Jul 26 2008 10:35pm

That's just scenery: what do we mean by "mainstream"?

In the Handicapping the Hugos thread, there's a discussion of what "mainstream" means.

In the simplest sense, "Mainstream" is everything that is not genre. It's a marketing category like "mystery" or "SF" or "chicklit" or "literary fiction". It's everything that's mimetic. That's a fairly useless category, though, because it's too huge. We joke about simplistic equations like "If you loved Dragonflight you'll adore Mission of Gravity" but categories exist to help people find books they'll like, and "If you loved Middlemarch you'll adore Rainbow Six" isn't going to do much for anyone. Anyway, marketing categories may be useful for finding books, but they're not interesting to think about as edges of genre.

Mainstream is a term from within SF culture. Mainstream writers don't know they're mainstream, and I believe Tor (which started off publishing mostly fantasy and SF) is the only publisher to label a portion of its list "mainstream." Mainstream is defined in opposition to SF. Damon Knight famously said that SF is what we point at when we say SF, and mainstream is the same, it's what we (SF readers) point at when we say mainstream. 

What I find interesting is when there are books that are "obviously" SF but that some people think are mainstream. 

I think what people mean when they say The Yiddish Policeman's Union (an alternate history about a Jewish state in Alaska) is "mainstream" is that it has mainstream sensibilities, mainstream expectation, and, most of all, mainstream pacing. They may also mean that it had mainstream publication and that Michael Chabon is a writer who made his name selling mimetic fiction -- which is still true even though his last three books have been genre and he's  spoken well of SF and even joined SFWA. I just made this kind of argument myself in that thread when I said that Ian McDonald was a long-standing SF writer who went to cons. The status of the author shouldn't make any difference... except that it kind of does. If some people are detecting mainstream sensibilities in Brasyl (a novel about quantum alternities in a historic, present and future Brazil) then I suppose they are. I don't know how, and I'd be interested to know how, because I just don't see it.

Samuel R. Delany has talked about the importance of reading protocols, and reading SF as SF. I tend to read everything as SF. 

When mainstream writers come to write SF, it's normally the case that they don't understand the idioms of SF, the things we do when we (SF readers) read SF. This is very noticeable in things like Marge Piercy's Body of Glass (published as He, She and It in the US) where Piercy had clearly read Gibson but nothing much else, or Doris Lessing's Shikasta and sequels. The mainstream writers know how to do all the basic writing stuff, stories and characters and all of that, sometimes they know how to do that really well. They really want to write SF -- in Lessing's case she clearly admires SF -- but they don't know how SF works. They explain too much of the wrong things and not enough of the right things, they come up with embarrassing acronyms (SOWF, the "spirit of we feeling" from Shikasta, is burned onto my brain) and they don't understand how to put things over. They don't get the thing I call "incluing", where you pick up things about how the world works from scattered clues within the text. I don't feel that Chabon has this problem in the slightest, because he is an SF reader and knows how to inclue -- indeed I very much admire the brilliance of his worldbuilding -- but he's very unusual.

I had a great revelation about this some time ago when I was reading A.S. Byatt's The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye. This is a mainstream story in which a female academic buys a bottle containing a djinn and gets it to give her wishes. It's a mainstream story because she finds the bottle on something like page 150 of 175. In a genre story she'd have found the bottle on the first page. It has mainstream pacing and expectations of what's important. The story is really about how simple answers are not fulfulling. The djinn is a metaphor in exactly the way Kelly Link's zombies aren't a metaphor. People talk about SF as a literature of ideas, as if you can't find any ideas in Middlemarch or Rainbow Six! I don't think it's so much the literature of ideas as the literature of worldbuilding.

In a science fiction novel, the world is a character, and often the most important character.

In a mainstream novel, the world is implicitly our world, and the characters are the world.

In a mainstream novel trying to be SF, this gets peculiar and can make the reading experience uneven. 

In the old Zork text adventures, if you tried to pick up something that was described but not an object, you'd get the message "that's just scenery". The difference between a mainstream novel and an SF one is that different things are just scenery.



