Monday musings on Australian literature: Aussie “up lit”

Hands up if you’ve heard of a new genre (or literary trend is perhaps more accurate) called “up lit”? I hadn’t, until I read a post recently on Kate’s (booksaremyfavouriteandbest) blog. She pointed to an article about it at The Guardian.

The writer, Danuta Kean, says:

In contrast with the “grip lit” thrillers that were the market leaders until recently, more and more bookbuyers are seeking out novels and nonfiction that is optimistic rather than feelgood. And an appetite for everyday heroism, human connection and love – rather than romance – is expected to be keeping booksellers and publishers uplifted, too.

See how behind I am? We’ve had “grip lit” but it’s on its way out before I’d even heard of it, and is being replaced by “up lit”.

My first thought when I saw the term “up lit” was “feelgood” but it appears that we are talking something more active than that, we are talking optimism – and empathy, and kindness. And, it’s not just fiction we’re talking about, but non-fiction too. Kean’s article, written in August 2017, argues that the trend was kickstarted by “a bruising year dominated by political and economic uncertainty, terrorism and tragedy.” This reminds me of American screwball comedy films which started during the Great Depression and lasted through to the early 1940s (that is, into World War 2). Times were tough and people needed some brief moments of escapism – which is also part “up lit”.

But, as I’ve already said, “up lit” seems to involve more than just “escape”. A March 2018 article in The Guardian by Hannah Beckerman quotes Rachel Joyce, the international bestselling author of The unlikely pilgrimage of Harold Fry:

But up lit isn’t simply a means of sugar-coating the world … “It’s about facing devastation, cruelty, hardship and loneliness and then saying: ‘But there is still this.’ Kindness isn’t just giving somebody something when you have everything. Kindness is having nothing and then holding out your hand.”

It’s about the idea that “it is possible to fix what’s broken”. The publisher HarperCollins describes it more simply as “meaningful, optimistic books that celebrate everyday heroes, human connection and love!” In other words, it’s a pretty broad church it seems.

Kean and Beckerman provide popular and literary fiction examples of “up lit” including, for example, Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine, and last year’s Booker Prize winner, George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo. You can check out all their examples in the articles linked above, while I move on to see what I can find in Australia’s literary firmament. Are we seeking – and producing – such literature?

Do we have Australian “up lit”?

I struggled to come up with many recent Aussie “up lit” books. I was looking for the more “literary” end of the spectrum than at genres like Romance which, by definition, are happy or positive, regardless of current literary trends.

  • Brooke Davis’ Lost and found (my review): a rather quirky (hate that word, really) novel about the loss experienced by three people, and how community helps them cope.
  • Eliza Henry Jones’ In the quiet: “A moving, sweet and uplifting novel of love, grief and the heartache of letting go” (HarperCollins); “uplifting and tender” (The Canberra Times.)
  • Inga Simpson’s Mr Wigg: a gentle book about ageing and loss, apparently.
  • Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie project (my review): belongs to the Romance end of the spectrum, but has an edge because the male protagonist is not your usual romantic hero.

Some of you may remember that there was discussion last year in Australia about reading lists for senior school students being “too dark and depressing”. Of course, there were arguments pro and con. One student said that she thought a lot of the books “are quite depressing” and “don’t really give any motivation or happy feeling in the classroom” while another thought that “if they’re not depressing, they’re not going to be interesting to analyse.” She’d agree with Eva Gold, the executive officer of NSW’s English Teachers Association, who said that “A mark of great literature is conflict and tension. … Unfortunately, resolutions that provide uplift do not necessarily reflect the complexities of life.”

Three years before that, in 2014, there was an article in The Conversation about young adult fiction. The writer, Diana Hodge, argued that “dark themes give the hope to cope,” and that “discussing life’s tougher issues is not in itself pessimistic or disheartening.” In fact, she says:

Overcoming obstacles, developing strength through hardship, experiencing human kindness in the face of traumatic events are not depressing themes; they can be powerful and uplifting and inspire hope.

