Fiction's newest genre: up lit

Five weeks ago I blogged about my favorite television series, Call the Midwife, and lamented that literary novels don’t share its mix of realism and uplift.

“Qualities that I think are hard to find in a literary novel — such as hope, warmth, gladness, and change for the better — are present in spades in the television series,” I observed. 

The post was written before I learned about fiction’s newest genre: “up lit,” meaning uplifting literature. I heard the term for the first time last week. It was coined by publishers as demand for upbeat fiction rose in the last few years, even before the pandemic sent people searching for books to lift their mood.

Any fiction with an optimistic outlook qualifies as up lit, but fans have attached a host of words to it: joy, kindness, humor, heroism, hope, empathy, compassion, love, gentleness, connection, goodness. 

Up-lit fiction leaves the message that hardship and pain won’t defeat us. “These types of novels . . . do not shy away from dark themes or real-life issues, they just preserve an element of hope,” wrote Fictionophile, aka Lynne. 

I had to smile because I felt vindicated. The descriptions sound like the kind of novel I was in search of 15 years ago when I started the website Positively Good Reads. Some of the feedback then dismissed my taste as lowbrow, even though I said I was looking for “feel-good fiction with substance.” Critics said that serious fiction (i.e., literary fiction) is rarely upbeat because life isn’t. 

The separation of literary fiction from popular fiction is perpetually debated. Many of the titles on up-lit lists probably fall on the popular side. One blogger noted that up-lit novels are formulaic, as genre fiction is: the protagonist is eccentric, there is a catalyst for change, the ending is happy. Some of the up-lit titles that I’ve read do follow the formula. Yet some titles on up-lit lists have earned the highest respect of the literary establishment. George Sanders’s Lincoln in the Bardo won the 2017 Man Booker Prize, Andrew Sean Greer’s Less won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize, and Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine won the British Book Awards’ 2018 Book of the Year.

Two decades ago it wasn’t easy to find upbeat novels with substance. A prolonged search led to my sharing my reading list on Positively Good Reads. Some of the titles listed there are now on up-lit lists. Others are classics. Up-lit fiction isn’t new; the classification is new. Jane Austen was writing up-lit novels more than two centuries ago. Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Tyler has been writing uplifting endings for eccentric characters for more than half a century.

Optimistic fiction is rising in popularity now because of “increasing anxiety about the state of the world, from economic uncertainty and COVID-19 to escalating societal inequity and political tensions,” wrote ArapahoeKati on the Arapahoe Libraries (Englewood, Colorado) blog. Readers feel “a strong desire to take a break from a stressful world by escaping into a book.”

If you’re interested in reading up-lit novels, find titles at Goodreads or by googling up lit. The titles you will see are mostly books published in the last decade. If you want to look at a longer timeframe, check out my list.

Comments

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  • What, no James Joyce?

  • Ha.

  • I think some of the cozy "mysteries" I've been reading would qualify for up lit. They're not mysteries in the theological sense, but just a good, fun puzzle. Even "The Red House Mystery," by A.A. Milne, would qualify -- it's very short, and the descriptions of the puzzle-solving pair are part Pooh and Piglet, part Holmes and Watson. The only trouble is that I bought the only copy I've ever seen... but others must be out there.

  • When exploring up lit, I read that crime stories used to be escapist reading, but now many are bleak and pessimistic -- except for cozies. I too enjoy cozy mysteries.

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