ,i personaly hate terms for fiction horse for course each to there own is best way

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