Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Upmarket Fiction: The Non-Genre Genre?

Latayne's post on Monday generated much enthusiasm in the writers among us, and not just the six of us at Novel Matters. It was an aha! moment for those of us who had never heard the term, but seem to fit the category with our writing. I had to laugh at Patti's comment (if you haven't read it, please do), because I find myself exactly in that position when someone asks, "What do you write?" Well, it's certainly not Seatbelt Suspense like the one and only Brandilyn Collins, or Legal Thriller, or Romance, or Futuristic. In fact, it's easier to say what it isn't than what it is. And when you try, it invariably loses in the translation. But Upmarket Fiction, well, that's something you can work with.
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As a refresher, Upmarket Fiction blends the line between commercial and literary novels. I Googled the term and found pages and pages of literary agencies looking for this genre that really isn't a genre, because genre is, well, more defined. And since we've brought up the "L" word -- which seems to be something we're supposed to avoid -- I'd like to pull back the curtain and talk about it. In the article Latayne highlighted, Chuck Sambuchino says literary fiction has a harder time selling than commercial (or genre) fiction, yet according to Judi Clark of Mostlyfiction.com,* literary fiction is a book "that really draw(s) you in with language, imagery, character insight and a sense of place." Call me crazy, but that's exactly the kind of book I want to read -- and certainly what I aspire to write.
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I often hear people say, "I prefer plot-driven stories to character-driven stories." Yet when they sink their teeth into a really good character-driven novel, they're easily won over. Not that there's anything wrong with plot-driven books. I like them as well as the next guy. But love? No, I don't love them. I want to know the protagonist from the inside out when I invest time in a book. I want to BE her. I want to ride the roller coaster of her life.
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Up until Monday I'd have considered the work of authors such as Jodi Picoult, Maeve Binchy, Sue Monk Kidd, Chaim Potok as literary fiction. Chuck categorizes it as Upmarket, in the case of Jodi Picoult at least. He says Upmarket books do well as book club selections and have the "ability to infiltrate lots of book clubs and start discussions..." In her comment to Monday's post, Judy Gann confirms this when she says, "Upmarket books are exactly the type of books we choose for our book club kits at the library." What writer among us isn't up for that?
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The term isn't new. I found articles written several years ago about Upmarket Fiction. But I can't help asking myself, is it a case of a rose by any other name perhaps? If so, I'll take it. Because literary fiction, whatever name you give it, is the mouth watering, creme de la creme of fiction. And this reader/writer longs for more.
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I'd very much like you to weigh in on this, particularly readers who are not also writers. Do you lean more toward genre fiction? If so, what type? Or do you prefer more literary books?
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Book club members, what are you reading this month?
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*Clark, J. (n.d.) a guided tour to mostlyfiction.com, retrieved July 2004, from http://mostlyfiction.com/index_more.htm

13 comments:

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

I'm with you, Sharon. I choose character over plot. I need to have a healthy respect for the characters if I'm going to spend that much time reading about them. I would add Anita Shreve to the mix of upmarket authors, in particular her book 'Light on Snow.' I have read only one of her books that I wouldn't recommend, and that is because it is told from the POV of the antagonist and I didn't like being in his head!

Patti Hill said...

I like the term upmarket fiction because it gives me an attainable goal. I know my limitations and my strengths. I may never write literary fiction but aimming in that direction and hitting upmarket fiction suits be fine.

Word verification: trizett. It's not snowing, it's just a trizett of ice crystals falling from the sky. Riiight.

Cynthia Ruchti said...

These are the books I read with a highlighter (to honor exquisite lines and imagery), a pen (to take notes in the margins), and a flashlight to illumine the valley through which the characters (and I) walk.

If I might rabble rouse for a moment, the "market" part of Upmarket taints the glory of the word for me. It's okay. I'll get over it. But I'm still looking for a word that matches the elegance of this kind of fiction.

And I'm pressing on to write it!

Cynthia Ruchti said...

I'll add that many authors hope their readers will keep turning pages because, "I have to find out what happens to the main character."
I'm an author who longs for her readers to say, "I have to keep reading to find out what happens to me."

Carole said...

First, let me say that I am simply a reader with no aspirations or ability to be a writer.

Secondly, I enjoy your blog and hope to read books by each of you in 2009.

Thirdly, I am thrilled to now have a term that describes my favorite type of book. I've never known how to describe what I liked, just that I know when a book gets to me. "Relationship drama" is the descriptive phrase I've used up until now.

My favorite type of "light" reading is the classic English murder mystery. Along with that, I usually have an "upmarket fiction" book going.

