Genre Fixation: Upmarket Fiction

In several posts, I have raged against the literary fiction v. genre fiction situation in the publishing world. One is held in high regard yet is often boring, the other is derided as trite or too commercial. As a writer who finds herself stuck in the middle of these two extremes and utterly frustrated by the hundreds of descriptors for genre and style, I never felt my work fit in any one category.

This week I discovered a new genre, upmarket fiction. This is the definition from editor Robb Grindstaff, “From an audience perspective, upmarket means fiction that will appeal to readers who are educated, highly read, and prefer books with substantive quality writing and stronger stories/themes. Upmarket describes commercial fiction that bumps up against literary fiction, or literary fiction that holds a wider appeal, or a work straddles the two genres.” The Book Genre Dictionary defines it as “Books in the upmarket fiction genre are made up of stories that merge the commercial and literary genres. The books appeal to well-read, sophisticated readers who want a high quality and complexity of writing, but that also have strong characters and plot. Upmarket genre books are often book club titles and inspire not only enjoyment of the story in a reader, but thought and discussion as well. The books consist of many layers of meaning and emotion, making them more complex.”

I must admit that I saw the definition and went, YES! This is what I have been looking for when describing my work. I’m not all genre and I’m not all literary, I’m somewhere in between. It’s always disappointing when readers see steampunk or historical fantasy and assume it will be action-packed. Sorry, readers, mine is not. There is action, but I find myself more focused on my characters. What are they going through? How are their lives affected by the events of the story? How are they changing through each story/trauma? I like to think of my characters are humans rather than archetypes or unchanging figures, which you sometimes see in suspense or action series where the main character goes on adventures through dozens of books. They stay in character for the entire series, but they do so at the expense of growth.

At its heart, I think this is what upmarket fiction is. It’s a book with genre fiction aesthetics (such as being set in a fantasy world, alternate history, or dystopia), but rather than focusing on the action only, the author pays more attention to the characters and plot than how much action drives it. The downside to upmarket is it sounds a bit… snobby. The main issue is where the definitions suggest only highly educated people will like upmarket, but I think what they really mean is people who want more than just 300 pages of action. Upmarket readers want a deeper connection to the plot and characters. They value complexity in not only the characters’ psyches but the plot. They want a book that makes them think.

I also tend to be a reader of upmarket fiction. I get frustrated with literary fiction when it’s a hundred pages longer than it ought to be and tends to ramble. With genre fiction, I get frustrated when the characters don’t change or don’t react appropriately to the horrors they are dealing with. A monster just tore his best friend to shreds, yet he decides to make out with his girl friend and only mourn his loss for two sentences. I need more substance but not the point of literary fiction where it once again becomes insubstantial.

Some upmarket books would be: The Golem and the Jinni, Water for Elephants, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, and The Left Hand of Darkness.


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3 Comments

Filed under Writing

3 responses to “Genre Fixation: Upmarket Fiction

  1. I could never describe my work as “Upmarket Fiction”: not because it isn’t about character (because it absolutely is); not because it isn’t well written (I have an extensive vocabulary and I’m not afraid to use it); not because it’s “not commercial” (racism, sexism, gender politics etc etc) but because the term sounds (sorry) totally elitist and snobby.

    It actually makes my skin crawl.

    • Kara Jorgensen

      Sadly, I completely agree =/ I wish there was a better name, like hybrid lit or something like that. I feel conflicted actually using it on my bio or descriptions because, as you said, it sounds elitist, but it does narrow down what it is and would at least warn people that they aren’t getting a lot of action in my case.

  2. Thanks for sharing, this reads relevant and well written indeed. I think the merit of the word is that it matches the reference frame of agents or lit mag editors who read (or skim) fiction by dozens or hundreds.

    I tend to put front and center a hint like “slipstream” or “humor.” In the market flavored perspective, different slipstream writers write in different shades of the spectrum between mainstream and literary (Selma Lagerlöf became the first woman to win a Nobel prize a century ago, and I think much of F.S. Fitzgerald’s prose was “upmarket+” , too.)

    That said, I try to avoid combining because “upmarket slipstream” would have some ring and tone of a twice-over-tautology:) plus uber-categorization:) I prefer to pick one, depending on topic and expected readers.

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