Last week at a writer's workshop, I pitched my contemporary mystery with a strong woman protagonist, social issue theme, and a character-driven plot, to two agents.
One agent told me mysteries don't treat social issues. The other informed me that upmarket fiction has character-driven plots but genre fiction (commercial?) does not.
In a future blog post, could you address the differences between literary, upmarket, and commercial fiction, particularly with regard to character-driven mystery plots?
Genre fiction doesn't have character driven plots? Tell that to the one gazillion readers of romance and women's fiction!
But before I flip out completely
let me answer the question.
Literary, upmarket, and commercial fiction are not either/or categories. Books can be literary and commercial. Books can be upmarket commercial fiction.
Generally we (and by we I mean your Tormentors-agents, editors, etc) use these terms to help editors/marketing departments figure out how to describe the writing in the book.
Commercial fiction tends to be straightforward, without a lot of beautiful sentences that make you stop reading just to get your breath back. A good example of commercial fiction is Patrick Lee. All five of his books are compelling, page turning reads. They're brilliantly written. They are not literary. They are commercial. Very good commercial fiction.
By contrast Jeff Somers is actually more literary than you'd think. His book We Are Not Good People is so beautifully written I'd call it literary genre fiction.
The Jack Reacher books are good commercial fiction.
James Lee Burke writes beautiful literary genre fiction.
Jack Reacher books are plot driven in that Jack Reacher is by and large the same guy at the end of the book that he is at the start.
Loretta Sue Ross's wonderful Auction Block series is character driven, rather than plot driven. The characters are changed by the end of the book, and we read the next one in the series to hang out with Death and Wren, not because of the plot.
And all of these are crime novels: genre novels.
You said you have strong woman protagonist and a social issue theme. Your problem is you're talking theme when you should be talking story. When a writer starts talking about theme, I start wondering how soon till the bar opens.
STORY is what drives all fiction, be it upmarket or downmarket, genre or literary. Sure your book might have a theme, but that's not how you persuade someone to read it.
And any agent who tells you that mysteries don't deal with social issues clearly hasn't read enough in the category to be making pronouncements about what it is and isn't.
While it's true that traditionals and cozies are very often issue-free, it's certainly not true of all crime novels. And even some cozies branch into issues. They just layer it into the story.
There are some rules about genre fiction but they aren't about the kind of writing (literary, or upmarket, or commercial.) They're about story, plot and character.
If you want my take on the differences, here they are. Remember though, these are MINE, not an industry standard:
Literary fiction: you notice the writing. Good literary fiction delights you with deft language and metaphor.
Commercial fiction: you don't notice the writing at all. Good commercial fiction delights you with plot twists.
Upmarket commercial fiction: you notice the writing but it doesn't stun you into silence.
Downmarket commercial fiction: if you're a writer, the writing drives you nuts.