Fragano Ledgister
1. Fledgist
I think you've pinned down very clearly why I could never get into Shikasta -- I was trying to read it as SF, and it really wasn't; I just couldn't get through the dissonance.
eric orchard
2. orchard
It's funny. When we say "mainstream" referring to comic books we mean flying guys in tights and "alternative" comics have always been more about real life.Wow! Difficult term.
Arachne Jericho
3. arachnejericho
I think I understand what you mean by "reading as SF", and I think you're right about scenery in SF versus scenery in mainstream.

It explains a lot about my reading preferences, for whatever books are around (SF or not). I want both characters and world. A strong emphasis on only one or the other puts me off; it isn't what I want out of fiction. And a disjoint emphasis, where both are strong but don't intertwine well, puts me off too.

And "world" I tend to frame loosely. I know a lot about a University town in the Midwest with a church on every street corner; I'm getting to know more about living on an expensive island in the Pacific Northwest that's an hour out from a nearby Pacific Northwest coastal city in America.

However, I know nothing about South America; nothing about the South Pole; nothing about living on a ship; nothing about living in someplace like New York.

I know a lot about developing software in a rather unique place, but I don't know it in other differently unique places, or in a start-up (which is a totally different animal). I know nothing about the world of media; or the courtroom; or being a bodyguard.

To me, those contexts, both locational and cultural, that I don't know are a bit alien; not as alien as the moon or space, but alien enough. A writer who can't bring any of the above to life in their work is not one I want to read.

And I have a predilection towards character drama. Complex characters; fun characters; people I'd love to cheer on, or hate, or (in the best cases) both. And all interacting with each other. It's a very strong draw for me, though not strong enough if their surroundings aren't also strong.

I guess I want the world and the characters to be on balance with each other in importance; at which point I tend to label the work, whatever it is, as "Mind-blowingly Awesome" (not to be confused with "mind-blowing" or "awesome" alone).

American Gods and Brasyl have that sort of aspect to me.

On the other hand, maybe I'm just staring intently at the backdrop painting.
David Dyer-Bennet
4. dd-b
As I remember it, a couple of John D. MacDonald's SF books suffer badly from his not really understanding SF. I love the Travis Magee world, but his SF not so much, no.

Wikipedia thinks "mainstream" is a term from literary criticism. The 47 million hits in Google strongly suggest it's not "our" term.
5. rogerothornhill
My favorite pair of books to compare on this is Dick's The Man in the High Castle and Philip Roth's The Plot against America. When Roth's book came out, I was astonished that, not only was he unaware of Dick's book, but so were virtually all of his reviewers. It was as if those who read Roth don't read Dick or vice versa, which wasn't true of a lot of the people I know but was apparently true of those who do write reviews.

Ultimately, I think the way you lay out the difference between the two kinds of book here is great, but in this particular pairing I'm not sure how I'd apply it. I'd be tempted to call both books "mainstream," which may be one of the reasons why so many of the hardcore Dick fans I know consider Man in the High Castle to be one of their least favorite of his books.
6. Randolph
In sf, as in historical fiction, the world is implicitly our world too, so I think the distinction as you've set it out is problematic. Perhaps the way to look at it is as a difference in philosophy; it is common in sf to accept more possibilities in "the world" than in "mainstream" fiction and, furthermore, to accept that a scientific understanding of the world is a way to order those possibilities.
Niall Harrison
7. niall
"is that it has mainstream sensibilities, mainstream expectation, and, most of all, mainstream pacing."

Yes to this, and the idiom stuff later, as the general problem, but I think there are more mainstream novels that don't have these problems recently. Tim Holman talked about this sort of book in a recent SF Signal Mind Meld about controversial books, which I temporarily can't find the link for; from memory, he said that he thought the next controversial book would be a pure sf blockbuster published as mainstream. Interestingly, I just read Nick Harkaway's The Gone-Away World; it has fewer mainstream cooties than any other mainstream-published sf novel I have ever come across. It is primarily interested in worldbuilding, plot, and explosions (and ninjas); and it is not straightforwardly metaphoric or allegorical. It's also pretty good.
Jo Walton
8. bluejo
Niall: I agree that this seems to have become less of a problem recently. I think The Yiddish Policeman's Union and to a slightly lesser extent Never Let Me Go are SF novels that happen to be written by people outside genre, and I deliberately didn't get into the issue of Oryx and Crake above. "Mainstream cooties" seems like a great way of putting it.

