Genre, Literary, and Upmarket Fiction

For a while now, I've been aware that I don't write what's known in publishing circles as "genre fiction."

Of course, most fiction fits into a genre or at least, a category--they're not necessarily the same thing--but genre fiction, specifically, means that a book is commerical (so, basically, it has a broad appeal) and it fits into specific, easily-identifiable genres--it's a romance novel, it's a thriller, it's a mystery, it's fantasy, horror, sci-fi, blah blah. They're entertaining reads, they're often fast-paced, they satisfy a reader's genre expectations, they have strong writing hooks, and broad audience appeal. Many of my writing friends write genre fiction and that's awesome.

But I was never really sure if I fit into that.

Historical fiction is a genre, but it isn't necessarily "genre fiction." It's not often published in mass market paperbacks, for one thing, and with the higher word count historicals often have, I tend to see them in bookstores in the General Fiction or Literature sections of bookstores. Of course, there are tons of historical romances and historical mysteries and historical fantasies out there and those totally are historically-set genre fiction. (If you know me at all, you know that I devour historical romances).

Then there's the oft-cited literary fiction, which, like, writers get into arguments about what that term means. In short, literary fiction is the stuff you end up studying in school. It's the stuff college writing programs try to program you to write. Literary fiction tends to be quirky, definitely far less plot-driven, introspective. There's a definite dissection of hefty ideas. And there's a big focus on the actual language of the book--I think of extra-carefully-crafted sentences, twenty-dollar words, prose you could bury yourself in because it's so buttery and poetic.

Literary fiction often wins quite a lot of prestigious awards, but it remains hard to identify in clear terms. It's sort of like what Judge Potter said about identifying obscenity--"I know it when I see it."

When I queried The Keegans of Banner's Edge in 2014, I kept noticing the term "upmarket fiction" used in literary agents' descriptions--usually in terms of "I represent upmarket women's fiction." I kind of had an idea of what that meant; the ones that, if pressed, you'd say were just "general fiction" or "women's fiction" or "the kind of thing book clubs would want to read."

Well, some research has borne this out. Upmarket fiction blends genres, but has a high level of writing that is still accessible and appealing to a broad audience, but it can discuss and illustrate complicated ideas. I've never bought a book and said, "Oh, this is upmarket fiction," but quite a bit of historical fiction falls into upmarket fiction.

Of course, none of this is really up to the writer--genre, commercial, upmarket, literary--they tend to be sales categories. And most readers, I don't think, particularly care: they read what they want to and some may read widely and others not so much.

But--for this writer, at least--I believe I am aiming toward upmarket historical women's fiction with my current thang.

Here's a handy graphic from Carly Watters' website:

Futher Reading:
What Is Upmarket Fiction?

Literary, Mainstream, Commercial: What Genre is This Anyway?


  1. All the genres and types of fiction can get confusing and some are down-right foggy and gray definitions. I'd never thought much about upmarket fiction, so this was really interesting.

    1. It's a term I've kept seeing around--and I thought I could slot myself into that category, but yeah, of course, everything bleeds into one another.

  2. This Australian writer I follow categorizes her work as upmarket contemporary women's fiction. She says it's the kind of book women would read in a book club. I can see people getting together to read your work. :)

    Pinning down categories and genre can be surprisingly difficult.

    1. Thanks, hon. Yeah, I'm still not clear on whether an author can call her stuff "upmarket fiction" or whether that's more of a sales definition, but there you go.


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