Mainstream fiction encompasses all fictional works that are not published as genre fiction, which is geared to specific markets. Mystery and detective fiction, Westerns, and science fiction are among the most notable examples of genre fiction. Such labels no longer have anything to do with quality or popularity but with the niche into which publishers feel a particular book might fit. Despite what his legions of fans might say, best-selling author Stephen King writes mostly genre fiction, not mainstream fiction, because his horror novels are published and marketed to a huge but specific audience. In contrast, authors such as Philip Roth and Alice Munro produce mainstream fiction, or literary fiction, as it is often designated by critics and reviewers.
For a long time distinctions between mainstream and genre mattered greatly, and sophisticated readers avoided genre fiction. However, sometime around the middle of the twentieth century, barriers between “highbrow” and “lowbrow”—that is, between critically regarded and popular fiction—began falling. It may have been the end of World War II, which brought so many changes to the United States, as to other Western countries, but whatever the causes, the once-rigid divisions that had existed for more than a century between what critics separated into “literature” and “mass culture” were erased. Then, the subgenres of American literature—not only mysteries but Westerns, science fiction, and...
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