Still from cafeteria scene in film NEVER BEEN KISSED, of protagonist Julia dressed in outrageous clothes, wondering with whom she should sit at lunch.

Literary? Mainstream? Commercial? What Genre Is This Anyway?

What’s the difference between commercial and literary and mainstream fiction? What do those words mean, anyway? What about “upmarket”? Where does my book fit in?

Sometimes it’s really obvious where your novel fits in with others.

Other times, you show up querying your book and have no idea where to put it. It’s awkwardly similar to high school (at least the movie version of high school). Everybody else seems so neatly sorted into groups.

A group of skater-pothead high schoolers from the film CLUELESS.

And then there’s you…

Still from cafeteria scene in film NEVER BEEN KISSED, of protagonist Julia dressed in outrageous clothes, wondering with whom she should sit at lunch.

But you want your book to find readers, which means your book needs to find something in common with other books (ones that have readers). Hey, you know which books have the most readers? Commercial fiction. Let’s start there.

Commercial Fiction

Commercial fiction is any fiction that has ONE of the following characteristics:

  • It sells a lot of copies, OR
  • It has a tight, fresh premise that’s easy to pitch (like a logline), OR
  • It has a very specific, established audience.

So genre fiction is considered commercial fiction, because genres can sell a lot of books to their target readers. Children’s books can often be considered commercial because all kids are encouraged to read, but children’s books are categorized by age first, genre second. Commercial writers are often prolific ones, churning out book after book after book for their very happy fan base, regardless of their genre.

BOTTOM LINE: Don’t call your own work “commercial fiction”—that’s a term defined by sales. Know the difference between age categories (adult, young adult, middle grade, etc.) and genres (what this post is about).

Genre Fiction

Genre fiction adheres to specific tropes. For example, if you’re writing a romance, your story must have a happily ever after. If it doesn’t, it’s not a romance.

Read heavily in your genre. What do you expect when reading that genre? That’s what readers will expect from your book if it’s put on that shelf.

Established genre families, often with their own shelves in stores or libraries:

  • Mystery
  • Romance
  • Suspense / Thriller
  • Speculative Fiction (includes fantasy, science fiction, horror)
  • Western
  • Adventure (sometimes grouped with thrillers)

Did you write speculative fiction? Read about my guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy Sub-Genres.

Cross-Genre

A cross-genre novel or story is one that borrows tropes from two or more genres. If your book is about an elf and an ogre falling in love and living happily ever after, you’re borrowing from the Romance and Fantasy families.

take-on-me

But do you call it Fantasy Romance or Romantic Fantasy? The first word in a genre pairing is the adjective qualifying the second, more prominent genre. In other words, a fantasy romance is primarily a romance with some fantasy elements. A romantic fantasy borrows more from the fantasy genre than the romance genre, but it still should have a happily ever after, or you can’t call it “romantic.”

Many stories have romantic elements. That doesn’t mean they are romances.

If your story has romantic elements, then say it’s “______ with romantic elements” if you must. But the romantic elements should be evident from your pitch.

A lot of colors have blue in them, but when we add a bit of it to yellow and mix it throughout, we call the result “green,” or maybe “yellow-green,” not “yellow with blue elements.”

BOTTOM LINE: If you think your book fits in one or more genres, look up the tropes for each genre. Read multiple authors of those genres to see where your book fits best. 

mean-girls

Your book doesn’t fit in with any of those genres? Don’t give up yet.

Mainstream or General Fiction

If your book wouldn’t sit on one of the five “shelves” listed above, it will likely be placed in a section called “General Fiction” or simply “Fiction.”

Historical fiction will likely be shelved here, along with contemporary fiction. Women’s fiction is general fiction promoted mainly to female readers. If your book is one of these genres, call it by one of those names. It’s better to be specific than vague, and it shows that you know your audience.

Mainstream fiction might appeal to a broader audience, but it can be more difficult to market. Marketers need to know where to direct their efforts.

Without a specified audience, your book will be a much harder sell.

GIF from The Princess Diaries: "My expectation in life is to be invisible, and I'm good at it."

Literary Fiction

Literary fiction has its own audience—one who has high expectations for prose and subtext.

If literary fiction gets its own shelf, that shelf is often called “literature,” though many readers are rightly annoyed at the suggestion that genre fiction can’t be considered literature. We won’t get into what constitutes a work of fiction being considered “literature” here. As far as I’m considered, that’s the same as debating the definition or worth of “art.”

What we will talk about is what constitutes literary fiction.

Elements of literary fiction:

  • The language is vivid and fresh. Frequently in literary fiction, how an element is presented is more important than what is presented. The words are like visible brushstrokes in a painting.
  • It might be more concerned with subtext, theme, or atmosphere than action.
  • It’s more likely to subvert tropes than genre fiction, which upholds tropes (to the satisfaction of its expectant readers).
  • Literary fiction is more likely to allude or respond to other forms of art, especially classical poetry and literature.
  • The structure might be experimental, playing with timelines, points of view, or different forms (incorporating poetry or illustrations or other forms of media).
  • It might be more concerned with a character’s internal struggle than external conflict.
  • It might play with what defines a “novel” or “story” or “literature” (see Metafiction)
  • It might be delivered to a select few (like the first collection from Facsimile Press, which publishes fiction only via fax).
  • Some readers might not consider it accessible because it attempts the unexpected.

Read more: Literary and Commercial Fiction as Paintings

Like “commercial,” the term “literary” is subjective and is doubted by readers when self-applied. Some readers might not agree with your label.

GIF of a man throwing a book out the window in frustration

If you’ve studied or discussed literature at length, or if your writing has been recognized or published by a literary community, then you might be fine calling your work literary. Show that you understand what literary means in a query letter by including a statement in your bio paragraph, like “I majored in literature at Such-and-Such University” or “my fiction has won [recognizable literary accolades not based on commercial genre].”

BOTTOM LINE: Err on the side of calling your work contemporary or historical (whichever fits) until an authority in the literary sphere—an agent, reviewer, award-winning author, or publisher—assigns the “Literary” qualifier to your work. 

Upmarket Fiction or “Book Club Books”

Upmarket Fiction is mainstream fiction with both literary and commercial elements. These are often books read by book clubs, because not only are the books entertaining and accessible, but they also have finely crafted prose, universal themes, or head-scratching concepts that beg to be discussed with other readers.

You can call your work upmarket, but there’s no shelf for upmarket books. “Upmarket” is an adjective. Use it paired with another genre or category label, for example, “upmarket fantasy” or “upmarket contemporary novel.”

BOTTOM LINE: Upmarket fiction is approachable, but beneath its fresh, commercial premise lie layers of subtext.

pretty-in-pink

Conclusion

When pitching your book, you need to show how it’s both different from and similar to books on the market.

From The Breakfast Club: a popular boy makes a really weird sandwich, eliciting looks from his peers.

To be a success, your book needs to fit in with others while having unique qualities of its own.

In a query letter, the main content of the pitch should show how your story is unique. The informational paragraph with word count, genre, and age category should show where it fits in. This is where you can include comp titles: books or related media that might share a specific audience with your readership. “[MY TITLE IN ALL CAPS] would appeal to fans of [two or three recently published books, still-writing authors, or related media].”

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