Wednesday, March 25, 2009

What is Mainstream?

0843-lkhPines in Winter
LK Hunsaker 2009


Back several years ago when I headed toward publishing my first book, I was faced with deciding what "kind" of book it was, according to accepted categories: what genre?


I have to say this was a harder decision than it is for many writers, since I don't write in a certain specific commercial genre. I wasn't trying to do so. It simply came out the way it needed to come out. So then came the research of what exactly certain genres entailed. My themes were pretty romantic but not the standard romance category of "girl meets boy, have a rift of some sort, and then get together for a happily ever after." They do have that except not necessarily so cut and dry and the "happy" ending is more likely to be a "satisfying & upbeat" ending. There is a difference.


Looking further, I found the "mainstream" category, which was defined as not fitting a particular genre, but covered anything outside a particular genre. And then we have "literary" which means much the same except with more emphasis on unique style and voice, plus a deeper look at social and cultural and psychological issues. The problem with that one is readers tend to think of literary fiction as rather high-brow and boring and hard to read.


I have talked before here about my genre being defined as mainstream romance or literary romance and even I was uncertain about which to call it.


I still am. But looking around at publisher sites and listening to what readers say, I'm apparently not the only one confused on that issue.


I just came from a small press site and browsed the "mainstream romance" category. Yes, there is recently an actual category using the term mainstream romance, but it seems not sure how to describe itself, either. When I see a book being plugged as "mainstream romantic suspense," I raise my eyebrows. Literally. Because ... romantic suspense is a specialized genre, which means it's not mainstream, right? If I see vampire fiction under "mainstream" I'm really confused.


John Irving is a mainstream novelist. So is Joyce Carol Oates. They may have bits of suspense or romantic involvement in there, but their books are basically character studies embedded deeply in societal issues such as abortion and immigration and cultural (in)sensitivity. That's the main flux of their work. What I'm seeing in small press sites describing mainstream fiction is far from that. It seems too often only to be fiction of mixed genres they aren't sure how to categorize. If a book is romantic suspense or if it's sci fi or paranormal, then no, I can't see that it's mainstream ... UNLESS it is deeply cultural with an emphasis on character study.


Not being erotic romance doesn't mean it's mainstream romance. I call my books mainstream romance because they are romantic but ALSO cultural, psychological, character studies. Finishing Touches explores the effects of parenting, of pushing children toward what you want them to be against who they are, and how that affects the young heroine of the story. It shows culture class in that where you live affects you as well as how who you are affects where you are comfortable living. It shows the effects of escaping and ponders whether escaping is really that.


The Rehearsal series delves into the music world, the background of the way artists are manipulated by their companies. It has a young half Native American girl raised in a small "insiders only" town and the effects of it on her life. It has an illegal immigrant. There is a character pushed by his divorced mother to prove his "worth" to society when he feels no need to have to prove anything. There are, again, family issues showing how the way each character was raised resulted in their future actions and attitudes. There are friendship issues involving trust and loyalty and differing agendas. Since it begins in 1974, cultural issues such as single motherhood, women's rights, abortion, and attitudes toward long hair and leather feature.


Yes, many commercial fiction genres such as fantasy and suspense and romance also include real issues, as well. The difference is how much? Is it background for the story or it an integral part of the story? If you take it out, does the story change? Do the characters change?


I would urge publishers and authors to be careful about defining their genres so readers are better informed as to just what they're getting. As a reader, I would be dismayed to buy a book marked as mainstream and get a contemporary, which I think is sometimes happening. And no matter what anyone says, I don't see vampire fiction as coming close to being "mainstream" fiction. Mainstream fiction is reality fiction. Some may argue with me, but I don't happen to believe vampires are reality.


This blog has been given two awards!  Stay tuned to the next post for more info. Many thanks to A.L. Marquardt for the honor.


Unknown said...

Great post! I had the same issue when deciding on the genre of my debut novel. The "contemporary romance" label gives readers the impression that it's bodice-ripping and Fabio on the cover, which isn't my book at all (not that there's anything wrong with ripping bodices or Fabio). My book is a love story with a social message, so it was hard to label me. Now we have New Adult, which just confuses things even more.

LK Hunsaker said...

Sydney, thanks for coming by and pulling my attention back to this post! It's great to find another author who may be writing "my" mixed genre. I'm still, after over three years of writing this post, unsure how to label myself. I see another blog post coming on. ;-)