To some extent, what she’s saying doesn’t completely contradict some of the “up lit” proponents who talk about facing the tough things and then being “fixed” by, for example, kindness. Still, my sense is that “up lit” supporters don’t want the tough things to be dwelled upon for too long, don’t want that grim tone that can attend the so-called “depressing” reads. Take, for example – and here I’m moving briefly away from Australia – Rohinton Mistry’s novel A fine balance. It’s one of my all-time favourite novels. I’d argue that despite the gut-wrenching nature of the plot – if something could go wrong it does – the ending is positive. Many disagree with me, however!

I must admit that I do look for signs (or glimmers) of hope in the novels I read, but I don’t require it. That, I think, would be unrealistic, as Eva Gold above suggests. “Up lit” won’t, therefore, be my go-to.

What do you think? Do you find yourself seeking “up lit”? And if so, have you any recommendations?

42 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Aussie “up lit”

  1. Yes, I’ve come across the term ‘up lit’, Sue – but only quite recently. I’m not sure what to make of it, if I’m honest, as literature can’t be relentlessly uplifting or it would no longer reflect the human experience. However, as a genre, I suppose it has its place, if what you want is happy, happy, happy!

  2. Hi Sue, No I have not heard of the term ‘up lit’. The definitions seem quite a confusing. I don’t seek ‘up lit’ novels, but the three Australian novels you mention I have read and enjoyed. I do like dark novels. I like to read a book that I feel I have bonded with and leaves me thinking.

  3. I am so out of it thought at first it was like “up-cycle,” you know where you take old junk and use your creativity to turn it into something new and artsy. But I couldn’t figure out how one would do that with literature, fanfic maybe? Now I have been educated, the whole things sounds like a marketing ploy to me.

    • Yes, I thought of you as I was writing this Theresa! I like kindness and hope too – but I can be very cautious of it in my reading. I don’t mind grim books but I do like to find an element of hope or amelioration if I can. However, I don’t need it to be in my face and can sometimes find hints when others can’t! Perhaps I kid myself at times!!

      • I find that sometimes I see hope in novels that others haven’t. Maybe I’m just searching for it all the time. How funny, but totally apt, that you matched me to this post! I struggle with dystopian fiction nowadays, I used to not mind it but now I avoid it if I can. I must be getting old, constantly wanting to view everything through my rose coloured glasses.

        • You have such a positive vibe Theresa that I couldn’t help but think of you.

          I’m glad you see hope in novels that others haven’t – I tend to do that too. Although I’m happy to read dystopian fiction that doesn’t mean I don’t look for signs of hope too!

          It’s interesting about what turns us off as we get older – and you are not old yet! For me, the things that bother me most and that I find I’m recoiling from are spy and undercover shows, and shows about psychopaths. I find them deeply distressing. (I say shows because I don’t read such books but have tended to watch such stories on TV)

        • I’ve been compiling a mental list on things I’d prefer not to read anymore (or watch). It’s more perspectives and forms rather than genres.
          As to the positivity, I was mostly raised by my grandparents who both were great believers in positivism. My grandmother was like a ray of sunshine and my grandfather lived through the war as a resistance fighter, perhaps he felt that there was nothing but good to be gained after surviving that, I’m not sure. I thank the stars for these two because on the parent front, things were pretty grim and it would have been very easy to take a negative hopeless view of the world. It distresses me to work with so many young people who are devoid of hope. There is always something to reach for if you believe you will eventually grasp it.

        • I’m glad you had some great role models Theresa. I had a joyful grandmother like that, though both were loving and would give things a go (in their different ways).

          I take you point about needing hope,, particularly if your life doesn’t seem to have much. Our attitude to all this does depend quite a bit on where we are and a bit too on our temperaments. I’m a born optimist I think, so I can cope with dark because I never fully believe it can’t be improved. I believe it can happen though!

        • There are most certainly people who have a negative temperament. I know a few and they would still insist their glass is half empty even if it were overflowing right before their eyes!

        • That’s life isn’t it, Theresa. I’m so glad I’m a glass half full person. We don’t bury our heads in the sand, but we don’t bring ourselves so down that we can’t move on.

