Upmarket Fiction: The Forgotten Middle Child of the Publishing World
Calling something “commercial” can sound like an insult in some circles, as if it’s a trifling entertainment not worthy of the term “literature.” In other circles, the term “literary” results in a half-stifled yawn, and is considered pretentious. A question you might ask when you’re writing is, "Can a book be both literary and commercial?” The answer is yes: you've just described "upmarket fiction."
While this article won't settle any age-old commercial vs. literary debates, it will help you get a better grasp on how to distinguish both types of fiction — and, above all, it answer the question you’ve been wondering: what is upmarket fiction?
A brief history of the novel — and how terms like “genre” and “literary” came to be
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the novel was considered a genre in itself. It was a relatively new form of narrative, a drawn-out prose detailing fictitious matters. As Joshua Rothman notes in The New Yorker: “When Catherine Morland, the heroine of Austen’s ‘Northanger Abbey,’ is rebuked for reading too many Gothic novels, the proposed alternative isn’t ‘literary fiction’ but non-fiction (a friend suggests she try history). ‘Northanger Abbey’ was written in 1799.”
Things began to change towards the end of the 19th century, with the advent of mass marketing fiction. “Subgenres” of “the novel” began to develop (what we would know simply refer to as a “genre”): fantasy, science fiction, historical, mystery, romance, etc. “The novel” became a money-making institution — hence the term “commercial" — and, as is the case with any institution, when it was found that certain practices were lucrative, they were repeated. Thus, genre tropes started to emerge.
In response to what they viewed as a negative change in the art-form of prose, modernists such as Virginia Woolf began to proclaim that “the novel” was becoming more concerned with manufacturing the notions popular amongst readers of the time as opposed to creating “art” and individual thought. So they established what we now know as “literary fiction.”
Commercial, literary, and upmarket fiction
Today, the distinctions between commercial and literary fiction still exist. Though they have evolved, what hasn’t changed is the blurriness of their distinctions. What has become clear is that there is indeed a large grey area between commercial and literary, which is why the term “upmarket fiction” has been booming in popularity of late. Let’s take a more in-depth look at how these categories are currently defined.
Genre fiction is often lumped in with commercial fiction, because they both typically follow the same golden rule: putting the reader first. The message of the novel is usually directly tied to the protagonist’s journey and the plot: as both unfold, readers should be able to absorb themes or messages with relative ease.
Commercial fiction is usually plot-driven, and involves the protagonist pursuing a goal or overcoming a challenge, with a good amount of action scenes. This plot-focused nature of commercial fiction has led to the common misconception that it’s all about action and overlooks character development. And while it is true that commercial fiction involves rich plotting, that does not preclude there being compelling characters. The stories may prioritize how the character navigates their external settings, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t also have internal struggles. Consider Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games notoriety. While the series is full of action-packed plot, it is Katniss’s resourcefulness and selflessness that allows her break the oppressive system she is living in. While her formative virtues may remain steadfast throughout the novel, her character is compelling enough that she is able to change the world around her.
Examples of commercial fiction: The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, The Shining by Stephen King, Something Borrowed by Emily Giffin
In a nutshell: Commercial fiction has a distinct genre, the story tends to happen above the surface, and the plot unfolds in a way that makes the novel’s themes easy to recognize by the reader. It’s more about what how the character is reacting to events happening in their world.
It’s usually up to the reader to read between the lines to figure out the message being conveyed in literary fiction. You won’t typically find a character or narrator summarizing the lesson you’re meant to come away with. Many different conclusions about the theme of the novel can be reached — as is, of course, the case with any book, but especially with literary fiction.
Literary fiction may pull elements from a variety of genres, but if it contains all the tropes of a given genre, then it is no longer literary fiction but “genre fiction.” Literary fiction also tends to put strong emphasis on character development and creative form and language, sometimes even over the plot. Complex metaphors can therefore be expected, even if such passages run the risk of pausing or isolating the reader.
A common misconception of literary fiction is that it's slow and nothing really happens, plot-wise. Even if it does not focus on storytelling through fast-moving, page-turning plot, a good work of literary fiction will still have a starting point that differs from the ending: something will happen. Consider a “quieter” book such as Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway; we can still see “things” happen. We witness two characters continue to revisit a time from their past, through which we explore themes such as: time, sexuality, mental illness, life and death. Sure, by the end of the novel the external world hasn’t changed much, but the protagonists have.