DD-B: I'm not sure those 47 million hits are meaning the same thing by it that we mean.
Wesley Osam
9. Wesley
Randolph: In sf, as in historical fiction, the world is implicitly our world too, so I think the distinction as you've set it out is problematic.

I think the distinction is: In mainstream fiction, the world is (or is intended to be) the world as it is.

In historical fiction, the world is the world as it was.

In science fiction, the world is the world as it might be.

And then you have alternate history, about the world as it might have been; and fantasy, about the world as it definitely isn't.

Not all genres have anything to do with this scheme. A mystery is defined by what happens, not the kind of world it happens in. A horror story is defined by how it makes the reader feel.
Debbie Moorhouse
10. GUDsqrl
Reading as SF is where I fell down with a litfic book I was reading recently. As litfic I'm sure it was fine (altho' the symbols didn't seem to symbolise anything); as SF it failed miserably. Started with a dream! then the protagonist waking up! and then loads and loads of reminiscences! Go away nasty litfic.

@arachnejericho: The South Pole is cold, it keeps moving, and is at such high altitude that you really need oxygen to function.

@rogerthornhill: Yes! I'm definitely one of those for whom High Castle is a least favourite Dick book. Give me Scanner Darkly any day.
11. vcmw
I think my problem with much realistic contemporary fiction is that I expect its characterization to do double duty. I expect the level of psychological insight into the characters to be really high, because I feel the story should compensate me for the lack of plot pyrotechnics.

Books written in previous historical eras get a pass on this from me because I assume that they are teaching me something about the assumptions common in the era when they were written.
eric orchard
12. orchard
I like the idea that SF is about the world-building. That's what's most important to me, although that would include fantasy.
David Gerrold in Worlds Of Wonder defines SF as being "an extrapolation of the question 'what if?'"
And James Gunn in The Science Of Science Fiction Writing defines SF as " The fictional exploration of the unknown"and "an understanding through science"
Orson Scott Card in How To Write Science Fiction And Fantasy defines it as "all stories that take place in setting contrary to reality" He goes on to say it needs a mix of the strange and the familiar. I think I agree with Card's definitions the most,or it's the one I find most appealing.
Jo Walton
13. bluejo
VCMW: Yes, me too. Or rather, I'm only prepared to read mainstream fiction that's absolutely brilliant, whereas my standards for more inherently interesting genres are lower.

There was a time when I read the complete works of Barbara Pym in about a week (which I can't recommend) at the end of which, despite their acute psychological insight, I was desperate to read about something blowing up.
Arachne Jericho
14. arachnejericho
@GUDsqrl re South Pole: Yes, and the land is constantly trying to kill you, like the best of SF colonization fiction. I remember reading Greg Rucka's Whiteout and thinking of how well he both showed the world, as it were, and the characters.

Last night I read Cory Doctorow's When Sysadmins Ruled the World and I don't know how to categorize it. I was quite familiar with the world there (having been a sysadmin once; good gods I hope I never am again) except for the bio-weapons, plagues, and stuff. Was it SF? What about all those bio-plague thrillers---are they SF? Or those blockbuster books with all the weird equippery, James Bond books. Are they SF?
eric orchard
15. orchard
@ arachnejericho: Can someone borrow SF tropes and not be SF? I think what you bring up is really interesting.
Madeline Ferwerda
16. MadelineF
I've been thinking about this since I read Mary Doria Russell(author of "The Sparrow")'s new book, "Dreamers of the Day". It's great. I want to nominate it for awards. But can I count it as SF?