  4. Well, you know what I’m going to say….
    I can contribute a French one called La Première Gorgée de Biere [The Small Pleasures of Life] by Phillipe Delerm, but I liked that one because I could translate the French since it was mostly about food!
    However… The words ‘uplifting, tender, heartache, moving, sweet’ in a publicity blurb are warning signs to me that I am just not going to like a book. Sentimental novels are not my thing, and that’s what I thought of Mr Wigg which I read because it was nominated for the MF (which shows once again how out-of-touch I am with popular opinion). so Lost and Found never even made it onto my TBR but fortunately Karenlee Thompson was willing to write a guest review for my blog – and she (along with lots of other people) liked it. I quite liked The Rosie Project as a feelgood read-and-forget-it farce, but I wasn’t interested in the novel’s successors, the names of which I forget now. (I haven’t read the other one and based on your description, I’m not ever likely to).
    I do like an optimistic novel when I’m in the mood but in general I like books that make me think rather than feel.
    (Apart from my gloom about the present state of Australian politics and That Man in America) I think I am an optimistic person, but I get my optimism from the people around me not from books that are manipulating emotion.

    • Good comments, Lisa. I’m going to borrow a term from acting and say that the optimism has to be EARNED by the material and the way it’s presented.

      • Interesting point Glen – I particularly like books were I have to search a bit for the hope, if that makes sense. That is, where there’s recognition that things aren’t always easily resolved but there’s a suggestion where resolution might be found.

    • Yes, those words are turn-offs to me too, Lisa, and I only read the first Rosie book too. I did like Lost and Found because it had something original about it. It was lively. I haven’t yet read any Eliza Henry-Jones or Inga Simpson though I feel I should.

      I’m more for thinking too than optimism (and sometimes you can find both). Some hope is always nice. A book doesn’t have to have hope, though, for me to appreciate it. I’m thinking Romeo and Juliet, Hardy’s Tess, Edith Wharton’s The house of mirth, and so on. All great novels that don’t leave you feeling happy!! Or hopeful (at least as I recollect!)

  5. Eva Gold and Diana Hodge have it right. Stories and works of art ought to conform to the “Up Lit” (or “Lit Up”???) template if it serves the story and the writer’s intentions. Their descriptions of “Lit Up” would really do well as descriptions of a lot of good and important narrative writing. Do it too much, however, and the manipulation will be apparent to at least some readers and they will react against it. Books have to be pitched and marketed to a public, of course, but some marketing ploys are less subtle and less uniformly helpful than others…

    • Yes, good point about pitching to the public. If I hear/see the words “achingly beautiful” one more time I think I’ll scream. Clearly, some words – and some covers – will appeal to some readers and not to others, and that’s fair enough. Our lives are different and the reasons we read can vary (even for the one person)? I wonder if publishers would sometimes like to produce a couple of versions so they can promote a book to different readers?

  6. I can relate to the concerns about high school books being to dark at times. I know my kids had to read “into the Wild” and at least one book about the holocaust. Pretty gritty for someone not yet twenty. I think sometimes reading lists are meant to make up for rather sparse history and geography studies. Cross-discipline assignments seem to be big here in Florida, so the kid can get two subjects for the price of one.
    I agree scary world events make us all want escape to fantasy, even if it is,in Game of Thrones style, at least as brutal as reality.
    Up lit Makes me think of winnie the pooh and Alice in Wonderland. Books where you dont have to worry that an axe murderer or a sick sex scene is waiting for you on the next page …

    • Haha AndyPop. Love your description of the good thing about reading Winnie the Pooh and Alice in Wonderland!

      I think people under 20 can cope with gritty stuff – I think that NEED to understand things like the Holocaust? Did you not learn about things like the Holocaust when you were a teen? In a way, I think the teen years are important years for learning this stuff because I think this is when your values are formed. If life is presented too positively, how are you going to cope when you find out it’s not as “nice” as you’d like to think. On the other hand I appreciate that we don’t want to make our young people depressed?

      You make a good point regarding literature making up for sparse history and geography studies. Literature should complement these but not replace them, I agree.

