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Up Lit


You may be surprised to learn that there are trends in the book world, just as there are in the fashion industry and with food. One massive bestselling novel often sparks a wave of, if not copycats, then new stories in a very similar style. How many books suddenly appeared with grey covers and close-ups of an article of clothing in the aftermath of the Fifty Shades of Grey publishing phenomenon? How many new books featuring vampires and witches were published once Twilight became a runaway bestseller? (I feel compelled to mention here the superb Discovery of Witches series by Deborah Harkness as the best example.) In a publishing trend going back decades, Bridget Jones's Diary ushered in "chick lit," a genre that thrives to this day and which has generated spin-offs, including "mom lit," when the heroines of chick lit have babies, and, painfully, "matron lit," when those heroines hit middle age. After the phenomenal success of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, the market was saturated with thrillers featuring unreliable narrators, believe it or not called "grip lit" (think The Woman in the Window, The Girl on the Train and anything by Ruth Ware).

Now a new genre has arrived at publishers, and it's called Up Lit. I've read several up lit novels without knowing that they belonged to this genre, or to any genre for that matter, but I like the catchy name, and I'm even more intrigued by the books that supposedly fall within this new umbrella grouping. The term "up lit" appears to have been coined in a 2017 article in The Guardian which focused on books that have kindness at their core: "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 are 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." I find the phrase "optimistic rather than feelgood" very interesting. What does that look like?


The term "up lit" stands, of course, for Uplifting Literature, but I think that classification grossly oversimplifies the appeal of these books. Novels in the up lit genre center on the power of kindness, friendship, community and redemption. The stories in up lit books are life-affirming and filled with joy, empathy, humor, compassion and love. If this sounds overly fluffy, think again. Nothing is sugar-coated in an up lit novel. As Rachel Joyce, the author of several up lit books (including one of my 2018 favorites, The Music Shop, and the huge bestseller The Unlike Pilgrimage of Harold Fry) said in an interview last year: "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."

The main characters in up lit novels are outsiders. They may be socially awkward, or eccentric, or struggling with emotional baggage. The books embrace differences and idiosyncrasies, encouraging us to look again at those who are on the margins of society. The stories they tell include second, or even third, chances to fix what's broken and to find redemption via unlikely friendships between the very old and the young, or between people of different nationalities, or among those who otherwise seem to have little in common. The books are set in places (a retirement village, a book club, a small shop, a library) where people who would not typically intersect can meet and get to know each other. The poster child for up lit fiction is Gail Honeyman's debut novel, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. The book, which is being made into a movie by Reese Witherspoon's production company Hello, Sunshine, is about a young woman who has had a traumatic childhood and is slowly learning how to let people into her life. She is outwardly composed but incredibly lonely, and she's a bit of an oddball. One reviewer wrote that the novel "makes you want to throw a party and invite everyone you know and give them a hug, even that person at work everyone thinks is a bit weird."  Joanna Cannon, the author of two up lit novels, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, and Three Things about Elsie, said that up lit is "about the threads that join us. There are fundamental similarities between all of us that should unite us. Instead of looking for differences between people -- and being afraid of difference -- we should be celebrating it."

Up lit novels are not naive, and the darker parts of their plots can be very dark indeed. But what comes out of that darkness is frequently optimistic. The books don't always end the way we would wish, but they are filled with warmth, compassion and connection. And they are often very well-written. I've posted previously about how good Rachel Joyce's novels are. Both Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine and Three Things about Elsie were longlisted for the 2018 Women's Prize for Fiction. All of Fredrik Backman's books, starting with the wonderful and wildly successful A Man Called Ove, are up lit novels. Even Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders' spectacular, Man Booker-winning novel, has been described as up lit because of its "humane questioning of the meaning of life." Reading an up lit novel is not a way to escape from the polarized nature of today's national (and international) world. Instead, an up lit story serves as a reminder that even in the midst of such discord, we are capable of great kindness, and that in community and friendship, there is hope.




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