It's mostly invented memoir covering the 1918 flu epidemic, the 1921 Cairo Conference that created Iraq, the Great Depression... Large focus on character and worldbuilding, but the world is one that actually existed. But there's an element of the strange in the way it's being told from beyond death. I'm thinking, it's probably like Alice Sebold's "The Lovely Bones", though I haven't yet read that... But no one suggested "The Lovely Bones" was SF... But TLB is available at Dark Carnival, the best SF bookstore in the Bay Area...
Jo Walton
17. bluejo
MadeleineF: I don't want to consider Russell's other books SF, you know, the ones with the two sorts of aliens...

THE SPARROW is one of those books I loathe with the hot hate that causes a thousand suns to go nova. Don't get me started on it.

I think generally that there are a lot more SF elements going into mainstream fiction these days, but they're mostly not going in from written SF but from movies and anime and pop culture generally.
Madeline Ferwerda
18. MadelineF
bluejo: Alas! I really loved The Sparrow, though admittedly I've only read it once many years ago. (Children of God, not so much.) I'd suggest you might like Dreamers of the Day since it reminds me a lot of Farthing with the good characterization and the lurking doomfilled politics, but I'm not sure if it's something about Russell's style in general that fires you up, and I should do my best to not get you started. ;)

You're probably right about the sources of SF elements; there was a drop in people's acceptance of the fantastic in the midcentury when nerds became shunned, and we're pulling out of that since the late 80s. SF books are still too geeky, but SF movies and TV shows are cool.
Niall Harrison
19. niall
Madeline: For what it's worth, I consider Dreamers of the Day to be a fantasy, not just because the narrator is dead but because the story visits the afterlife in its latter stages, and because the perspective the story achieves could not have been achieved without the fantastic element.
Debbie Moorhouse
20. GUDsqrl
Haven't read The Lovely Bones, but I assumed from the write-ups it was Horror :). How about The Book Thief, which is narrated by Death? I'd put that under Fantasy.

@arachnejericho: The South Pole isn't exactly trying to kill you, but it will, if you let it! There's a wealth of n/f to be read while safe in one's warm home. I find polar exploration fascinating. Hmm, maybe I'll give Whiteout a try.
Jo Walton
21. bluejo
Narrated by Death sounds like fantasy to be, except that James Morrow's The Last Witchfinder is a straight historical novel except that it's narrated by Newton's Principia, and it won second place for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Hard SF last year, so who knows what counts!
Susan de Guardiola
23. Susan
In a science fiction novel, the world is a character, and often the most important character.

That was my problem with YUP in a nutshell: the world wasn't a character for most of the novel. It was a Jewish community in Alaska. Neither Jewish nor Alaska struck me as very unusual or exciting. The whole story could have been set in Brooklyn with only minor tweaks. I found the alternate history aspect essentially irrelevant until the very end of the book, at which point it ended just as I suddenly got interested.

I'd really like to hear some perspective on the book from people who are Jewish (especially Conservative to Orthodox); I wondered if maybe the whole thing appeared much more alien and exciting to people who don't encounter Jewish communities on a regular basis.
Arachne Jericho
24. arachnejericho
@bluejo - that won hard SF? Woah. Neat trick.

@Susan - It wasn't in particular either Jewish or Alaska that was weird and new. It was letting a single culture expand and evolve in a mostly empty space, filling in every niche and role, left alone and to their own devices. You couldn't get that in Brooklyn; you definitely couldn't get it in Palestine. Alaska is probably the closest you can get to isolation without going to extremes (the poles; the deserts; Mars...), thus allowing the author to focus on other things.

It's a bit more subtle than magic descends upon Victorian England. And the pacing and what's shown is very strongly, apparently, Alternative History, or at least I think so as I'm starting to understand which books are labeled AH.

- a, who reads stuff randomly and indiscriminately
Arachne Jericho
25. arachnejericho
@GUDsqrl Whiteout and Whiteout: Melt are graphic novels/sequential art/comics/whatever. They're very good, and got me hooked on everything else Rucka (Queen and Country especially, and I'm told it's like Sandbaggers).
Susan de Guardiola
26. Susan
Ever been to Borough Park or another heavily Orthodox enclave? The Jews in YUP were hardly in total isolation. They were mixing with the native Alaskans and were subject to non-Jewish interference from the U.S. to the point of another diaspora pending. And I do like alternate history, even entirely without magic (Harry Turtledove's How Few Remain is a favorite).


