Up lit: the new genre on the bestseller lists
Novels that hit the sweet spot between realism and humour are enjoying a high level of success
Gail Honeyman's Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, (HarperCollins) and Three Things About Elsie, (The Borough Press), by Joanna Cannon, both stories about kindness, redemption and unlikely friendships, have made the longlist of this year's Women's Prize for Fiction. The former is also being made into a movie by Reese Witherspoon's production company, Hello, Sunshine. The critical and commercial success of Eleanor Oliphant, a debut novel about a young woman who has grown up in the care system and gradually begins to let the world in, has sparked a new fiction genre: up lit. Some commentators have suggested that up lit is making its mark in these troubled times as readers seek comfort and, above all, escape, in their choices of reading material.
In the Irish bestseller lists, the late Emma Hannigan's moving and emotive Letters to my Daughters (Hachette Books Ireland) is currently No.1; while the very funny and uplifting Oh My God, What a Complete Aisling (Gill Books), by Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen hit the Christmas No.1 spot, beating children's author David Walliams to the coveted position.
UK rights to Oh My God, What a Complete Aisling have been picked up by Penguin's Michael Joseph imprint and there is a movie in production with Element Pictures.
Sheila Crowley, literary agent at Curtis Brown, who represents authors such as McLysaght and Breen, as well as Jojo Moyes and the late Emma Hannigan, doesn't think that up lit is a new phenomenon.
"What everybody's looking for are great stories," she says.
"We've always had up lit. My feeling is that it's nothing new. It's a reinvention of something that's always been around; people just like to tag everything at the moment."
Martha Ashby, editorial director at HarperCollins UK, who was the acquiring editor for Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, says similarly that publishing loves to stick labels on things. However, she says that readers' need for escapism from current events has played a big part in the success of up lit. She cites authors such as her own Gail Honeyman, as well as Rachel Joyce and Joanna Cannon, as examples of those up lit authors making an impact on the bestseller lists.
"I personally think that the last couple of years have been really tough in terms of the headlines about Brexit, Trump and #MeToo," she says. "Everyone reads for different reasons but a big part of reading, particularly in commercial fiction, is escapism, and what all of these novels have in common is kindness. I think when there are so many things that divide us, it's nice to be reminded of most people's essential humanity."
"People need an escape from a lot of what is going on in the world at the moment," says Ciara Doorley, editorial director at Hachette Books Ireland, who was Emma Hannigan's Irish editor. "Sometimes we need reminders that, despite the news that's clogging our airwaves and newsfeeds, the majority of people display kindness, compassion and empathy for their fellow humans and that, ultimately, a meaningful, positive connection with other people is essential to us."
Ashby says that up lit often doesn't shy away from real issues and dark themes, but that hope is the unifying factor.
"The thing that ties these novels together is that they're not saccharine, or sweet, or cloying in any way. All of them deal with different dark issues that most people can relate to in a greater or lesser degree. Again, maybe that's something that people are looking for, to see real-life reflected in a novel so that you can explore it in a safe way through fiction."
Oh My God, What a Complete Aisling certainly isn't saccharine, as, without giving away any spoilers, there's an abortion storyline in the book, so a thread of contemporary realism runs through the characters and plot.
Author Emer McLysaght says that it was important to her and co-author Sarah Breen that the Aisling character went on a journey. "Aisling starts the book thinking, she wants one thing, and finishes up with a different take on things," she says.
"Her happy-ever-after is a product of that journey and the things she's encountered and the people she's met and the challenges and heartbreak she's faced. She finishes up content, rather than screaming from the rooftops."
McLysaght puts the Aisling character's popularity down to her normality.
"We've had a lot of people remark to us that it's incredible that we got as far as 2017 without a character like Aisling popping up so clearly in the way that she has. I think with some fictional characters in recent times, particularly female characters, they tend to fall on either end of the scale; they're either super successful yet catastrophically flawed, or their lives are intolerably grim," she says.
"Aisling is just normal. She's an average Irish woman with the same problems and fears and challenges and rules to live by, and people really related to that.
Adding humour and empathy to her story meant that people saw themselves and their friends in her."
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