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Sunday 18 August 2019

Up Lit - Newest writing style shines light on darkness but people struggle to define it

Up Lit is the latest literary genre but writers, readers and publishers struggle to define what it means

Rising star .... Helen Cullen's debut The Lost Letters of William Woolf is realistic without being grim
Rising star .... Helen Cullen's debut The Lost Letters of William Woolf is realistic without being grim

Anne Marie Scanlon

Just like couture, fashions come and go in the book world. Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl launched the Grip Lit phenomenon six years ago which has dominated bestseller lists ever since. Since Gail Honeyman's debut hit Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine last year, a new genre, Up Lit has been gaining ground with readers. Perhaps 'genre' is too strong a word as Up Lit currently has no agreed definition and encompasses a variety of different books.

RTE Gold broadcaster Rick O'Shea, who runs the hugely popular Rick O'Shea Book Club on Facebook, (which currently has more than 17,000 members) agrees that as a category Up Lit is difficult to define. "It's fashionable to talk about at the moment It seems to encompass everything from Eleanor to self-help books."

One book that definitely fits that Up Lit profile is Your Second Life Begins When You Realise You Only Have One by Raphaelle Giordano (Bantam Press) which is 'self-help' in the form of a novel. Originally published in France in 2015, it has already sold more than 1.5m copies. Parisian Camille is overwhelmed, her grumpy husband lives behind his computer, her nine-year-old son gives her sass and she hates her job. When her car breaks down in a rainstorm she meets Claude a 'routinologist' who offers her a lot more than the use of his phone. While this is by no means the greatest novel ever published, it is strangely compelling and indeed extremely uplifting.

Cathryn Summerhayes, an agent at leading literary agency Curtis Brown is slightly sceptical about Up Lit being a genre but offers the view that broadly it encompasses "upmarket commercial fiction that deals with life's problems and sometimes big issues - mental health, old age, childlessness - but has an ultimately redemptive ending, although not a neat chick lit and 'they all lived happily ever after'." Summerhayes sees the trend as being a response to the realities of life in the First World, "times are hard, Brexit, Trump, the doomed NHS, and we are all poor. Books have become big gifting items again as people can't afford more expensive presents and Up Lit fills a fantastic gap in the market - books that are brilliant but also quite nice!"

Alongside Up Lit, the romance novel also appears to be having a moment in the sun. "I don't think romance has ever been out (of fashion) but a new generation of authors are definitely breathing new life into it," O'Shea comments.

Summerhayes agrees and notes that "old-school romantic escapism rather than chick lit" is in the ascendant. Her client Molly Flatt's debut The Charmed Life of Alex Moore, (Macmillan) combines both in "a perfect example of more contemporary, future looking Up Lit. It is life affirming but also not afraid to tackle big issues, from workplace anxiety, imposter syndrome, quarter-life crises, even death. It ultimately makes you feel empowered - and satisfied, but not without a few major bumps along the way".

Alex Moore also addresses the things that make us who we are. How experiences and memories define who people become, how their storyline evolves from events big and small that are deeply rooted in the psyche. "Patterns made up of Memories… Memories create narratives about who we are. And those narratives, in turn, influence how we behave."

The Possible World (Hutchinson) explores the same themes about how identity is shaped by the past but in a completely different way. Author Liese O'Halloran Schwarz agrees with both O'Shea and Summerhayes that the need for escape and 'uplift' is powered by the constant upheavals the world has witnessed over the past few years. "I think it would be a remarkable coincidence." she says, "if this interest in 'cheerful' and 'hope' wasn't connected to the 'Apocalyptic Dominoes' around us."

O'Halloran Schwarz published her debut novel 28 years ago before starting a demanding career as an ER doctor. The author recalls seeing "the saddest most terrible things" as a medical professional but adds "every single shift there was one person who made me feel that the world wasn't going down in flames. I came away from all those years in medicine feeling more hopeful than logic would dictate". The Possible World doesn't shrink from grimness and is as grippy as any crime novel yet is ultimately joyful and optimistic.

Hope is also a theme in Irish writer Helen Cullen's debut The Lost Letters of William Woolf (Michael Joseph). William has abandoned his dreams, and his marriage is in trouble. Cullen presents readers with the mundane reality of 'happily ever after', and how real life can undermine the greatest of romances. The novel is realistic without being grim but again, in the spirit of Up Lit, offers hope for change and transformation.

While Up Lit continues to grow in popularity O'Shea doesn't see the genre stopping the Grip Lit juggernaut. "I don't think the two are antagonistic, sometimes you need something uplifting that reaffirms your belief in good and in the human soul, sometimes you just need to read about sociopaths killing with impunity."

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