If you’re writing contemporary fiction that doesn’t fit neatly into a genre such as crime, fantasy, romance, etc. it can be hard to know how to describe it in a cover letter. There are a lot of terms out there: general fiction, book club fiction, literary, upmarket, and specific subgenres like uplit, new adult and coming-of-age, but which one best gets across what your novel is? Here are some definitions that might help you out.
General Fiction is the broadest term out there; it covers novels that cross multiple genres or don’t fit into one. If you’re writing a book that’s not genre fiction but doesn’t have enough emphasis on striking prose to be literary, this is a safe term to use. The issue is that it sounds a bit boring! But general fiction isn’t boring – the term is. You can spice up this sentence of your cover letter by writing, ‘My novel is general fiction with an unreliable narrator’ or ‘This is comedic general fiction that would appeal to readers of _.’ Add something specific.
Literary refers to fiction that is dependent on the quality of writing and sophistication of themes, rather than the propulsion of the plot. It usually leaves more space for the reader’s interpretation of events. It can be about anything. You should describe your novel as literary if you’re hoping to find readers by winning prizes and receiving complimentary reviews.
Note: Many entrants to the 2020 BPA Pitch Prize described their novel as ‘upmarket literary’ or ‘literary commercial’, and this term mixing was often confusing. Your novel will most closely fit into one of these categories. If it’s somewhere between literary and commercial, it’s probably upmarket or general fiction.
Upmarket novels usually contain a commercial, plot-driven narrative but are written with an advanced sophistication, so would appeal to a different audience to the standard genre reader. You may have written a story about a murder investigation but used an experimental tone or subverted the genre expectations beyond what a publisher of traditional crime would be open to. The word ‘upmarket’ is usually used as a modifier: upmarket sci-fi; upmarket thriller.
Book Club Fiction is an increasingly popular term, and you often see it used by any writer who feels their work sits between literary and commercial. Book club fiction does usually sit here, but the key is that these novels get the reader thinking about topics; they give you something to talk about, and they have broad appeal. A story that asks questions about complex issues or one in which you’re not sure whether to agree with the protagonist’s choices as the novel progresses could be aimed at this market.
Uplit is an emerging genre, made popular by writers like Gail Honeyman and Matt Haig. Short for ‘uplifting literature’, these books are about kindness and community – they leave the reader feeling positive. BPA’s Francess Senn wrote a blog post on the uplit genre in 2018 when it first took off, and in a post-Covid world people are more and more wanting to read something a bit nice. Don’t rush to categorise your work as uplit just because it has a happy ending, though. Agents will expect uplit novels to show a heartwarming journey with a strong bearing in reality.
New Adult is another trendy one, aiming to meet a gap between YA (young adult) and general fiction. It features protagonists aged 18-25 or so and will appeal to readers of that age too, addressing issues that are unique to this point in life, like the struggles of leaving home and launching a career.
Coming-of-Age novels usually come under the literary fiction umbrella because the focus is on character development, rather than plot. These books tell a story of a person at a defining point in their life, showing how they find themselves through a sequence of experiences. Usually this person is a teenager, which is why you often see coming-of-age novels with YA crossover potential.
Using the most accurate genre term for your novel is not the most important thing. Agents want to see that you have a great story, and they’ll know how to present it to publishers, but it will be easier for them to get into your submission if they have an idea of your intended audience. Also, when you’re choosing who to submit to, you may see these terms on an agent’s wish list, so knowing what your novel is will help you target the right agents.
Literary agent Jane Finigan recently shared in a BPA Zoom Q&A that, for her, knowing where a novel fits on the scale of literary to commercial isn’t that important; it’s far more helpful if the writer shares a few comparable titles. If you say your novel would appeal to readers of so-and-so and so-and-so, the agent can immediately picture it on a bookshelf, the right bookshelf. Each agent has different preferences for cover letters, and you should always check if they’ve released any interviews or written blog posts before submitting. Generally, providing both a ‘genre’ and a few comparable titles is a good idea.
Your novel does not need to fit into a box. Write about what matters to you, write it in a way that feels true, and then choose the vocabulary that best applies.