I’m wondering how many of you out there (who are not of the writing/publishing world) have heard of the word “upmarket.” It’s one of a bazillion terms that can be used to categorize a book, but there is no section at the local bookstore for it. It’s also a type of fiction that agents, and presumably publishers, are looking for writers to write, since a goodly number of agents I’ve been researching claim they want to represent it.
So what is upmarket fiction?
The simplest answer is that it’s a cross between literary and commercial fiction. Again, in simplest terms, literary fiction tends to be character-oriented and use artistic language, while commercial fiction tends to be plot-oriented and appeal to a wide audience (and generally falls into a genre such as romance, mystery, thriller, science fiction, fantasy, etc.).
Here is a definition of “upmarket” from the blog of book 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.”
Literary agent Sarah LaPolla has this to say about upmarket fiction on her blog: “‘Upmarket’ fiction is where things get tricky. Books like The Help, Water for Elephants, Eat, Pray, Love, and authors like Nick Hornby, Ann Patchet, and Tom Perrotta are considered ‘upmarket.’ Their concept and use of language appeal to a wider audience, but they have a slightly more sophisticated style than genre fiction and touch on themes and emotions that go deeper than the plot.”
I have heard upmarket fiction referred to as fiction that’s appropriate for book club discussion.
I identify my style with the concept of “upmarket.” I can write (I think) a decent sentence, sometimes a highly effective sentence, maybe even the rare beautiful sentence, but the pleasure I derive from writing doesn’t come as much from wordcraft as from themecraft (especially), plotcraft, and charactercraft. My strengths as a writer lie much more to the “idea” side of writing than to the “art” side. As an English major, creative writing MFA, and 14-year English teaching veteran, I am decently well-read, fairly well-educated, and like my fiction (whether I’m reading it or writing it) to make me think for days or weeks after I read “the end.”
HOWEVER. I object to the word “upmarket.” It has a connotation of snobbery to me. It implies that there is a part of the literary market (i.e. there are readers) who are “up,” i.e. “higher,” i.e. “better” because where there is an “up” there is a “down.” Is there one among you who doesn’t picture commercial fiction looking up from the bottom rung of the ladder while literary fiction waves from the top? Do you see “up”market fiction climbing down from literary heights or up from commercial doldrums?
I am sensitive to this literary versus commercial fiction argument, obviously. I grow livid when I hear literary writers sling the poop at commercial writers and commercial writers sling it at literary writers. And the poop does sling both ways. I am so tired of hearing people on high horses make derogatory comments about the writing quality of commercially successful novelists (aka Dan Brown, Stephanie Meyer, even J.K. Rowling) and other people on other high horses saying literary novels are too busy worrying about words to care about plot (yeah, even if true, SO WHAT? ). The truth is there are a variety of readers out there and a variety of writers, and thankfully the world has been forged by the Almighty in such a way that there are books to satisfy everyone’s taste. When I hear literary versus commercial arguments, I am often reminded of those bullies in the schoolyard who have to tear others down to build themselves up.
And then there are more recent folks who like labeling themselves upmarket because it’s better than being literary or commercial. These writers believe themselves the perfect cross between being the 1% and the 99%, too good to be purely literary because they can do plot, and too good to be commercial because they can do fine wordcraft. (Did I mention above that I think my work is upmarket?)
Of course, upmarket is also just a word, just an adjective, no arrogance attached.
I have wondered off my topic. Such is passion.
Although upmarket fiction is a cross between literary and commercial, that doesn’t mean it necessarily appeals to every literary or commercial reader. It’s something in between, for those folks who like to read and write in between. In case you were wondering.
And can there be “upmarket YA”? I’ve never heard the term. YA is YA, even though the books on the YA shelves are just as much literary, commercial, or upmarket as the rest of the fiction world. I’m not talking “crossover” here (which is when YA books also appeal to OAs). I’m saying different young adults prefer to read different things. Where do you think all those adult readers with discriminating tastes come from?
Here are some websites to check out if you want to read more:
Book editor Robb Grindstaff’s blog (mentioned above): http://robbgrindstaff.com/category/upmarket-fiction/
Literary agent Sarah LaPolla’s blog (mentioned above): http://bigglasscases.blogspot.com/2012/01/literary-vs-commercial.html
Writer Margaret Duarte’s blog: http://enterthebetween.blogspot.com/2010/08/upmarket-fiction-where-commercial-and.html
Novel Matters (six contributing writers) blog: http://www.novelmatters.com/2009/04/upmarket-fiction-non-genre-genre.html
Absolute Write Water Cooler (discussion site for writers and other book professionals): http://absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=90147