And I definitely prefer books that are character driven. In the mystery genre, I think Elizabeth George's Inspector Lynley series is a perfect example. Other examples are older books by Taylor Caldwell like Tender Victory, Testimony of Two Men, etc. To Kill a Mockingbird, Anne of Green Gables . . . etc.

Of the current Christy nominees, I've read Debbie's book, Tuesday Night at the Blue Moon. Excellent! Congratulations and best wishes for a win - but it's already a winner. And I'm currently reading Patti's Like a Watered Garden.

So keep up the excellent writing, ladies. Your blog has given me many books to draw from.

Bonnie Grove said...

Carole: THank you for your wonderful comments - and thank you for mentioning Anne of Green Gables! As the resident Canadian, that series is close to my heart.

Love it that you are enjoying Debbie and Patti's works.

While I identify with Cynthia's feeling that the term Upmarket lacks beauty, it is a term that is being used in the industry and serves as a rich short cut term to help us talk about the kind of literature we write and read. I agree, it is nice to have a concise term.

I've noticed several online discussion about the term Upmarket - most of them are confused conversations wondering what the term means (One writer ascribed it as: "writers with college degrees writing for readers with college degrees" I have NO idea where she got that idea, but I suspect she made it up). Some people have the idea that the term applies only to "women's fiction". Not so. It applies to all sorts of writers with all sorts of audiences. I think Athol Dickson fits this term - he writes "literary suspense" as far as I'm concerned. Others I think fit here are Sigmund Brouwer, Charles Martin, and, maybe Ted Dekker.
Can you add to this list?

Kathleen Popa said...

Why Bonnie, yes, I'm so glad you asked. Our own Latayne has written a fabulous upmarket suspense novel, Latter-Day Cipher, and it just, JUST came out! http://tinyurl.com/d5t3hu

I gave it the following review:
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From the surrealistically tranquil opening scene in which the reader scans the body of a killer's first victim, to an explosive final chapter delivered with the rhythm of a quickened pulse, Latter Day Cipher is a masterwork of riveting story-craft and elegant prose. Latayne Scott is a one-time Mormon with a lingering affection for the people of the Mormon faith, and her compassion shows in fully-dimensioned characters caught in crises of faith and loyalty as questions are asked and secrets exposed.
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Cynthia, I read with a highlighter, too.

Patti Hill said...

Question: Can you read a book without a highlighter? Wow.

Word verification: rucheste, a type of architecture designed by good friend, Cynthia Ruchti.

Sharon K. Souza said...

Cynthia: I understand what you're saying about the term. There's nothing very artistic about it, but I think it's more an industry word than a consumer word, if that makes sense. It's a label that publishers and marketers use to explain the genre that isn't a genre : ) And it's a term we can use to talk about our work with others in the industry. But I don't think it's a term that readers will necessarily use when they think of fiction that is more literary than commercial. I think they will still think of it as literary.

Of course, Carole, I could be wrong about that. Though I do love your term "Relationship drama."

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Carole, thanks for your kind words about 'Tuesday Night' and I know you're going to love Patti's book. As I said before, the best thing of being part of this blog with these incredible authors is often having the opportunity to read their work before they hit the stores.

Cynthia, I agree. Sometimes when I borrow someone's book, the drive to highlight is so strong that I have to go out and buy it anyway. Wouldn't we all love to see our books highlighted on someone's shelf?

Cynthia Ruchti said...

Highlighted, dog-eared, tear-stained, worn thin from being loved-on, grubby with Cheeto-stain because sometimes a good book just needs Cheetos, too.

Janet said...

Literary fiction is not necessarily good. And I say this as an English major, not as a hater of higher culture. It can be enormously pretentious and self-indulgent, wallowing in angst and bleakness as if that were a virtue. I could name names of a contemporary author or two, but I won't.

But when it's done well it's a joy. And if you get used to it, most pulp fiction is like sawdust in the mouth. Unless, of course, it's particularly good pulp fiction, the equivalent of a really good submarine sandwich as opposed to a gourmet meal. They're both enjoyable, in the right context.

Anonymous said...

If you want to talk about bleakness and angst, that was me when my publisher expected me to come up with a genre for Rose's Will. Timidly, I explored "upmarket fiction" as a possibility and found that my novel slid right into the barrel like a bullet.

Now that I'm trying to promote my work, I am drowning in a sea of paranormal and YA authors and readers. Today is day 1 of narrowing my focus. So glad I found you.

Please check out my blog at www.denisedesio.com . I would love to start doing reciprocal guest blogging with upmarket authors, so I invite anyone here to stop by to see if we're a good fit.

My best,
Denise Desio - Author of Rose's Will.