Entry updated 5 July 2021. Tagged: Theme.
This discussion should be read in conjunction with several others as part of a pattern of reasoning that is most clearly presented in Definitions of SF, Fabulation, Genre SF, History of SF, Magic Realism, Postmodernism and SF, Proto SF and Slipstream SF. It should also be noted that although some writers, like Margaret Atwood, are still identifiably Mainstream Writers of SF when they attempt to compose sf texts, the early twenty-first century has seen such an extraordinary slurring of old boundary lines among the genres that the term seems decreasingly relevant to characterize recent work. It is, therefore, a term best used to describe writers of the twentieth century and their works.
When used of literature, the term "mainstream" refers in its narrowest application to the tradition of the realistic novel of human character; in a wider application commonly employed by the sf community, it denotes all serious prose fiction outside the market genres; in its widest and perhaps most regrettable sense it refers to practically any fiction, serious or otherwise (including Jackie-Collins-style lowbrow bestsellers), outside sf, fantasy, the thriller and the Western. As a piece of jargon, not yet fully accepted into the language, "mainstream" lacks precision; nonetheless, there is a useful distinction to be drawn between writers of Genre SF, who think of themselves as writing sf and whose books and stories are marketed as sf, and those writers of sf works who think of themselves (or are marketed) as simply writing fiction, without adopting either the protection or the stigma of a genre label. If, however, we are to employ "mainstream sf" primarily in opposition to "genre sf" – which we think is the most useful and desirable use of the former term – there is not much point in using the word "mainstream" retroactively to refer to writers like Aldous Huxley in the 1930s, since the term "science fiction" barely existed when he was writing books like Brave New World (1932). It is, of course, possible to argue that genre sf has existed ever since Hugo Gernsback founded Amazing Stories in 1926, but at that time it was a tiny genre, not well publicized. It would make better sense to regard mainstream (that is, non-genre) sf as, say, a post-1937 phenomenon (that being the year in which John W Campbell Jr took over the editorship of Astounding, after which genre sf undeniably became established as a known form), though to name any actual year must be arbitrary.
Certainly, until the sf label was adopted (in the form of the word Scientifiction in Gernsback's 1926 usage) it might be argued that all sf was mainstream, though in recent decades it has just as plausibly been suggested that all mainstream was genre (see also Fantastika, where it is argued that a coherent array of self-consciously non-mimetic genres began to become associated from the early years of the nineteenth century). Sf did exist, notably in the Scientific Romances of H G Wells, the Voyages extraordinaires of Jules Verne, and in much fiction of these and other kinds (see History of SF) in the general fiction magazines, pulp or otherwise, but it had not yet fully evolved into a marketable separateness. Indeed Wells's term Scientific Romance was a good one, and many tales were so described, whether informally or formally, and did belong to an sf-like tradition. But if we regard the scientific romance as prototypical genre sf, then we run counter to a common usage of "mainstream sf" – to mean sf published in books that are not labelled sf – for it was precisely in such books, especially in the UK, that the scientific romance largely appeared. In other words, in many people's usage of the term, the scientific romance is almost by definition mainstream. Any usage which leads to something very like a contradiction in terms is clearly not useful.
Especially in the UK, books written in the tradition of the scientific romance and published as without market labelling continued well into the 1950s, some of the most popular being UK (though not American) releases of novels by John Wyndham. It would clearly be a nonsense to argue that Wyndham was a mainstream writer, especially since, under other pseudonyms, he was also well known in the genre-sf magazines. This example is given only to show that the idea of the presence or absence of genre labels on books as somehow defining their content is unhelpful. Nonetheless, just such judgements as to who is mainstream and who is not have often been made, frequently with the implication that the mainstream writer is thus marginalized. That is why it is more useful to decide who is mainstream and who is not by the presence or absence in the tale of adherence to the protocols of genre sf, rather than the label on the cover.
During the period in which sf was beginning to take shape as an identifiably separate genre, in the 1920s and 1930s, the favourite sf themes with non-genre sf writers who published in book format were: Dystopias; stories imagining life after some sort of Holocaust (see Post-Holocaust); stories creating imaginary societies that satirize our own (see Satire); and stories of future Politics and Future War. (The Lost-Worlds theme was already in decline by the 1920s.) Some such writers from this period, in addition to Huxley, are Karel Čapek, John Collier, Murray Constantine (Katharine Burdekin), Guy Dent, John Gloag, E C Large, Sinclair Lewis, Wyndham Lewis, André Maurois, Joseph O'Neill, J B Priestley, Herbert Read, Upton Sinclair, Olaf Stapledon, Alexei Tolstoy and Rex Warner. Most of these were working in the tradition of the scientific romance. One marginal sf theme whose main development – before, after and during this period – has been more outside the genre than within it is Psychology, under which heading the relation between mainstream and genre sf is further discussed.
