Last weekend I participated in the Writer's Digest Conference Pitch Slam. After the event, an agent-friend and I discussed the pitches that got us excited, and there was one in particular that became the subject of a debate. I talked about a pitch for a magical realism novel that I couldn't wait to read; she said the same about an urban fantasy. It took us all of ten seconds to realize we were talking about the same novel.
During the pitch, the author didn't label his work with either genre, so we were left to fight over it. In her more commercially inclined hands, she would find an urban fantasy angle and exploit it to publishers. My tastes run more literary, so my mind ran with ideas of magical realism comparison titles and where I'd place it. (Keep in mind, neither one of us has read this manuscript yet, but this is what an agent needs to think about when hearing a 3-minute pitch.)
When I receive queries that claim to be literary fiction, it often turns out, after reading the synopsis, that they are for genre fiction (aka commercial fiction). The flip side has happened too. I request a supernatural thriller or dark mystery and they turn out to be much more literary than the author probably realized.
I don't think writers should get too hung up on labels, but it's important to know what genre you're writing. You're expected to give an agent an immediate sense of where they can sell your book, but even more than that you should be able to know who you'll be next to on a bookshelf so that you can read your comparison titles accordingly.
Figuring out thriller vs. mystery vs. suspense or paranormal romance vs. urban fantasy vs. supernatural horror can be difficult, I know. In these cases, it's best to just choose the closest and let a professional decide the best way they can sell it. But the line between literary and commercial isn't as vague. You shouldn't claim your book is literary fiction if it isn't. For one, it's rare you'll find an agent who looks for literary fiction and genre fiction with the same fervor, if they take on both at all. You don't want to get a rejection based on a mislabel. Secondly, literary fiction is quite different than genre fiction, and not learning the difference can reflect a lack of research on your part.
The common argument, however, is that all books are technically literary. Right? Well, yes and no. Saying all books are literary is like saying all Young Adult novels are about characters under 25. The genre labels can be misleading, which is why it's important to know what they mean.
If you're unsure about which you've written, here's a quick definition of each:
Literary fiction: The focus is on character arc, themes (often existential), and the use of language. I like to compare literary fiction authors to runway designers. The general public isn't mean to wear the clothes models display on the runway. They exist to impress the other designers and show the fashion industry what they can do. Literary writing is a lot like that, but on a more accessible level. Many dismiss literary fiction as "too artsy" and "books without a plot," but this isn't true. At least not most of the time. The plot is there; it's just incidental. Literary fiction is meant to make the reader reflect, and the author will almost always prefer a clever turn of phrase over plot development.
Commercial fiction: For the purposes of this blog post, I've been using this interchangeably with genre fiction. Basically, all genre fiction is commercial, but not all commercial fiction is genre. There is also "upmarket" commercial fiction, which I'll get to later. Unlike literary fiction, genre fiction is written with a wide audience in mind (aka "commercial") and always focuses on plot. There is still character development in genre fiction, but it is not as necessary. Characters get idiosyncratic quirks, clever dialogue, and often learn something new about life or themselves by the end. The difference is that their traits are only skin deep. The reader stays with them in the present. Rarely do we see a character's past unless there is something pertinent to the plot back there. Genre fiction has a Point A and a Point B, and very little stands in the way of telling that story.
Keep in mind that an agent or editor will rarely prefer you to play with these formats, especially if you're a debut author trying to find (and build) your audience. If you're writing a plot-driven genre novel that adheres to a sci-fi, romance, or thriller structure, don't try to load it with literary devices and huge character back-stories that aren't relevant to the plot. It won't impress an agent if you have a super literary genre novel. It will more likely confuse us and make your book harder to sell.
"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.
With debut authors, I think the main source of uncertainty tends to come from what they set out to write vs. what they actually write. Genre fiction is written with a clear purpose. The author has an idea and writes a story to accomplish their goal. Literary fiction can be more accidental. A writer may start with an idea, and then discover along the way that they don't want to write about that anymore. They've fallen for their character's personal tale or the images they want to evoke within the reader. If the writing ends up falling somewhere in the middle, then it might be considered "upmarket." Or, it could mean it needs more focus one way or the other.
What's important to remember is that none of these types of fiction is better than the other. It's all about personal preference, based on what you like to read and how you write. If an agent doesn't represent a certain genre, it doesn't mean he or she think it's bad. It just means you're better off with someone else. Be aware that a genre label can influence an agent, but be honest about what your genre is. It wastes everyone's time - most importantly, yours - if you try to guess what you think agents want. We want books we can fall in love with that fall under in genres and styles we represent, whether they're young adult, adult genre fiction, or literary to a Proustian degree. That's all.