Mainstream vs Popular?

Over on Twitter, Serdar Yegulalp made the observation that “Mainstream” and “Popular” art, while they often overlap, are not the same thing. The former is that which gets widespread attention in the media, while the latter is what actually sells. This is a split that’s been apparent in rock music for years to anyone’s who’s paying attention. “Mainstream” nowadays tends to equate to “Indie”, despite that being one aesthetic of many, largely because that’s what has the greatest appeal to those who write about music in the media. So a mid-level indie act who sell modest numbers of albums and concert tickets get to play on “Later with Jools Holland” and are considered mainstream in a way the far bigger-selling Iron Maiden are not. It’s something most rock and metal fans have learned to live with, though it’s still galling to see the media gatekeepers give so much space to things like Metallica’s appallingly dreadful collaboration with Lou Reed just because Reed is fashionable with the elite tastemakers in a way no metal band can ever be. Metallica themselves never got a look in when they were in their prime.

Even more true in the book publishing world, of course, where “Literary Fiction”, that etiolated genre that pretends it’s not a genre punches way above it’s weight when it comes to critical attention. It’s also why I suspect the fight over the Hugo Awards within science fiction isn’t just a turf war between political tribes. Is there something of a Mainstream/Popular split going on too, with a disconnect between the books and stories that get media attention (and win all the awards), and the books that sell in large numbers? Do the major SF awards disproportionately reward the literary equivalent of “indie music” at the expense of other aesthetics?

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