Why the Brits Love Up Lit

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Claire Handscombe


Claire Handscombe moved from Europe to DC in 2012, ostensibly to study for an MFA in Creative Writing, but actually – let’s be honest – because of an obsession with The West Wing. She is the author of Unscripted, a novel about a young woman with a celebrity crush and a determined plan, and the editor of Walk With Us: How The West Wing Changed Our Lives. She also hosts the Brit Lit Podcast, a fortnightly show of news and views from British books and publishing. Blog: the Brit Lit Blog. Twitter: @BookishClaire

Back in 2017, The Guardian ran a piece calling up lit “the new book trend with kindness at its core.” As they noted, one of the earliest iterations of this was Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, a story whose protagonist is a misfit and a bit of a loner, but gradually learns to open up to others and is surprised to find herself making friends.

Eleanor Oliphant isn’t saccharine, though. We eventually find out what it is that has moulded her to be the difficult person she is, and part of her journey is in facing those elements of her past. Up lit isn’t escapist so much as it is hope-giving: yes, it tells us the world can be grim, but people can be wonderful, and life can surprise you in all kinds of good ways. Romance is sometimes involved, but it’s not at the heart of these stories; often, unexpected friendship is at the centre of both plot and character development.

Mornings with Rosemary by Libby Page (known as The Lido in the UK) is another great example, in which a lonely journalist and an older widow team up alongside their local community to save their local outdoor pool. Like Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, it was a smash hit bestseller in the UK, and it is still frequently recommended in British-based Facebook groups when people ask for feel-good books. When I was a bookseller at East City Bookshop in D.C., I handed it to a customer who wanted “a book where people are lovely to each other.” That, in itself, is another great description of up lit.

That said, I struggled to handsell Mornings With Rosemary in the U.S. It was a constant source of frustration to me, actually, because it’s a wonderful, heart-warming book that vividly brings to life the particular part of London where it takes place. And when I looked around for American up lit, I often came up empty-handed. If people wanted feel-good books, it tended to need to be romance, or humour, or, sometimes, cosy crime. All of which can be great, but none of which scratch the precise itch of British up lit. Mary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau comes close, which is perhaps why I love it so much.

The Guardian article from 2017 quotes Lisa Milton, then the publishing director of Harlequin at HarperCollins, as saying that up lit started to become more popular in 2016. It’s not hard to see why people might have wanted hopeful stories in the UK then: there was Brexit and the increasing vitriol and divisions in society it caused, to name just one factor. Brits are also very aware of American politics, and 2016 wasn’t looking great for that, either.

We all know, of course, that 2016 wasn’t the end of our struggles. Things have been pretty relentlessly grim since then on just about every level. And so it’s no surprise up lit continues to be popular in the UK: Clare Pooley’s The Authenticy Project being an example from 2020, or, forthcoming this year, Queuing for the Queen by Swéta Rana.

In 2022, Caroline Sanderson of trade magazine The Bookseller pointed out that nonfiction can have some of the same effects as up lit too, noting for example the cookbook Persiana Everyday by British Iranian chef Sabrina Ghayour, “because her recipes always bring joy to my tastebuds.” In March 2023, Nadia Mikail won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize for her debut novel, The Cats We Meet Along The Way, which the publisher Guppy Books describes as “a gentle, affecting, and hopeful debut about what is most important when time is running out” — in other words, child-friendly up lit.

But it’s not just the news that has helped the popularity of up lit in the UK. The 2017 Guardian article also went on to note the following:

A close watcher of social media, [Harlequin’s publishing director] 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.”

It’s a huge generalisation, but nevertheless, in my observation, not untrue, that in recent years, Brits have begun to be more open about emotional struggles and less resistant to therapy. That this is happening in tandem with empathy becoming a more widely discussed and valued quality, and with books which highlight it becoming more popular, is perhaps not surprising.

We are decades behind Americans when it comes to talking openly about our feelings, but also resistant to the rosy Hollywood endings that tends to be popular across the Pond. We are, as a whole, suspicious of anything too perfect-looking, whether that’s straight white teeth or books that end in too tidy a bow. But like everyone else, and especially right now, we need kindness and empathy in our lives, and perhaps this is why up lit, with its blend of hopefulness and realism, is particularly British.