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I think we need to do a little defining of terms here.

Robert says he thinks a lot of people think “mainstream” fiction is a genre, but I’m willing to bed he doesn’t mean mainstream, but contemporary literary fiction.  There is certainly a strain of American contemporary literary fiction–the stuff stemming from the Updike/Salinger tradition, like books by Ann Beattie–that fulfills the definition of genre, but mainstream by definition does not.

Mainstream fiction is first and foremost that fiction for which there are no hard and fast rules of form or content. 

The Sun Also Rises is mainstream fiction, but then so is Gone With The Wind and Valley of the Dolls. 

Mainstream fiction is fiction aimed at a general reader (experimental fiction, like Finnegan’s Wake, is always literary) for which no certain statements can be made about the content, the settings, the narrative arc before we’ve read it.

In genre romance, for instance, we know before we start that the heroine and the hero will end up happily married–but although GWTW has many of the markers of a romance novel when it starts, the hero and the heroine do not end up happily married, and don’t even end up together.  

In the same way, we know in a mystery that the bad guy will be caught and punished and that somebody innocent but wrongly accused will be vindicated in the end.  In The Brothers Karamozov, which in many ways is a classic detective novel, complete with dramatic courtroom confession, the guilty party goes free and a man innocent of the murder is punished for it.

It’s like the difference between poetry written in a standard form, like a sonnet, or in terza rima, and poetry written without such a commitment.   In a sonnet, the octet will be followed by the sestet, the rhyme scheme will be a-b-b-a c-d-d-c e-f-f-f-g-g, the whole thing will be in iambic pentameter and you can count on it all from off.  If I underake nothing but to write a poem in the way that seems best to me, the octet in iambic pentameter may give way to a ten-line second stanza in trophic trimeter and rhymed couplets.   The reader can’t know what will come next, except by reading.

Genres come in stricter and looser forms, of course.  I’m not sure what categroizes “science fiction” these days, except that a lot of it takes place in the future, or in space, and has something to do with technology.   Mystery is somewhat stricter, but only somewhat.  We do expect the bad guys to be caught and punished, but beyond that there seems to be a mystery reader audience for almost anything.  Romance is a much stricter genre, because not only must the hero and heroine end up together, but they must endure a set of mostly predictable obstacles to their love–and especially, the hero must for some reason be cruel and dismissive to the heroine, so that she thinks that she loves in vain and to her own misery for most of the book.

Genres have virutues as well as vices.  Their greatest virtue is that they provide–at least in the looser forms–a framing device that will in and of itself provide an audience for material it would otherwise be impossible to get them interested in.   Lymaree said that she was disappointed when Gregor showed up in  Somebody  Else’s Music, because she knew that meant going back to the same old same old.  I know from having been involved in trying it that no publisher would be the least interested in putting out a straight book about a bunch of ex-high-school queen bees still determined to screw over the one person they hated when they were seventeen.  

And that brings us to the one big drawback of genres, and that is that, in becoming familiar to readers, they also become old.  The other drawback is that the forms always limit the scope of the book.   Maybe it’s just been so long since we’ve seen anything like a mainstream novel with full scope, that we can’t remember what that was like.

I’d like to suggest–for those of you with access to library systems that hold onto their books instead of trash them–a series of mainstream novels by the author Allen Drury published in the Fifties and Sixties.  I actually own a complete set of these, in hardcover, because Bill went out and got them and even managed to get a few signed by  Mr. Drury himself–after I’d practically forced him to read the first one.  Before then, he was convinced that he “hated” “mainstream” fiction, and he was confusing “mainstream” with “literary” too.

The first of these novels is one you might have heard of, because it won a Pulitzer prize and was a New York Times number one best seller.   It was also made into one of those movies with a cast made up of practically everybody you’ve ever heard of.  This was Advise and  Consent, a political novel thinly based on the Alger Hiss case, sort of. 

For those of you who’ve never heard of Allen  Drury, he was widely considered a “conservative” by the end of the Sixties, but it was “conservative” in the old East  Coat Liberal Republican Establishment sense. This is not a man who would have put up with the Reverend  Jerry Falwell for a minute and a half, and the sympathy with which he was able to portray homosexual and bisexual men in an era when being such was illegal and admitting to such was social and political death is truly stnning.

The series concerns US politics in general and the  US response to Soviet expansionism in particular, and it comes with a stirring cast of recurring characters.  The books follow these characters down the years, from the rigidity of Fifties sexual dramas through the mess of  Sixties radicalism through the projected results of al this–and that’s where we get to my point.

The series consists of several novels, ending in two different and alternating “last” ones.  That is, Drury brought the overarching conflict of the series to a final crisis, and then wrote one novel as if the crisis had been resolved one way, and another novel as if the crisis had been resolved the other way.

Since there was no genre imperative here, it was possible for this story to end either way.   There was no way to know in advance which way the story would go.  

The Drury novels now seem to have been out of print for many years, and I  can’t find the ones we have in the house at the moment, but I wonder at the fact that we don’t see more of this kind of thing, more of actual mainstream fiction.  We have literary novels and mystery novels and romance novels and science fiction novels, but nobody seems to be doing any more what Allen Drury did.  Or, for that matter, what Rona Jaffe, Leon Uris, and Irving Wallace did.  

It’s this, I think, that has me going back to nineteenth century novels over and over and over again.   I miss the scope and the openendedness that used to mean fiction to me.  Drury wrote decently good novels, but I liked even bad novels of this kind–I’ve run through three or four copies of The Best of Everything.  