But I really loathed YUP and even found it borderline anti-Semitic, if that's possible for a Jewish writer, with the whole international Jewish financial-political conspiracy business (a theme right out of the Protocols) and the physical repulsiveness of the some of the characters. (Nipples -- male -- like long pink lentils. Can I scrub my brain now?)
Arachne Jericho
27. arachnejericho
@Susan - No, they weren't in total isolation; I said mostly empty space.

And part of the book was Chabon was poking fun at stereotypes, both hardboiled noir and Jewish. And sometimes both at the same time. I don't think that sort of thing is anti-Semitic, not even borderline---but I admit that I don't read very well and would probably miss such cues.

- a, kind of a dumb reader when all is said and done
Moshe Feder
28. Moshe
Jo summed up her excellent essay with:

In the old Zork text adventures, if you tried to pick up something that was described but not an object, you'd get the message "that's just scenery". The difference between a mainstream novel and an SF one is that different things are just scenery.

To which I must respond, "Hear! Hear!"

That really captures the difference beautifully.

Jo goes on to say:

I think what people mean when they say The Yiddish Policeman's Union (an alternate history about a Jewish state in Alaska) is "mainstream" is that it has mainstream sensibilities, mainstream expectation, and, most of all, mainstream pacing.

Yup, all of the above.

They may also mean that it had mainstream publication and that Michael Chabon is a writer who made his name selling mimetic fiction -- which is still true even though his last three books have been genre and he's spoken well of SF and even joined SFWA.

I was interested to learn from an essay in Chabon's new non-fiction collection, Maps and Legends that he may never have thought of himself as a mainstream writer. The first novel he originally intended to write was an SF mystery -- I've told him I'd love to acquire it if he ever decides to write it! -- but he was convinced by his professors that he needed to start his career with a "serious" book. Considering how many of the other pieces in Maps and Legends involve a call for wider appreciation of genre fiction or a passionate defense of it against the mainstream know-nothings, it's hard not to conclude that his self-identification comes down on our side of the genre divide, even as his work seeks to bridge the chasm.

Leaving Chabon for the moment, I've always thought the "literature of ideas" tag was really only apt for SF short fiction. Your suggestion of a "literature of worldbuilding" applies perfectly to our novels. I completely agree that "In a science fiction novel, the world is a character, and often the most important character." That is exactly what mainstream writers and readers so often fail to get.
Rich Rennicks
29. RichR
The literature of worldbuilding is spot on. Part of the reason I read anything is to escape to a world less familiar.

As a bookseller, I'll often find myself (or hear one of my colleagues) describing a book's plot and ending with some version of, "it's a vampire/fairy/horror/SF story and if you aren't into that you won't like it." Which is true, but slightly apologetic/defensive at the same time (mainly because that phrase is only used at the point we realize that the almost-customer has gone all glaze-eyed at the word "fairy/werewolf/demon/whatever"). In future I'll be a little more devious and sing the praises of the author's clever world building -- and if I must mention the fairy/werewolf/vampire word, I'll be sure to compare the book favorably to Michael Chabon.
Susan de Guardiola
30. Susan
Well, I'm in the distinct minority in my distaste for it, and I'll probably get to sit on my hands next week when it wins the Hugo. Maybe I'm the dumb reader!

It may also be that I don't read a lot of noir, or at least don't do so deliberately. (I read almost anything I trip over, but I don't seek out noir as a genre.) Or possibly I'm not well-read enough in Jewish or Yiddish literature to pick up those referents. But I'm not sure how much I can get behind a book that requires a serious background in noir and/or Yiddish literature to enjoy, either.
Arachne Jericho
31. arachnejericho
@Susan - Nah, we are all dumb readers some way or another. I have yet to meet anybody who can get through Latro in the Mist without having their head spin.