      • Yes I agree, Sue. Goodness, I *lived* among Holocaust survivors when I was a teen because there were many who lived in my street and they have been inspiration to me all my life:) For teens, who often get gloomy about things that are very important to them at that time but are really quite trivial in the great scheme of things, a book that gives a sense of perspective *and* shows the triumph of the human spirit over unspeakable evil can give a sense of optimism and hope that UpLit can’t hope to achieve. Reading about the Holocaust certainly did that for me, and it still does.
        Love is so very important to young people but it is sadly so often tied up with appearance, (and impossible standards at that) and I think it’s reassuring for young people to see that people could still fall in love with someone whose appearance had been compromised by malnutrition, violence, poor living conditions and disease and who bear who knows what kind of mental scars. The Holocaust and its brave survivors teach us that it’s the *person inside* that you love, not what they look like.
        Good teachers know all this and will bring out these aspects as well as the important message that it must never happen again. Young people know about racism and vilification and religious prejudice and they need to know what it can lead to.

        • Thanks Lisa – yes I was introduced to the Holocaust in my teens by school, books like The Diary of Anne Frank, and by my father’s customers, many of whom were survivors. Their ability to enjoy life – to be open and welcoming to all – was a never-to-be-forgotten inspiration to me.

          I think you’re right. Good teacher will know how to teach this material and it’s important that they do.

  7. Ridiculous terminology, I’ve never heard of grip lit let alone up lit, but can think of one example of the latter, that being A Gentleman In Moscow by Amor Towles. It’s a pleasure to read and an uplifting tale about surviving confinement with acceptance and grace.

  8. Up lit not my thing! Sounds like Sara Henderson – Strength to Strength. The darkest book I studied at school was Lord of the Flies, which I still detest, so I mightn’t be a down lit person either, though I’m definitely a fan of grunge lit.

    • Ah yes, Lord of the flies, Bill, good one. That’s pretty grim isn’t it. I think we did a lot of non-up works at school. As I’ve already said, works like Romeo and Juliet, and Tess. I wonder if the proponents of up-lit in schools would worry about those or would they be seen as too far removed from current reality to be really grim?

      To not be a down lit person you’d have to detest more “down” books than Lord of the flies I think? Do you?

  9. I didn’t mean to suggest teens don’t benefit from exposure to Big Thoughts. I certainly agree they should be taught about bad things in the world.

    Its just been my personal experience that good, well written books (and movies) tend to have an “afterburn” effect that historical materials have to a lesser degree. So its not like you put it down and just forget it. I know there are some books/movies in my history of reading and watching that I cant unremember.

    Ill never forget The Day After, which i saw as a teen. Or SophiesChoice, which i saw a year or two later. Not that anyone should forget.

    In ancient times, when i was in high school, i dont remember reading anything that was less than 20 years old, at that time. But I don’t know if that reflects the actual curriculum or my faulty memory. 😊

    Anyway you’re right. We were pretty sheltered, and exposed primarily to white-Christian-biased writers,compared to todays kids who seem to have a lot of recently published, and much more heterogeneous material on their lists.

    • Ah, thanks andypop for explaining a bit more. I agree that fiction can do that. And yes, I suspect there’s a bit of a difference in that we did mostly read older materials. Though in last year of high school we did do Patrick White which for me was less than 20 years old. An exception though.

  10. Thanks for enlightening me, Sue! Austlit is quite dark… I was just reflecting yesterday on how tragic nearly all of Katharine Prichard’s novels are, so it’s not a new thing.

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  12. I really enjoyed Eleanor Oliphant and had never heard of this term till now. So, thanks for educating me! I’d like to think that the novel I’m writing is more “up-lit” than romance, but I think i’d probably need a beta reader to tell me whether or not it is.
    I love a good dark book but there’s always got to be some hope that things will become better in the future, or I think it’s failed.

    • Thanks for commenting Nix. I hadn’t heard of the term before either, so I’m glad I’m not the only one! You make an interesting point about hope. Sofie Laguna’s books are pretty dark – certainly The choke is – but there’s also some hope in it too which she believes is important.

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