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 other popular fictional forms—suddenly began finding readers among a much wider audience.
The causes of this social and cultural shift are complex. On one hand, the advent of paperback publishing changed the way the book trade did business because publishers no longer had to rely on hardback sales for their success. A number of publishers started issuing popular fiction titles wherever they could find them. Although cheap chapbooks and dime novels arose during the nineteenth century, modern mass paperback books can fairly accurately be dated from the creation of Pocket Books in 1939, and the appearance at about the same time of Dell, Avon, Ballantine, Bantam, Penguin, and similar paperback lines. By 1960, some twenty thousand paperback titles were in print in the United States. A crime novel such as Mickey Spillane’s I, the Jury (1947) was hardly noticed when it came out in hardcover in 1947 (to mainly hostile reviews), but the twenty-five-cent Signet paperback edition of the book was in its thirty-third printing barely six years later.
On the other hand, novelists in this brave new postwar world began pushing the boundaries of all inherited literary models in new directions. Suddenly, mainstream fiction was adopting the forms, styles, and conventions of what had until then been regarded as subliterary genres. E. L. Doctorow’s first novel, Welcome to Hard Times (1960), was a Western; Kurt Vonnegut’s second novel, Sirens of Titan (1959), was a work of science fiction; and Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn (1968) was a medieval fantasy. Other mainstream writers experimented in other popular forms, even playing with the conventions of literary pornography in works such as the sex spoof Candy (1965) that Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg wrote under the pen name Maxwell Kenton. What had once been a fairly clean line between mainstream fiction and everything else quickly disappeared.
History of the Mystery Form
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