Tag Archives: literary fiction

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.


If you would like news about new releases, promos, and previews of future projects, please sign-up for my newsletter.

newsletter button

Advertisements

3 Comments

Filed under Writing

On Being a Female Writer

The other day, I was required to read Virginia Woolf’s “Professions for Women” and A Room of One’s Own for my Women and Autonomy class.  I’ve read them both several times over the course of my schooling, but after publishing, I think they resonated more.  Both pieces discuss the issues and hindrances women have in the world, particularly the writing/publishing world, and despite the works being written about eighty years ago, I think a lot of the problems still persist.

Woolf discusses the prejudice women face when writing because the literary canon is male-dominated.  The publishing world was established by men, for male works, and often the only way for women to enter that field is through subversion.  In the 19th century, the Bronte sisters wrote as the Bell brothers in order to publish their works, and today, writers like J.K. Rowling use initials when publishing in fields that are “not for women,” like science fiction and high fantasy.  If Rowling was writing romance, chick lit, or bodice-rippers, then she could have easily used Joanna Rowling, but because she was writing a story about a young boy in a magical setting, her publishers believed her book wouldn’t sell as well with a woman’s name on the front. Pfft, I mean, women don’t write fantasy well, right? She adopted the initials J.K., which relate back to her real name, but they also harken back to J.R.R. Tolkein, one of the fathers of the fantasy genre.  When Rowling decided to branch out into crime novels, she switched pseudonyms to a outright male name.  Why would she do that if her name is already famous and would draw crowds? Well, crime fiction is another genre where women are often kicked to the curb.  Unless you’re someone like P.D. James (neutral pseudonym) or Sue Grafton (whose female detective hit me as a man masquerading as a woman), you will probably not be taken seriously. To break into this genre, Rowling and/or her publishers believed she had to be a man to do so.

Sadly, I have seen this in real life.  At a book fair, we were rained out, so I was parked inside next to a huge table of female romance writers.  As people walked past my table where I sat with my boyfriend (who came as a second set of hands and a coffee-runner), they asked about my little brown book… to my boyfriend.  Quite a few people thought he was the author.  I wondered why, especially when I was the one trying to engage customers. Did they think I was some lackluster Vanna White? My hypothesis is that my little brown steampunk novel is not what one would expect from a female writer. No stock photos of women in ballgowns or half-naked couples, which is what people seem to expect from female authors.

I recently read an article saying that in the New York Times’ book review section, books by men make up sixty-something percent of the reviews.  Why would there be such a disparity?  Men’s work couldn’t possibly be that much better than women’s writing, but the explanation may lie in what the New York Times deems worthy of review, literary fiction.  The definition they are using of literary fiction is a novel that doesn’t fit any genre conventions (no wizards, no space travel, no steam-powered devices, and no straight up romance. Plot vs. character driven is irrelevant at this point). It seems men write genre fiction and women do not. This little tiff between lit and genre can be seen in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Buried Giant and how he made the comment that it wasn’t fantasy and that his previous book wasn’t scifi when the book had elements of it.  Ishiguro is automatically a literary fiction writer despite the fantastical elements in his work while a writer like Ursula Le Guin openly states her books are scifi.

Why is Le Guin okay with her books being “genre” fiction while Ishiguro isn’t? Because genre fiction is the niche women have carved for themselves over the last century.  Even though men still dominate certain genres, women authors are more likely to be found in the genre categories of Amazon than men. Even though amazing authors like Le Guin, Rowling, and Rice write in this area, the canon and literati consider it lesser than “literary” fiction.

The same is emerging with self-publishing. More women are self-publishing than men.  Why? Because they can subvert the traditional publishing industry, which has not been as open to them as it has been for men, and self-publishing is the niche where they can succeed.  Strangely, Woolf self-published all those years ago.  She had the right idea, and it’s lasted until today.

4 Comments

Filed under Writing

“Is it Literary Fiction?”

**To preface, I am saying literary fiction not in a plot v. character driven way since many books have both now regardless of genre, but I mean realism (lit fic) versus a story with a genre aesthetic (genre fic)**

I was sitting in my grad school class, Women and Autonomy, discussing how women are often expected to write certain genres or certain stories and suddenly my work was brought into the conversation.  I mentioned how at a book fair, quite a few people assumed by boyfriend was the author because The Earl of Brass is not only scifi but has a brown cover and is told partially from the point of view of a man. My professor remembered that I write steampunk and mentioned how that genre often gives women a greater prominence and strength than many other scifi or fantasy subgenres.  As she spoke, a voice piped up from the end of the conference table. Continue reading

9 Comments

Filed under Writing

You Are What You Read

tbr pile oct 30What do your reading choices say about you?  Since beginning graduate school, I have been turning this question over in my mind as I listened to others in my classes mention who their favorite authors are.  Most of them are people I have never heard of or read but are rather famous in the contemporary lit world.  Typically, I hold my tongue and don’t mention what I read for fear of being ridiculed or looked down upon.  This led to a greater question: why do people read certain books?

Do people (especially those in academia) read for fun or do they read certain books because they feel it is expected of them?  As I continue my journey through the MFA in Creative Writing program, I find myself wondering what my professors read, especially when they are writers or poets as well.  What we read automatically becomes ingrained in our beings and eventually comes out in our writing. I can attest to the fact that when I read a book I love, I am inspired to write and often I will lean toward that genre or some theme found in that work.  If I read a book I had to drag myself through, it typically slows my writing to a crawl.  Oddly, while I didn’t love reading Virginia Woolf for the most part, her works had a huge influence in the way I deal with close narration and “head hopping” as others call it. Continue reading

7 Comments

Filed under Personal Life, Writing

Straddling the Genre Line

litvgenrThe phrases “genre fiction” and “literary fiction” strike fear into my heart.  There’s a constant tug and pull in the literary world between what is of the higher art and what is considered beneath the establishment.  What should be valued more? Entertainment and enjoyment or the more “artistic”, philosophical, cerebral side of literature. Being a graduate student studying creative writing, I cringe when people ask what I write.  I am already anticipating the raised eyebrows and disapproving looks when I say, “Well, it’s technically science fiction or historical fiction.”  Instantly, it is discounted as trope-laden, cliche genre fiction. Continue reading

2 Comments

Filed under Writing