I recently had the pleasure of speaking on a panel about Up Lit at the Society of Young Publishers’ annual conference. With me on the panel were Lisa Highton from Two Roads, publisher of The Keeper of Lost Things and Martha Ashby, editorial director of Harper Fiction, but specifically in this case, editor of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. It was a fascinating session, so here is what was said about this relatively new genre of ‘Up Lit’.
What is Up Lit?
Highton commented that the term Up Lit was first coined about 18 months ago in a Guardian article talking about books with kindness at their centre. Ashby added that these books aren’t saccharine however – they deal with some big life issues; mental illness, loss, grief. But this is where it differs from other stories tackling similar themes; these books have a strong sense of community, of empathy, of the character being helped by those around them. Highton also said these books are intelligent books, they are stories of second chances, of redemption. They don’t skim over the surface of issues but do resolve them in a happy or optimistic way, and hence the term Up Lit.
Why is Up Lit doing so well?
The consensus was that the world isn’t in a great place; the polarised nature of national and international politics, almost institutional unkindness in the way we treat others, people being quick to get angry online, a perceived lack of community, a lack of common ground and of being able to understand someone else’s point of view. This is the backdrop for these stories. Readers aren’t looking for an escape necessarily, more a way of being reminded that humans are capable of great kindness, of including the outsider and can empathise with others. It needn’t be ‘them and us’, it can be ‘all of us’.
What is the future for Up Lit?
Ashby talked about the market for these books being a pull, rather than a push ie, readers demanding them, recommending them, that elusive ‘word of mouth’ marketing all publishers crave and she went on to say it doesn’t look like it’s slowing down anytime soon. Based on what she saw at Frankfurt this year, she says there are a few more years ahead for Up Lit. Highton agreed that the market was still very much reader-led. Both editors said they publish many fantastic books, but never know which will do well and which won’t get the attention they deserve, so it’s always great to see books like these take on a life of their own.
What is Up Lit in YA?
Despite the term not being widely used in the children’s industry, there are signs that it is coming in. The reasons behind why it has taken off in adult fiction are similar for teenagers – the world is uncertain and shifting, and this is compounded for teens as they are trying to find their place in it. Teens are increasingly having mental health issues, can find themselves excluded from social groups, struggle to know how to help in a world seemingly full of problems and so it wouldn’t be unexpected for this genre to make the transition from adult to YA.
Arguably YA fiction has been tackling issues for years, and so in this respect is ahead of the term, but the difference with Up Lit is there’s a focus on the community, with the friendship groups helping the character with their issue rather than the character sorting it out alone. This is where the kindness, empathy and the strength human bonds give comes in. Examples of this would be in John Green’s books, in Wonder by R J Palacio and more recently in books like Holly Bourne’s Are we all Lemmings and Snowflakes?
Why did I write my book?
When I wrote my book, Summer of No Regrets, I didn’t set out to write under the term Up Lit. I wanted to write characters who were strong alone but stronger together. Even though my characters deal with some pretty big life events, they get through them with the support and kindness of their friends. I wrote it because this would be the kind of book I would want to read if I was a teenager in today’s world – not as an escape, but as a reminder that kindness isn’t a weakness, having empathy for others isn’t something to be mocked or ridiculed, and to feel proud of having the strength to help others and allow others to help me.
How did I manage to write it?
This question from the audience was an interesting one. How, against this world scene, did I write a book of kindness and empathy? I realised that I had turned off the news, limited my social media and focused on the people around me. Most people in my life are kind, are willing to help, understand when I’m feeling under pressure and want to support me. And I, in return, try to do that for others. I realised lots of people are kind and do have good hearts, it’s just they aren’t the ones that shout loudest and so these quiet, kind voices aren’t easily heard. All I did was tune into that part of my life and ignore the noise of the world. Hopefully, in this world of fake news, these Up Lit stories will continue to tell some fundamental human truths.
Thanks to Phoebe Morgan for chairing the panel.
Summer of No Regrets is publishing May 2019 with Firefly Press.
Image courtesy of Freepik