Embrace uplit with Rick O'Shea's top books to boost your mood 

People are looking for books that offer comfort and hope
Embrace uplit with Rick O'Shea's top books to boost your mood 

Rick O'Shea. Photograph Moya Nolan

Books have been the saviour of many people’s sanity during the last year. However, for every bibliophile who has decided lockdown is the perfect time to finally tackle Finnegan’s Wake or À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, there are many others looking for something with a little less intellectual heft. 

The pandemic has played havoc with our moods and attention spans with the result that many readers are seeking gentler, lighter, more uplifting books. The trend isn’t a new one. The term ‘up-lit’ has been in circulation in publishing circles for a few years now, with many pointing to the phenomenally successful novel Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman — about the travails of a lonely and eccentric young woman — as the spark that lit the flame. Up-lit followed on the heels of ‘grip-lit’, encompassing thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train

Whatever label we give it, it is clear that many people are looking for books that offer comfort and hope, whether that is a well-thumbed favourite or one where all loose ends are tied up in a neat and happy bow. The trend can be seen in publisher’s schedules, with eagerly awaited new titles from English author Beth O’Leary, author of bestselling novel The Flatshare who has been described as ‘the queen of up-lit’ and on home soil, from tried and trusted writers such as Cathy Kelly and Sheila O’Flanagan.

As presenter of The Book Show on RTÉ Radio 1, and custodian of numerous books-oriented endeavours, including Ireland’s largest book club, with over 32,000 members, it’s fair to say Rick O’Shea has his finger on the pulse of Irish readers. He describes up-lit as a ‘convenient’ label for publishers to use with certain books. 

“I don’t think it constitutes a specific genre in and of itself, not like, say, anything like science fiction or griplit, which have specific tropes and are written in specific ways — you have a rough idea of what those books are, but up-lit is very amorphous, they’re not necessarily books that you can put all in one box.”

O’Shea has been in contact with numerous authors and readers over the various lockdowns and says people are definitely seeking escapist reads, whatever they may be.

“Since March of last year, a lot of festivals fell by the wayside, so I did a series with authors online, Shelf Analysis. From asking authors, people I know, and those in the Book Club, the one thing I have seen is that many people have fallen into comfort reading, whether those are genres they’d normally like, or rereading books they love. I suppose it’s about finding the familiar in what’s an increasingly unfamiliar landscape every day.”

 One of O’Shea’s favourite books of the last two years is Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession, a heartwarming tale of everyday kindness and friendship which also happens to meet the criteria many people are seeking in books right now.

“There aren’t many books out there which just allow you into the lives of really nice people who don’t do terrible things to other people — Leonard and Hungry Paul is one of those books. 

It is for anyone looking for a read that will allow them to sink into the world of two fantastic people in which there’s no serious drama, nobody murders anybody else, there’s no crisis in people’s lives beyond small ones, they’re lovely warm human beings. I know a lot of people who read the book and found it the perfect antidote to 2020.

Perhaps Dublin City Libraries had this in mind when it recently chose Leonard and Hungry Paul as the title for its One City, One Book initiative, which encourages people to read their nominated book during the month of April. While Hession's book has been described by some as ‘up-lit’, it is not a tag he would use himself.

“What I understand by ‘up-lit’ is a form of writing that seeks to focus on the positive — though often in a set-up where that positivity can involve someone turning their life around,” he says. “While I can understand the appeal of that, especially at the current time, if it only works as a distraction, then the big, bad world is still waiting for you afterwards. However, if a book can help you to look at the world differently and more clearly, then that type of insight can be meaningful for the reader. At times of crisis, people tend to focus on what is changing and lose sight of what is not changing. By allowing space to reflect on those aspects of human nature that have perennial value, I hope that Leonard and Hungry Paul helps to restore some perspective.”

 With more books than ever vying for shelf space — almost 600 books were released in Britain and Ireland on one day alone last year, September 3 — the reality for publishers is that defining them by a genre or label can make them an easier sell, in the short-term at least. Limerick author Róisín Meaney has many titles under her belt, and her work is often described as ‘up-lit’ or ‘feelgood’.

Roisin Meaney

Roisin Meaney

“People often describe my books as like sitting down with a friend for a chat over a cup of tea, that kind of thing. They are easy reads, ones that you would throw in the suitcase for a beach holiday, back in the day when we did that kind of thing. I’m happy to have them described as such. They are simple stories, but having said that, up to last year, I would have tried to get different aspects of life into a book, because I wanted them to mimic real life, with all its ups and downs. I would have topics in there that would have been considered dark, for example, I had child sexual abuse in one and drink-driving in another. But this last year, I have been very conscious that I want the books to be a happy read, less of the darkness, more of the cheerful, heart-warming things that would make a reader smile.” 

Meaney says there has been a recurring theme in the feedback she has received from readers since the onset of the pandemic.

The comments I get often include phrases like ‘I really needed this at this time’ and ‘thanks for cheering me up because things have been so tough’.

Meaney, who had a book out for Christmas, It’s That Time of Year, and releases a book in June, The Book Club, says there was one topic she was certain to avoid in both titles.

“I deliberately steered well clear of Covid, especially in the book that came out at Christmas. I had people hugging one another, no masks, nobody with even the flu in it. I thought the last thing people will want, the last thing I would want, is to read a book with the pandemic in it. Having said that, I am reading Emma Donoghue’s The Pull of the Stars, which is about the Spanish Flu pandemic. I am reading it for a book club. It has awful resonance for the times we are living in now, I am shuddering it as I read. Maybe I would have chosen to leave it a while until I read it but I am enjoying it because she is a great writer.”

 One thing is clear, no matter what kind of books we read, the opportunity to escape into another world through our imagination is something not to be taken for granted.

“At the moment it’s wonderful for anybody who can find the opportunity to disappear into books, if they have the ability to do,” says Rick O’Shea. 

“There are people who’ve found that very hard, and who haven’t gotten their reading mojo back — I know writers who haven’t gotten their writing mojo back — so anything that people can find their solace in, whether it’s rereading old things or new things, no matter what the genre is, that’s amazing.” 

Rick’s picks for 2021:

  • Panenka, by Rónán Hession, which I haven’t read yet but if it’s anywhere as good as Leonard And Hungry Paul….. he’s a wildly talented writer. I’m looking forward to that.
  • I’m also looking forward to Kazuo Ishiguro’s new one, Klara And the Sun, his first since winning the Booker.
  • Ciaran McMenamin wrote Skintown a couple of years ago, a thriller set in Fermanagh, and his new book is The Sunken Road, set in World War I and in Ireland during Partition. I’m eating it up.
  • Max Porter’s The Death Of Francis Bacon, which I read over Christmas. It’s only 130 pages long and I love Francis Bacon, he’s my great obsession in art and life, and this is extraordinary and weird at the same time.
  • Lisa Harding’s Bright Burning Things — her first one, Harvesting, was extraordinary.
  • I read Conor O’Callaghan’s We Are Not In The World when it was due out around this time last year but it got bumped by a whole 12 months. I loved it.

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