Reasons to be Cheerful

6th July 2018

Readers are shifting away from dark, gritty thrillers, and seeking out a new wave of fiction that’s optimistic without being rose-tinted, and uplifting without being schmaltzy. Jennifer Lipman reports…

Say goodbye to all those stories of troubled women and unreliable narrators dealing with the dark recesses of human nature. If the age of the female-led thriller isn’t quite over yet – and any glance at the bestseller lists shows it’s alive and well – it’s no longer the talk of the publishing town.

Instead, the hot term being whispered in book circles is ‘Up Lit’ – broadly defined as writing that inspires, uplifts and improves one’s mood: books like last year’s runaway hit novel, 'Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine' by Gail Honeyman, which won the Costa First Novel Award and has been optioned for film by Reese Witherspoon, or Matt Haig’s 'How to Stop Time'; books in which characters defy the odds to solve a crisis or a problem, or overcome some personal disadvantage in an unlikely way.

It’s a blunt term; a clever way of selling books. “High end commercial women’s fiction is a broad umbrella so anything that makes it easier for writers, sellers, and readers to spot what they want is a good thing,” offers Anstey Harris, author of next January’s 'The Truths and Triumphs of Grace Atherton' (tagline: ‘she has fallen out of love... and into life’).

But, argues Sophie Jenkins, author of the forthcoming 'The Forgotten Guide to Happiness' (due September), it’s not just a marketing tool; it’s also a good way of categorising novels “that inspire hope, optimism and empathy”.

Books have long made their readers happy, of course, as well as making them laugh, sob or shiver. Indeed, as Sarah J. Harris, author of 'The Colour of Bee Larkham’s Murder' points out, the current trend for books with kindness at their core, and which underline the importance of empathy, community and the kindness of strangers, began as far back as 2012 with Rachel Joyce’s 'The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry'.

Nevertheless, the publishing industry is seeing a shift in favour of more rousing fiction, driven by readers tired of stories that bring them down. “For a long time it has been unfashionable, uncool even, to be cheerful. If you saw the bright side, it was only because you had failed to see the big picture. Optimism was unintelligent,” says Joe Heap, whose book, 'The Rules of Seeing', tells the story of a blind woman who regains her sight. “Literary fiction in the UK was marked by characters that were flawed, and their flaws could not be improved on. Their lives were a series of defeats.”

For writers, lifting the moods of their readers isn’t always front of mind, although it was for Jenkins, who wanted her book about an unexpected friendship “to make people smile”, above all else. As Heap says, being asked whether one’s book is uplifting is a bit like being asked if your book is funny. “It’s not really down to me to say,” he points out. “I wanted to write something that was optimistic about friendship, and the ability for people to change for the better. I wanted to inspire a little more kindness, a little more understanding.”

So why is this type of fiction having a moment right now? Sarah J. Harris suggests that growing uncertainty in the world post-Trump, post-Brexit, along with terrorism or the effects of austerity, are propelling readers to seek out more upbeat novels. “When times are hard, I think we want happy endings in worlds that we recognise and can identify with – ones rooted in reality, not fantasy.”

Anstey Harris backs this up. Her novel takes place in the UK, Italy, and Paris, and she thinks one that the reason it has sold so well to publishers in Europe is that they want to “hold on to a European culture in the context of Brexit.”

But it’s not just global politics that is driving this. With loneliness known to be an increasing problem in modern communities, these books celebrate the benefits of coming together. “We’re leading ever more fractured lives in a world where happiness is often equated with rising numbers of followers and ‘likes’,” says Sarah J. Harris. “Literature can provide a warm blanket of comfort – and hope – that if we fall through the cracks, someone, somewhere, will be there to help us out.”

For readers, it’s about more than going to bed in a good mood, not scared witless by murderous characters; it’s a riposte to a society where the ‘worst-scenario’ is the default. “It’s the confirmation that things are better than we’re being led to believe,” says Jenkins.

Ultimately, like romantic stories or science fiction, Up Lit provides the escapism many of us are yearning for. “Reading fiction involves suspending one’s disbelief from the very first page,” points out Anstey Harris. “We forget (or choose to) that the fictive world we are entering isn’t real – and we allow ourselves to become completely involved and invested in the lives of fictional people.”

It’s also about making readers feel less alone – and less unusual. A good book can often feel like it is speaking directly to you. 'The Forgotten Guide to Happiness' is partly about dementia. “Everyone who has a family member affected by dementia feels the same kind of fear and despair, and we don’t feel it just for them, but for ourselves too, because it is inevitable that we’ll fail them,” Jenkins explains. “Nancy has dementia and the characters value her for who she is now.”

Likewise, Bee Larkham follows a boy with synaesthesia, a condition which affects the way he sees the world around him, and sees him embark on “a tremendous, traumatic journey” towards acceptance, compassion and reconciliation. “He’s able to stay true to himself, without having to pretend he’s someone he’s not, simply to fit in with society’s expectations,” says Sarah J. Harris. She wanted to communicate that “diversity is a wonderful thing that we should always value and fight to preserve”. The message for readers is that “it’s okay to be different and to accept others who are”.

Of course, books deemed to be Up Lit are often – possibly always – about so much more. Not all are relentlessly optimistic, just as many romance novels are also about heartbreak. Many are tinged with the challenges that come from being an outlier in society. “Like life itself, there are dark times,” points out Heap of these books. “It’s just how the characters get through the darkness that’s different.”

Right now, books within the Up Lit fold are dominating the bestseller lists; 'Eleanor Oliphant' is holding on tightly to the number one spot, while titles like Joanna Cannon’s 'The Trouble With Goats and Sheep' or Libby Page’s 'The Lido' will be nestling in any number of beach-bound suitcases this summer. As with the ‘girls on trains’, are we set for an onslaught of optimism on the bookshelves over the coming years? “I sincerely hope so; especially as I’m writing my second at the moment,” laughs Anstey Harris.

Sarah J. Harris thinks that we will see people continuing to seek out uplifting literature, but cautions that the fiction market is always adapting and changing. She says unpublished authors should “write the book that they’re burning to write” not attempt to jump on a bandwagon, pointing out that by the time an idea hits a bookstore we may have moved on to the next big thing. It’s sage advice since, as Heap says, uplift can’t be faked. “You either feel it or you don’t, like tears. If a tearjerker movie tries too hard to make us cry, we react against the schmaltz. The same is true of Up Lit – if it’s not skilfully done, readers come away feeling manipulated.”

What’s clear is that when a trend is selling – as Up Lit clearly is – it will have publishers salivating and hunting down the next 'Eleanor Oliphant'. And that’s no bad thing. “Empathetic fiction gives us a hopeful view of life,” says Jenkins. “The human connection is always something to celebrate.”

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