Defining Genres: Literary, Upmarket, and Commercial Fiction

by Jun 14, 2023Genre, Musings

I write upmarket fiction and prefer to read it as well, but it’s very much “genre” upmarket fiction. But what distinguishes upmarket fiction from literary fiction and commercial fiction? What the hell distinguishes “genre” upmarket fiction from regular upmarket fiction? Let’s explore.

Put simply, upmarket fiction is fiction that falls somewhere between literary and commercial fiction. Usually, this type of fiction mixes a more commercial plot with “elevated,” more literary writing and a deeper, more nuanced theme and characters. Upmarket fiction is often considered the best of both worlds, with such novels claiming a good share of the bestseller lists.

Some popular upmarket fiction books include:

  • The Secret History by Donna Tartt
  • The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
  • The Help by Kathryn Stockett
  • Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
  • The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

An upmarket fiction snob might describe this type of fiction as “like literary fiction, but interesting” or “like commercial fiction, but well-written and deep.”

Now, obviously, literary fiction can be interesting and commercial fiction can be well-written with strong themes and characters. To a large extent, what ultimately differentiates upmarket fiction from literary fiction and commercial fiction is how it’s marketed. That’s really why the term exists—to help readers find a certain kind of book.

Mainstream Upmarket Fiction vs. Genre Upmarket Fiction

R. F. Kuang’s The Poppy War could have been marketed as upmarket fiction, but instead, it’s considered fantasy commercial fiction.

Ditto for Jane Eyre, yet it’s presented as literary fiction.

But why is that? Here’s where I differentiate “genre” upmarket fiction (what I aim to write) from what’s generally considered upmarket fiction.

If you look at a list of upmarket fiction books, you’ll notice that they’re almost always set in the real world, even when they have speculative elements like The Night Circus does. I’d argue that this is because publishers created the term “upmarket fiction” to describe a book that would appeal to a general audience. These books would be a good pick for a book club (hence the more or less synonymous term “book club fiction”). Despite its name, commercial or “genre” fiction isn’t written for mass appeal: it’s written to appeal to a specific kind of reader.

So books like The Poppy War, despite having many elements of literary and commercial fiction, end up being shelved with the other fantasy books. At the end of the day, its focus on magic, warring fantasy nations, and rather bleak depictions of violence and suffering wrapped up in three thick tomes wouldn’t appeal to a general audience. It would appeal to grimdark fantasy readers. This is genre upmarket fiction.

I also intend to appeal to certain readers and not others. It’s hard to do otherwise when you write erotic dark fantasy and erotic horror. I identify my writing as upmarket mostly for myself—to remember what I’m aiming for in my brand and for my own satisfaction.

Here’s how I personally define each term, in ways that illuminate why I choose to identify my stories as upmarket:

  • Literary Fiction: Literary fiction values art above entertainment. It’s most concerned with beautiful language, exploring themes that tackle big questions about the human condition, and diving deep into complex, often unlikeable but realistic characters. Literary fiction writers usually get recognition through awards and generally aim to sustain themselves through teaching, grants, and possibly editing services.
  • Commercial/Genre Fiction: Commercial fiction values entertainment above high art. It’s most concerned with accessible but engaging writing, giving a specific group of readers more of what they crave, and creating likable and relatable protagonists. Commercial fiction writers usually get recognition through sales and raving fans. They generally aim to sustain themselves by writing full time, possibly with supplemental income from other writing-related activities.
  • Upmarket Fiction: Upmarket fiction values art and entertainment about equally. It aims for fine writing craft and wants to tell original stories that may challenge genre conventions, but it embraces strong external plots to keep readers hooked. Successful upmarket fiction writers usually get recognition through traditional publication and bestseller status. They also tend to win genre awards, such as the Bram Stoker Award (for horror) and the Nebula Award (sci-fi and fantasy).

I aim to write erotic fiction that’s more than mindless smut, but I also wouldn’t call my work plain old dark fantasy because it doesn’t hit all of the classic ideas about the genre. I wouldn’t call it horror because it rarely focuses on scaring or disturbing readers. I just want to write pretty and up the titillation factor by creating deep characters who have complicated relationships with each other.

At the end of the day, my main goal really is entertainment—I just find a good dose of complexity, nuance, and strong writing craft entertaining.

How about you? Which of these three categories would you say your writing falls into? Or which is your favorite to read?