Upmarket

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 readerswho 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?

Thoughts?

 

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

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8 Responses to “Upmarket”

  1. Adriana says:

    On just the most basic of levels, I wanted to toss out there that I haven’t come across the concept of “upmarket” books, even after spending all this time in a publishing program, and currently being knee-deep in a book publishing class. (Then again, said publishing class’s text book references printing on pin-feed paper, so I think we might be a little outdated…)

    I would agree that straight away, the term sounded like one that is only going to promote the divide that seems to exist between “literary” fiction and “genre” fiction. Literally, upmarket sounds like work that is above the regular market, superior in some way, like having a more perfect blend of literary versus genre. I think if we’re ever going to live in a world where authors can write in the style they choose and readers can read whatever they want, both without being criticized for those choices (sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?), that world probably couldn’t function with a concept like upmarket hanging around, because it seems like it will acknowledge and promote the idea that a work that has highly developed language and structure, and a flawlessly mapped out character and plot is immediately a “better” work than one that has only some of these things.

    As a term, and it seems a relatively new one at that, it already appears to have a serious PR problem, in that people trying to bridge the hostilities between supposed genre and literary fiction aren’t going to jump at the chance to have yet another categorization that seems to further the idea of creating dichotomies rather than eliminating them.

    • Jen says:

      Except that I haven’t found anyone anywhere that seems to have issue with the term. Except for you. :) Not that I’ve really looked. Mostly I’ve come across it in agent research, where it’s just used as a neutral descriptor. Regardless, do you think “upmarket” is a kind of novel you like to read?

      • Adriana says:

        I’d like to know who – outside of agents – has heard of the term at all. I think I’ll be asking my book pub class to see if any of them have. It makes sense that agents would be all over it; even if they’re using it neutrally, I have feeling that they like the idea more than they’re letting on, and are perhaps waiting to see what larger reaction there is to the term. Commercial and literary success? I would imagine (perhaps I’m wrong, but I think I’m on the right track) that an agent would love to have a project on their list that they think will do well with both critics and the general market. Sounds like the “perfect” book to me (and probably to publishers as well. Marketing dream.)

        Would I read upmarket books? I have tendency to be more plot driven myself, so I seem to land on the genre side more often than not, but I also enjoy good characterization, a nicely constructed sentence, so if the actualization of all three of these things is what is going to constitute upmarket work…then I suppose yes. But I like those elements of writing in all sorts of combinations too, where all three might not be actualized to their fullest. I fear that by having an actual “upmarket” categorization (that catches on) that works would have to be amazing at plot and characterization and writing style to be considered a “good” book, which I don’t believe is necessary.

  2. I dislike the term “upmarket” as well. I think it does imply something “greater” than one or the other. It has a value attached, I think. I mean, you’re not calling it “downmarket.” In my opinion it’s a value-judgement packed into a word.

    It is a total publishing industry term, not a reader term. I doubt readers have heard it at all. Have they even heard the term cross-over? I know a lot of readers don’t know what YA stands for. (Though they’re aware of the group of works it refers to)

    I feel like “upmarket” is one of those hundreds of words us writers trying to get published or market their books to industry professionals have to try to throw into a query letter somewhere, if you can. It’s almost a nonsense word, since it’s very subjective. It will be so ubiquitous it’ll lose all meaning.

    That’s my two cents on a friday afternoon. :)

  3. Spacebaby says:

    I think “upmarket” is a term used by and for the sole purpose of agents and publishers, to better farm for authors and sell authors to publishers. I actually read the galley for Lovely Bones when it was about to come out and nowhere did I think this was one genre, plot-driven or notably literary. It’s a story with an unconventional narrator, that’s for sure and clearly resonated with readers, but I don’t remember how it was marketed. But then again I was reading it for Elle Magazine, so maybe that’s a clue.
    Anyway as I writer, I let my style dictate what “market” I am, but I also Lovely Bones, so I was kind of miffed that I may be “upmarket” in some way, if not influenced by it, but if my style is the writing that possibly starts a whole new genre, then that’s okay too.

    • Jen says:

      “Upmarket” definitely is for agents and publishers. I don’t know too many people outside the business who know the term. What has you “miffed” about falling into this category? Since my primary interest is YA literature, as opposed to adult, and from watching the industry the last few years, I find “crossover” to be the more important term to describe my writing, which makes it no better or worse than strictly YA writing or strictly adult writing, just a convenience when pitching a project. “Upmaket” is similarly a convenience for pitching a project so marketing folks know what to do with it. Whatever category your writing falls into, I wish you the best!

      • Spacebaby says:

        Thank you, I was miffed because Lovely Bones covered so much more (I thought) than to be labeled upmarket, which really tells nothing of the story. I’m sure my writing is about as plot driven as Eva Luna, so I do expect some blurriness when it comes time to categorize mine and would be surprised if it was upmarket. I do have a love of magical realism and time-travel stories like Kindred and Time Travelers Wife, where fantasy/sci-fi and magic blend with everyday contemporary life. And good luck to you on creating more stories! xoxo

  4. Thanks for the note. I’m wading through lists of agents now and many of them express a desire for upmarket fiction — but I hadn’t heard of this term before. It does seem to tie-in to the very familiar split between what is called “literary” vs. “commercial” fiction. One problem with that distinction — even if agents feel it is useful to make it — is that many of the classics of today were the commercial fiction of the 19th century, etc.


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