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?