Ok, this article was originally going to be titled “F*** The Mainstream”, but I had my usual issues with self-censorship and turned the title into something much blander and with much less impact. Incidentally, this also serves as a brilliant metaphor for the main points of this article – namely that, for the sake of your creativity, it can be good to avoid writing and drawing things which are too mainstream.
This article is quite long and it might get slightly political (probably mildly/moderately liberal) too – you have been warned.
Yes, the mainstream is nowhere near as bad as it apparently once was – but it still has it’s problems, although these are often more subtle than they used to be.
Unfortunately, I rarely seem to follow all of my own advice with regard to any of this – and I guess that I’m probably writing this article as much for myself as I am for all of you. Anyway, this is an article about why you shouldn’t write or read too much mainstream fiction (or comics, videogames etc…).
The fact is that the cultural mainstream is often the enemy of innovation, complexity and honesty – it’s also often controlled by large businesses and popular opinon – which is usually swayed by the mass media. It’s all a vicious cycle and it leads to fiction which either appeals to the lowest common denominator and/or espouses a particular morality .
Now, morality might be an odd topic for fiction – but, although it’s not as much the case as it used to be, mainstream fiction and films often seem to have a rather conservative sense of morality. Now, the whole “good guys vs. bad guys” thing is a very well-established trope which has been around since fiction was invented and it’s often essential for dramatic conflict. However, in mainstream shows, this is sometimes taken to extremes (especially when it comes to any vaguely controversial subject).
Thankfully, due to alternative fiction with “anti-hero” characters, this happens nowhere as much these days as it apparently did quite a few years ago – but it’s still there. Good fiction shouldn’t be a moral lecture and the characters shouldn’t be good or evil to an unrealistic extent either. Good fiction respects the reader enough to let them make their own moral judgements about the characters rather than forcing a particular morality on them.
The mainstream media also focuses disproportionately on certain types of people. For example: when was the last time you saw a mainstream TV show or read a mainstream novel where most or all of the protagonists were lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender?
The only TV shows I can think of are “Queer As Folk” [the UK version], “The L Word” and “Torchwood”. These are all LGB-based shows – the only transgender-themed TV shows I can think of are all documentaries/reality TV shows (and they usually have their own set of cliches and problems).
“Queer as Folk” and “Torchwood” were both by the same guy (Russell T. Davies) too. Unfortunately, out of the three examples I gave earlier, I’ve only actually seen these two shows and only “Torchwood” is the only really mainstream one.
This is compared to what? Hundreds of thousands of TV shows with straight and cisgender (non-transgender) protagonists. Yes, statistically, a majority of the population is straight and/or cisgender, but this still means that 10-20% of the audience hardly ever sees any TV shows focused on characters who are like them.
This may not seem like a big thing to some people – but when you’re growing up and/or very much in the closet, then thinking that there is no-one else like you in the world and seeing no-one else like you in the media can be an incredibly alienating experience. Yes, the mainstream media isn’t as bad as it was ten years ago when it comes to this subject, but LGBT protagonists in mainstream movies, novels, videogames and TV shows are still a rarity [especially in movies and videogames].
In short, although it’s not as bad as it used to be, the mainstream is inherently conservative. It moves slowly, but at least it is moving. However, in order for the mainstream to move in more interesting directions – there needs to be a large pool of alternative fiction which mainstream writers can draw from. Which they can incorporate into their own mainstream works in a subtle and gradual way in order to move the mainstream in a more interesting direction.
The fact is that, you, as a writer and an artist can be part of it if you want to. Yes, it may not be as commercial as creating mainstream things and you may have slightly fewer fans (although this isn’t a bad thing, for reasons I’ll explain later) but there are a lot of good reasons why you should avoid the mainstream as much as you can.
Four Reasons Why You Should Shun The Mainstream
1) You’ll have more interesting fans: The fact is that, if people want to read and watch non-mainstream stories, then they usually have to actively seek them out. This usually means that they”ve heard about your story and feel that it will be emotionally-relavent to them and/or it means that they’re a more open-minded kind of reader/viewer. If they like your work, then they’re probably much more likely to geek out about it and appreciate it in an less superficial way. In short, it means that although you will have fewer fans – they will be much more interesting people and they’ll care about your stories a lot more.
2) There is less censorship: I’m not really talking about formal censorship here , but about more indirect extra-legal forms of censorship which the mainstream media suffers from. The fact is that – in many countries- when it comes to writing fiction and making comics, you have more creative freedom than in any other form of art.