Examples of literary fiction: To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie
In a nutshell: Literary fiction eludes genre, the story is usually character-driven, meaning the plot is more internal and themes are conveyed beneath the surface. It’s more about the developments happening within the character than the events happening around them.
Upmarket fiction combines elements of both commercial and literary fiction. As mentioned earlier, upmarket is not a genre. It’s an adjective used with other categories or genres to create descriptors like “upmarket contemporary novel," or “upmarket science fiction.” Readers won’t find an “upmarket” category in bookstores or on Amazon, it’s a publishing term used by authors and agents to further classify the market of a novel.
While addressing universal themes or complex concepts with finely-crafted prose, upmarket fiction also ensures accessibility to the general public. It generally strives to be both approachable and poignant. They are often referred to as “book club novels,” because there is subtext to be found, but it’s not buried too far beneath the surface.
Examples of upmarket fiction: The Help by Kathryn Stockett, Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, Me Before You by Thea Sharrock, Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard
In a nutshell: Upmarket fiction addresses complex themes with prose that is more straightforward and accessible, and may or may not include elements and tropes from a number of genres. Emphasis is placed on both the internal and external plots unfolding within the story: the characters’ development is directly linked to what is going on around them.
Examples of upmarket fiction
Here are a few upmarket examples, with brief dissections of the characteristics that make them fit this classification:
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
After the pandemic Georgia Flu collapses civilization, a traveling group of Shakespearean actors roam North America, risking everything for art and humanity.
- While this post-apocalyptic novel is categorized as science fiction and fantasy on Amazon (commercial), it bends and blurs elements of science fiction, suspense, and horror (literary).
- The state of the world plays an important role in the novel and presents obstacles for the characters to overcome (commercial). However, the novel is ultimately about more than simply mere survival. What we learn as the characters develop is that it’s about hope and the virtues inherent in humanity, even in a “ruined world” (literary).
- The novel jumps back and forth in time, strengthening another one of the novel’s themes that a life is the summation of moments (literary).
- At the end of the novel, the loose ends are tied and any remaining questions are answered (commercial).
About a Boy by Nick Hornby
A coming-of-age story sparked by the unlikely meeting of two characters: Will Freeman, an ageing bachelor living off an inheritance, and Marcus Brewer, a twelve-year-old boy coping with school bullies and his mother’s depression. The two meet when Marcus hides from his tormentors at Will’s house.
- The novel is almost entirely character-driven, focusing mostly on the relationship between Marcus and Will.. The plot revolves around how this relationship affects both men (literary).
- The language is contemporary and can appeal to a wide audience (commercial).
- It does not adhere to a specific genre (literary), however it has many of the markings of a “coming-of-age” story (commercial).
Why do classifications matter?
Categorizing your book into one neat category can be difficult, especially when it doesn't fall into just one genre. I wouldn’t envy the job of David Mitchell coming up with an elevator pitch for his genre-bending Cloud Atlas. It’s almost like choosing what to study at university. You feel as though your degree will forever define who you are to employers. It can feel very limiting.
While literary, commercial, and upmarket fiction are not genres in themselves, as an author it is still important to be able to identify which designation best applies to your book. These classifications matter, especially to acquiring agents and publicists, who need them to help market and sell your book to the right people. If you’re self-publishing, it is necessary you know which categories your book should be listed under on Amazon.
Just like with choosing your degree, understanding the market from the outset of the process is crucial. If you’re hoping to make a career off of your novels, you need to study your market, your competitors, and to identify where your story will fit there.
Even if your book is classified as commercial, that does not mean it has less merit as a piece of literature. Commercial and literary fiction both have their place: just like a spoon works better for ice cream and spaghetti requires a fork. Upmarket fiction is kind of like a spork, then: it can be used for either occasions.
The classification is a sales tool — it’s important to know. In the end, if you can write a book that someone enjoys reading, that someone derives meaning from, that challenges someone to think, that helps someone unwind, that’s fun, or sad, or uplifting — in other words, if you can write a book that speaks to someone, then, well done.
Are you still not 100% sure how to classify your novel? Take our quiz to find out!
What are some of your favorite works of commercial, literary, or upmarket fiction? Share them with us in the comments below!