The conventions for mainstream novels are not as rigid as they are for genre fiction. Mainstream novels are sold either in hardback or rack-sized paperback. The recently released mainstream novels are usually found in bookstores, usually near the front door, usually in large stacks or in those cardboard display boxes they call kiosks. Mainstream novels often are the ones backed by the publisher with gargantuan promotional budgets.
Mainstream novels are sometimes glitzy melodramas that feature limousines and high living. Glitz novels are usually set in places like Monte Carlo or Buckingham Palace or the Mexican Riviera, and involve characters brimming over with naked ambition.
Mainstream novels may also be about the immigrant experi ence, such as Howard Fast used to write and Amy Tan writes now. The immigrant experience is about coming to terms with the culture shock of coming to America. Americans love them: These novels let us look at ourselves through others' eyes.
A huge proportion of mainstream novels is called "women's fiction." These novels usually involve stories of marital problems, divorce and adultery, or mother/daughter relationships. Sometimes these novels are marketed as rack-sized paperback originals and may on the surface appear to be genre novels, but they're not. They don't have strong conventions and they don't follow formulas.
Mainstream novels often have more moral ambiguity than genre novels, which tend to be clearly good versus evil stories. In mainstream novels the characters are more fleshed out than they are in genre novels. A mainstream novel about a detective, as an example, might show the detective at home with his wife and kids, and would exploit other conflicts between, say, the detective and his wife, besides the murder investigation that would dominate a genre novel.
Mainstream novels often have a huge cast of characters. The lead characters are usually well educated, often at Ivy League schools. Frequently one of the delights of a mainstream novel is the setting, which is usually in some glamorous industry—high finance, high fashion, photography, and so on. Life in the mainstream is lived in the fast lane—most of the characters have lots of ready cash. Mainstream novels almost always end happily.
Some genre book authors who have "broken through" are considered mainstream. Sue Grafton, Robert B. Parker, Dean Koontz, Tom Clancy, Danielle Steele are all writing genre novels, but they have broken through and are marketed as mainstream.
Sagas and historical novels are sometimes considered genre novels, sometimes mainstream. Genre writers are often advised to write historicals and sagas as a way of breaking into mainstream.
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