For example: if you’re American, then you’re lucky enough to have a constitutional right to free speech. Or, if you’re British, then you don’t have as many free speech rights – but no novel has been successfully banned or prosecuted for “obscenity” since the Lady Chatterley trial in 1960 – however, the occasional non-fiction book still gets censored due to our very unbalanced libel laws.
I can’t speak for the rules in any other countries – but, in quite a few countries, there is often a emphasis on free expression to some extent or another. However, if you live in a country where there is formal censorship of literature for either religious and/or political reasons, then you obviously have to be a lot more careful and subtle if you want to write something which goes against “mainstream” opinions and beliefs.
Ok, so there’s probably very little formal censorship in your country – so why does non-mainstream fiction allow you more freedom? Simple. Publishers, broadcasters and even some websites can censor things for their own reasons. For example: They may not choose to publish something innovative, controversial, alternative etc… because they feel that it either “isn’t commercial enough” or they’re worried about what the mass media might think of it (and the tabloid newspapers in the UK can’t seem to go for more than a week or two without howling and preaching about something or other in the media).
This is probably much less the case than it used to be, for literature at least – for example: a lot of older controversial or very non-mainstream works which have since become classics (eg: anything by William S.Burroughs, Kathy Acker, Hunter S. Thompson, Abbie Hoffman, Patrick Califa, Kate Bornstein etc…) are published by mainstream publishers these days.
However, if you publish clearly alternative fiction either with a small-press publisher or if you self-publish it online, then there aren’t really the same concerns about whether a work is “too controversial” or whether it is “commercial” enough. In short, you have much more opportunities to exercise your right to free speech.
3) You can experiment a lot more: As I said earlier, the mainstream gradually incorporates things from alternative fiction – but it’s often very conservative, both in the political sense of the term and in the creative sense of the term. It doesn’t like to innovate. It would ideally just love to sell you the same thing with a few small superficial changes again and again until it can’t squeeze any more money out of it. Then, reluctantly, it innovates.
When it does something innovative, it’s usually in about the most watered-down and distorted way possible and even this is presented as being “shocking” or “groundbreaking”. This is despite the fact that the same things may have been done years ago in alternative fiction. If you want to stay a few years ahead of the mainstream or like to experiment creatively, then it’s good to stick to alternative fiction.
The fact is that experimentation is vital for creativity and it is also vital for your development as a writer and/or artist too. Without experimentation, art and literature stagnates fairly quickly and becomes very boring for everyone involved.
4) You can be more honest and add more complexity: The mainstream usually has it’s own fixed opinons and morality when it comes to a lot of subjects and it hates complexity too. Yes, this is nowhere near as bad as it apparently used to be with regards to literature – but it still exists to some extent or another. If you want to tell a story which explores the complexity of any particular character, subject or situation and treats the reader with enough respect to make up their own mind about it then you’re probably writing something which isn’t particularly “mainstream”. This is a good thing.
The world is a complex place and everyone has their own opinons and values. If everyone thought the same way – then we’d be living in the kind of totalitarian dystopia that tabloid newspapers, some religious leaders and some politicians want the world to be like.
The mainstream media often likes to present many subjects in very absolutist kinds of ways to some extent or another (usually much more subtly these days). It often fears complexity and ambiguity too. It also likes to present life in a very stylised way (eg: showing what an “ideal” life should look like or what an “ideal” person should be like etc….). This is, quite simply, bullshit.
People are complex, the world is filled with ambiguities and the world is filled with differences and variation- it’s one of humanity’s greatest strengths (even genetic variation is necessary for the survial of humanity). If you ignore this fact and write stories which follow mainstream opinons and ideas about what people should be like, which rely on mainstream stereotypes and mainstream political values – then you are being fundamentally dishonest about life.
Yes, fiction is (by it’s very definition) not factual. But this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t present the ambiguities and complexities of humanity in an honest way. If you’re more honest about humanity and about yourself, then your stories are going to be a lot better as a result. Although they probably won’t be too “mainstream” though.
However, if you’re still able to make honest, innovative and experimental creative works and have mainstream success with it, then you’re either a genius, very lucky or very famous 🙂
Hopefully, one day mainstream culture will be a lot more diverse, open-minded and intelligent (and it’s definately going in this direction gradually).