The distinction between genre sf and mainstream sf becomes more interesting, because more real, in the 1940s and 1950s. As genre sf became better known outside its immediate small circle of devotees, it also began to feed more from mainstream writing. Huxley and Stapledon probably had a stronger influence on genre sf than any non-genre writers since Wells. However, the traffic was by no means one-way. The number of mainstream writers of sf remained very substantial indeed, but a new distinction became apparent: between those writers whose work demonstrates some knowledge of sf motifs as they developed in genre sf or in the scientific romance, and those who rather cumbersomely re-invent the wheel; one could (quite randomly) take Paul Theroux as a recent example of the latter. But many mainstream sf writers published their work in book format rather than the pulp magazines because it would not have crossed their minds to do otherwise; books were where respectable persons published their fictions. Because sf became a book-marketing category only in the 1950s in the USA (somewhat later in the UK) it would not have occurred to writers like C S Lewis to request that the magic letters "SF" be placed on the covers of their books; if the thought had occurred, it would probably have been dismissed as an irrelevance.
The dominant mainstream sf themes of the 1940s continued to be dystopias (see George Orwell) and tales of the Holocaust and its Post-Holocaust aftermath (see Pat Frank, George R Stewart). But, again, the recitation of names is not very helpful because the phenomenon we speak of was on such a grand scale. Around half the writers discussed in this encyclopedia did not publish their work as genre sf, and often, too, their work does not feel like genre sf. To quote from the Genre SF entry: "... works of fiction which use sf themes in seeming ignorance or contempt of the protocols – these are often works from so-called mainstream writers of sf – frequently go unread by those immersed in genre sf; and, if they are read, tend to be treated as invasive and alien ... and incompetent." This is one of the sadder results of sf's ghetto mentality, though that mentality is not now nearly so aggressively inflexible as it was during the 1940s-1960s, when the use of sf themes by writers outside the genre was considered almost a form of theft in the eyes of an sf community whose love for its genre was often expressed in very proprietorial terms. Even now, similar reservations are occasionally expressed by the sf community about the work of writers like Doris Lessing.
Under the heading Fabulation we discuss a further confusion, common in criticism from within the sf community. This is the belief that sf, by escaping from the here-and-now of realist fiction, was to be greatly admired as spearheading a new, less constrictive, more imaginative nonrealist mode. Sf, on the contrary, lies at the heart of the realist mode; its whole creative effort is bent on making its imaginary worlds, its imaginary futures, as real as possible. The experiments in breaking down realist or "mimetic" fiction were taking place elsewhere; fabulations are fictions distrustful both of the very tools with which the world can be made known, words – which, as T S Eliot said, "slip, slide, perish, / Decay with imprecision" – and as to whether the world can in fact be known. A quite extraordinary number of fabulators use sf motifs, but in the construction of works whose foregrounding of their own artifice is opposed in style and feeling to the traditional mimesis of genre sf; it is unsurprising that sf's conservatives deeply dislike the suggestion that they in any sense share their genre with such writers as John Barth, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Angela Carter and Don DeLillo (to penetrate only a short way into the alphabet). But, confusingly, genre sf has produced quite a few fabulators of its own – J G Ballard, John Crowley, Thomas M Disch, Karen Joy Fowler, M John Harrison, Michael Moorcock, Lucius Shepard, John T Sladek and Gene Wolfe among them – so here, too, the distinctions between genre sf and the mainstream prove elusive.
It was probably not, however, the fabulators that Ursula K Le Guin had in mind when she said: "If the mainstream definably exists, then I think it is itself a genre; one among many ways of writing fiction – one of the many modes I myself work in." This, too, is an arguable case, though Le Guin was probably thinking of the traditional novel of character – which is certainly a genre – when she said it. We bring this up primarily to make the obvious, but perhaps needful, point that the mainstream (like sf) is undefinable and not homogeneous, and indeed contains many genres within it, of which the fabulation and the novel of character are but two, both at times impinging upon sf.
By the 1980s any attempt at protecting the racial purity of genre sf from contamination by the mainstream or by any other genre was more obviously doomed to failure than ever before, for sf was marrying out. The 1980s saw a flood of works (see Fantasy for some examples) where sf was interbred with fantasy, with horror, with Magic Realism, with the thriller, with practically anything available. Postmodernists clasped Cyberpunks in their showy, affectless embrace. Sf's furtive affaires (such as the one it consistently conducted with the historical romance, especially in Time-Travel stories) were now out in the open and legitimate, and so were their progeny.
Sf is and has been a great enterprise, many of whose most remarkable achievements have taken place entirely within genre sf; all those who are part of this phenomenon should feel justifiably proud, and perhaps justifiably angry at the literary world's failure to give them their due. It is sad that equally spectacular sf achievements, outside the genre walls and within mainstream fiction, have not always been recognized by those in the "ghetto" (snobberies cut both ways), but although by the 1980s the quarrel should have become of historical interest only, for the walls seemed to be tumbling down, the first decades of the twenty-first century witnessed continual spats. A Nobel Prize winning author like Kazuo Ishiguro, almost all of whose work since 1995 has been non-mimetic, can still scandalize the more tedious critics. Some still shelter behind those shards left standing, but, if they look, they will see that the traffic is moving freely in both directions.
- Harry Harrison, editor. The Light Fantastic: Science Fiction Classics from the Mainstream (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1971) [anth: hb/]
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