And I have no idea why Drury’s novels are no longer in print when other and less well writtenmainstream novels are (think Valley of the Dolls again, or the anniversary edition of Peyton Place).  Maybe publishers think that the concentration on the Cold War will seem like old hat to too many readers.

But I come back, again, to the fact that novels like thse don’t sem to be published at all any more.  And I think it’s a good idea to ask why not.

But in the meantime,  I’m going to get back to Lady  Glen and Ferdinand Lopez, who is about to get totally, righteously and satisfyingly screwed.

Written by janeh

January 31st, 2009 at 11:06 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Genres'

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  1. OK, “science fiction” is both a story type and a setting, which adds to the confusion–and I’m making up language as I go along because “genre” can also mean either a type of story–think romance–or a setting–think western.
    As a story type, SF is concerned with the consequences of science and the advances of learning–which is why a lot of us would call FRANKENSTEIN the first SF novel. The pace picked up as the 19th Century went on and a lot of people began to realize that the future would be Different.
    As a setting, SF is a story set outside the bounds of our present knowledge–the future, the past–rare but done–a parallel dimension, or just VERY far away. (Fantasy settings violate our understanding of the universe in some way–SF settings are just tera incognita.) By that definition, the first SF is by Cyrano de Bergerac. Yes, he was real, and he wrote the COMIC HISTORY OF THE SUN and the COMIC HISTORY OF THE MOON, both placing satire at a nice safe distance from the 17th Century French court. Swift would follow afterward, and the bishop who told Swift he’d read GULLIVER’S TRAVELS and didn’t believe a word of it summed up the next four centuries of mainstream criticism.
    Now comes the interesting part: BOTH those definitions would apply to Drury’s THRONE OF SATURN, which takes place several jumps ahead of existing technology–more so at the time of writing–off-planet, and in the near future. The “future” portion would apply to all the subsequent novels–at least enough to make it effectively impossible to put late Drury in one category and Tom Clancy’s RED STORM RISING in another–and writing two different conclusions comes VERY close to parallel worlds from where I sit.
    Yet when Jane mentions not reading SF–or what SF she once read–Drury doesn’t enter into the discussion. Why not? Surely not because the nice ladies down at the library didn’t past a rocket on the spine. I suspect it’s because it’s a nice multi-volume largely political saga set close enough to our time that the setting wasn’t a distraction to her–very like the Victorian saga she’s now reading. So, of course, it can’t be SF. Much the same effect is achieved overall by defining genre as “having a predictable ending” so GWTW is a romance, but not a “genre” romance and so forth.

    There is an old joke among SF fans:

    Critic: “All science fiction is junk.”
    Fan: “But this is good!”
    Critic “Then it isn’t science fiction.”

    I’ll go write something harsh about mainstream some other time. Meanwhile, if you think I’m playing games with definitions, try to find ANY definition of SF not written simply to trash the genre which won’t include THRONE OF SATURN.

    And try to define the Palliser saga and the Drury novels in a way which includes both but excludes Tom Clancy’s “Jack Ryan” novels.


    31 Jan 09 at 4:01 pm

  2. Mainstream. Well, if we define “genre” as “having a pat or predictable ending” a lot of good stuff becomes “mainstream” by default. But “genre” already signifies both a type of story and a story setting. I see no benefit in a third purely perjorative definition.

    If we consider that a crime novel is one centering on a crime and a romance novel is one primarily concerned with romance, then being “mainstream” is almost defined by what it isn’t: not a romance; not a crime novel; can’t put the characters in physical jeapordy or it would become an adventure novel, and so forth. Not al of what’s left is contemporary literary fiction–which most certainly is a genre or subgenre–but it does have a certain dreary sameness about it–at least as much as ties together all crime novels, romances or adventure stories.
    With no more exageration than saying that SF takes place on distant worlds and involves technological wonders, one could say that mainstream fiction, like SEINFELD is “about nothing”–low stakes, and a relentless focus on the interior lives of people who, frankly, seldom have an an interesting interior–all of it set in places we know already far too well. At the start of THE DAUGHTER OF TIME Josephine Tey describes Silas Weekley’s latest work, and nails the mainstream novel perfectly. I’d quote it, but I’d be lowering myself to genre.
    All of which may mean no more than that Jane thinks the highest literary accomplishment is imagining oneself inside someone else’s skull, and I don’t even find it a particularly interesting trick.
    de gustibus…


    31 Jan 09 at 11:03 pm

  3. Surely not all novels with crimes are mystery novels, and not all novels with romances in them are romance novels! Science fiction does tend to absorb almost everything involved future or entirely imaginary settings (that is, ‘imaginary’ in the sense that it doesn’t exist, not in the sense that I might set a story in a version of Lisbon that I have necessarily imagined since I’ve never been there). Even with science fiction, there are works that clearly don’t quite fit even though they are set in imaginary places – those old books about various utopias, for example.

    So definitions have fuzzy edges. That’s nothing new – and it doesn’t mean that there isn’t something called ‘Mainstream Fiction’ that does indeed contain some elements of the current genres but is broader and more variable.

    I’m not sure what I’d put in ‘Mainstream’. Best-sellers, presumably. The Da Vinci Code? Mainstream fiction either doesn’t exist much (as Jane suggests), in which case it can’t be ‘mainstream’ or it’s something I don’t read and don’t even notice much on the bookstore shelves.


    1 Feb 09 at 7:34 am

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