A bruising year dominated by political and economic uncertainty, terrorism and tragedy has, publishers say, kickstarted a new trend they have have branded “up lit”. 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.
Its impact is showing on bestseller lists. Both Honeyman and Haig reached the top 10 on publication and remain there, while Coleman and Barnett are steadily climbing, backed by a stack of five-star reviews on Amazon.
In the literary market, demand for up lit is also making an impact. On the Man Booker longlist, frontrunner George Saunders’s humane questioning of the meaning of life, Lincoln in the Bardo, has a strong up lit feel, as does Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, a searing tale of sacrifice and love.
Demand for Up Lit has been building since 2016, says Lisa Milton, publishing director of HarperCollins’s Harlequin division. She points to the success of Joanna Cannon’s novel, The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, inspired in part by the patients the author met as an NHS psychiatrist.
A close watcher of social media, Milton says the trend is not just a reaction to all the grim news, it’s also a kick back against the grip lit domestic noir that had been saturating fiction sales. “I hear empathy talked about more and more everywhere,” she says. “It’s getting real traction as a subject and, as a result, I and others are commissioning books that emphasise that and kindness.”
Coleman’s struggle with crippling anxiety inspired The Summer of Impossible Things, her novel about a time traveller given the chance to undo a tragedy, albeit at the risk of her own existence. Heroism, regret and sacrifice is at its heart. Coleman admits current events impacted the novel. “We are living in very dark times and my response is to show how when the world is dark, human beings have the capacity to … show the best in humanity as well as the worst,” she explains.
Haig’s well-documented struggle with depression fed his new novel How to Stop Time, which centres on a history teacher struggling to cope with the challenges of living for more than four centuries. “My experience of anxiety – and one I wanted to portray in the novel – is that it not only made you feel like an outsider, hiding an invisible living nightmare, but it also made weeks seem like years,” he says.
Up lit is not just affecting fiction. A glimpse at nonfiction launches over the next six months suggest a nation heading into therapy. Already hyped ahead of a September launch is Jamie Thurston’s Kindness – the Little Things that Matter. Thurston is founder of 52 Lives, which aims to “change a life” a week with support from “100,000 strangers and 52 celebrities spreading kindness”. A social media campaign under the hashtag #KindnessMatters kicked off in July, backed by Gillian Anderson and Australian parenting guru Steve Buddulph among others.
Celebrity authors are also piling into up lit. The most ambitious launch by a well-known name will be TV presenter June Sarpong’s Diversify in October. According to the blurb it will be “a fierce, empowering call to arms”. Founder of the Women: Inspiration and Enterprise Network, the broadcaster will spotlight marginalised groups, including women, those with disabilities and transgender people, to show that lack of inclusivity undermines society.
Children, too, are enjoying up lit, according to the Reading Agency’s chief executive, Sue Wilkinson, who says it dominates demand in the 2017 summer’s reading challenge for schoolchildren.
Its popularity among young readers, of course, may well reflect parents’ tastes. “While reading cannot solve the complex problems that we face at the moment, it does help us to reach across countries and cultures, to understand and value different perspectives and develop empathy for others,” she says. That would amount to a happy ending for everyone.