I don't read a lot of noir or Yiddish literature, and still enjoy YPU. Mostly I just enjoy that kind of thing with or without those elements; I'm probably more of a mainstream reader than not. I really like character work as much as I like setting work... and perhaps even more than the latter.

I think that's why I eventually found The Last Colony the most re-readable of the Hugo nominees. And of course I have a history with them, from the other two books and novelette.
Bruce Cohen
32. SpeakerToManagers
"Literature of worldbuilding" is an excellent description, but I think there's another piece that's as important: the use of language. Language in SF is part of the incluing process, and simultaneously part of the process of alienation: making it clear to the reader that the world being shown is not the mundane world. This is what Delany was talking about when he compared the mainstream meaning of "Her world came apart" with the several possible meanings that sentence could have in SF or fantasy.

Language is important in SF, though often not given as much respect as it deserves when talking about the craft. One of the things that a writer has to do is persuade the reader to be interested in the world she's built. She has to pace the unveiling of the nature of that world, not so fast that it's an infodump, not so slowly as to make it difficult to understand what the characters are doing and why. One of the tools of that persuasion is the language: new terms, new uses for old terms, descriptions of new things. There's a huge range of techniques to use and a vast number of styles; that's why I think SF and fantasy have a long life ahead of them (unlike other criers of doom): we've barely scratched the surface of what can be done within the genre.
Andrea Leistra
33. aleistra
I agree with almost everything here, and it's very interesting, but I do think "The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye" is very much SF, because Byatt is doing worldbuilding. It's our own world, but she's incluing us and describing it using the language of wonder. That magnificent first sentence:

"Once upon a time, when men and women hurtled through the air on metal wings, when they wore webbed feet and walked on the bottom of the sea, learning the speech of the whales and the songs of the dolphins, when pearly-fleshed and jewelled apparitions of Texas herdsmen and houris shimmered in the dust on Nicaraguan hillsides, when folk in Norway and Tasmania in dead of winter could dream of fresh strawberries, dates, guavas and passion fruits and find them spread next morning on their tables...."

seems to be saying very clearly that this is not a mainstream story. From the very first word it's setting itself up to be read with SF reading protocols, rather than mainstream ones, or at least giving them a nod -- Byatt's using the literature of worldbuilding, as you put it, to build something that turns out to be our own world. (Maybe. Like you I read everything as SF, and after a handful of fairy tales earlier in the collection I saw no reason not to take the djinn at face value.) Which is positively worth of Gene Wolfe.
Jo Walton
34. bluejo
Aleistra: I think what she's saying with the beautiful language there is that there's a metaphorical angle at which our world is like a fairytale. I think that's a lovely observation, but it's quite different from an SF reading protocol.

Byatt's actually an interesting case. She knows quite a lot about fairy tales and the shapes of fairy tales -- as you say, there are actual fairy tales in that collection, ones from _Possession_. She knows a lot about late Victorian angles on the fantastic. But she hadn't gone forward from there into modern SF and fantasy. The characters in _Babel Tower_ and _The Whistling Woman_ who write fantasy are very peculiar, and the sections of the books in the books do not hold up as genre work at all, or not to my eye. On re-read I skip them, and I very seldom skip. Unlike the Victorian fairy tales and poetry in _Possession_, they don't have the right weight for the fabric of the rest of the story.

(P.S. Hello! How nice to see you here!)
Julian Hall
35. Jules
If a mainstream book can take genre tropes and still be mainstream, then the opposite should also be true: an SF book can be set in the real world yet still be SF.

If this is the case, I think Iain Banks is the master of the form. C.f. The Business. If that book isn't SF, I don't know what it is. But there's nothing in it that you could point at as an element that sets it apart from mainstream fiction. Even the most unlikely conceit of the story (a secret organisation that's existed for the best part of two millenia, quietly amassing wealth and influence) isn't without antecedents in mainstream fiction. Yet the book reads as SF in a way that, say, Foucault's Pendulum doesn't.
Jo Walton
36. bluejo
Jules: Yes. The example I always point to is Dan Simmons PHASES OF GRAVITY. It's also possible to look at the Baroque Cycle that way. They're historical novels with an SF sensibility.

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