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This blog was featured on 12/29/2018
What is Upmarket Fiction and Should You Be Writing It?
Contributor
Written by
She Writes
December 2018
Contributor
Written by
She Writes
December 2018

There are a lot of genres out there. From speculative fiction to chick lit, historical romance to erotica, literature can be categorized in so many ways. Often when you’re seeking an agent, they will specify what genres they are looking for and while many will state specific areas of interest like the ones above, there is another term you may see.

Upmarket fiction.

You may even see it paired with a familiar genre. Upmarket science fiction. Or upmarket contemporary romance.

What is upmarket fiction?

It really isn’t a genre so much as a classification. You aren’t going to find a category in Amazon titled “upmarket” because it’s more of a characteristic than a category.

Upmarket fiction is used to describe a book that has a literary feel with commercial appeal. It means that the writing is outstanding, but accessible. The characters focused, but the plot sharp.

On the two sides of the scale you have literary and commercial. Literary fiction can often be considered highbrow, but stuffy. Sophisticated, but slow. It often isn’t considered as “sellable” to the general public.

Commercial fiction on the other hand is considered less refined, but are total page-turners. These books are frequently the ones you’ll find in airport bookstores and standing in line at the grocery store.

Though both have the potential to be so much more than their classification would suggest, the term “upmarket” is the bridge that unites the two. 

Examples of Contemporary Literary Novels

Though most can agree that Jane Eyre, 1984 and The Great Gatsby are all literary works, the term is not exclusively applied to the classics. Modern day literary books would include titles like:

  • White Teeth by Zadie Smith
  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
  • Atonement by Ian McEwan

These books would be the most likely to win the big awards like a Pulitzer or the National Book Award. They tend to be slower in pace, but rich in detail and artistry.

Examples of Commercial Fiction

If literary is the buttoned up college professor, commercial is gun-clad action hero. They tend to be fast-paced, easy to read and typically a top seller. What they are accused of lacking in refinement they make up for in addictiveness.

When we think of the really big commercial hits, our minds tend to go to the prolific, recognizable names:

  • Stephen King
  • Danielle Steele
  • Dan Brown

Though books in this genre often catch grief for being a lesser class of literature, they tend to sell a lot of books and attract a lot of readers.

Examples of Upmarket Fiction

So what if you want the best of both worlds? You want to be an artist, but also want to pay your rent. You want to create luxurious literary scenes that people actually want to keep reading. Then that is upmarket. Here are some books that represent this classification:

  • Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
  • Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

All of these books are written in beautiful prose, contain haunting and unforgettable characters and, yes, manage to sell a whole heck of a lot of books with can’t-put-down plots.

How to Write Upmarket Fiction

So if your aim is to write upmarket fiction where should you start?

Read Wide

As always, the key to great writing is an unrelenting passion for reading. If you have been stuck reading a single genre for a long time, step way outside your boundaries. Get familiar with smash hits that are considered upmarket fiction even if they aren’t in the genre you write in.

Work on Your Craft

Commercial fiction can have a reputation for being fun, but not as cultured. Practice crafting startling scenes and fully formed characters. Avoid stereotypes and clichés involved with conforming to a genre (like the muscle-stacked leading man and the small town girl in a big city).

Upmarket fiction is captivating because it feels fresh. Don’t rest on your (or anyone else’s) laurels. Attempt to innovate and elevate the things that feel too familiar in your story.

Dial Back the Flowery Setting Descriptions and Up the Conflict

The above examples share the same characteristics. They all give us beautiful words without lingering too long in a moment. Those brilliant authors understand that while readers can fall for a fancy phrase, they need a reason to keep flipping the page. If you find yourself getting overly descriptive about how someone washes their hands or how the sun sets on the sloping hills, introduce a little anarchy.

Should you be writing upmarket fiction?

The reason why you see a lot of agents look for it is because it is becoming a recipe for success. The modern day consumer is looking for more intelligent stories.

Think about it.

If you watch movies or TV from the 80s or 90s so many have cheesy dialogue, goofy predictable plots and forgettable characters. Many have little more than nostalgia working for them.

And in today’s streaming service world, we have a plethora of skilled storytelling in television shows like Breaking Bad, Stranger Things and The Handmaid’s Tale that offer incredible writing, iconic characters and fast plots. So readers and viewers are coming to the table with much higher expectations for story.

There is still a place for formulaic, genre-specific writing (and any kind of writing for that matter), but if you’re hoping to hook an agents attention or captivate a modern reader, you may want to consider writing upmarket fiction.

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Comments
  • Donna Drew Sawyer

    I wrote my novel, Provenance, as a work of upmarket fiction. With great hope I sent it out to agents and while I got several requests for full manuscripts, all but one agent loved the writing, plot and characters. However, none of them wuld represent me because they said they could not figure out how to market the book. It did not fit “neatly” into the standard genres. I never take no for an answer so I self published and my book went on to find an audience, win awards, get accepted into multiple book festivals and, become a bookclub favorite. I share this because the success of upmarket fiction is only possible if literary agents and traditional publishers recognize the potential this genre has and that there is an audience for upmarket fiction. I encourage all writers to become skilled at creating a market for your own upmarket fiction. Write a great book and take it where you want it to go. Good Luck!