Book descriptors : but what do they actually mean?

TBR pile of booksThis week, in connection with something unrelated to this blog, I came across a lot of book descriptors. By that, I mean the kind of words that are supposed to identify types and genres of fiction. Now I think I know what’s meant by romance or historical or saga. But some of the others? Um. Not so much.

So this blog is about a failing in my education. I need to get my head around these new and unfamiliar words to describe fiction. Who knows, I may even be writing some of them?
But if I don’t understand the book descriptors, how will I ever know?

Uplit, or Up-Lit, or Up Lit (Take your pick on spelling)

One of the first book descriptors I fell over was Uplit. I tried the dictionary. Nope. (It asked me if I’d meant to type uplift. Sigh.)

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely FineI tried Wikipedia. It suggested I might like to create a page for up-lit (with hyphen). No, I don’t! Argh!
But it produced one single reference in its page on Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine where I found this:

The novel has been identified as a notable example of “up lit”, referring to uplifting literature which features stories of kindness, compassion, and hope. It has also been credited with raising the popularity of uplifting literature among the public, as since its publication a marked rise has been observed in the number of up lit novels making best-seller lists.

Hmm. I’m prepared to accept that uplit stories feature kindness, compassion and hope. But, when I read Eleanor Oliphant, I found it grim and depressing. More misery-lit than up-lit. Some readers and reviewers raved about it. I’m not one of them.

silhouette of girl with heartsIf I want an uplifting read, I’ll pick up a Mills & Boon romance by someone like Liz Fielding or a historical adventure by Sarah Mallory. (Yes, shameless hive promo. They write great stories.)

I know I’ll find kindness and compassion and hope — also love — in those. And Marian Keyes agrees that Mills & Boon is an “escape from sorrow”. Sounds uplifting to me.

Or I could go for a cosy crime from hive friend Lesley Cookman, with a community of supportive characters and a villain brought to book at the end. That, to me, is uplifting.
[But of course some people would say none of these choices qualify as uplifting literature. More on that topic below.]

So maybe I’ve failed the uplit test?  What about you? What books would you class as uplit?

Upmarket

butler polishing shoes

Upmarket? Affluent enough to have a butler, maybe?

My next challenging descriptor was upmarket. What, I asked myself, is an upmarket book?

The dictionary didn’t completely fail this time. Upmarket is in there, defined as “relatively expensive and designed to appeal to affluent consumers”. But as book descriptors go, I don’t think that’s helpful. Unless I were to buy all my books in hardback?
I don’t. (Scottish skinflint, who me?)

struggling writer with screwed up sheetsSince the dictionary wasn’t exactly helping with upmarket, I tried downmarket. Defining something by its opposite can work. And I struck gold. Towards or relating to the cheaper or less prestigious sector of the market.

Ah yes, I see. Upmarket books are the ones that do not go for the cheaper, less prestigious end of the market. Not trashy, in other words. And I was vividly reminded of being asked, not long after I was first published by Mills & Boon, whether I was going to stop writing trash and start writing “a proper book”.

So the kind of escapist and heart-warming stories that I would class as uplifting are not only not-uplit, they’re not-upmarket either. Gee thanks, guys.

I suspect that upmarket books may be the kind that readers flaunt. You know, like War and Peace (which I loved) or Ulysses (which I could barely start, far less finish). Or one of the serious—and sometimes pretentious—modern book choices of book group readers.book group working

(Book group books is another book descriptor that’s often used, but I think I know what that one means, so I’m not going to waste blog space by exploring it here.)

High-Concept

Titian's Venus with Mirror

Highbrow art? Titian: Venus with Mirror

I made the classic mistake with the third of my book descriptors: high-concept. I assumed I knew what it meant. I’d made associations with the words. I though of concept as meaning an idea. And high as meaning, well, high.

So high-concept should mean something like highbrow, no? As in highbrow art? Intellectual? Rarefied in taste? (Possibly with nudes?)

No. Totally, completely wrong. 😉

Sigh again.

Once I had looked it up, my trusty dictionary gave me this: (especially of a film or television plot) having a striking and easily communicable idea.

And Wikipedia went further. It has a whole article on it:

Film poster Jurassic ParkHigh concept is a type of artistic work that can be easily pitched with a succinctly stated premise. It can be contrasted with low concept, which is more concerned with character development and other subtleties that are not as easily summarized.

and there’s more, too:

A movie described as being “high-concept” is considered easy to sell to a wide audience because it delivers upon an easy-to-grasp idea. This simple narrative can often be summed up with a single iconic image, such as the theme park logo from Jurassic Park.

So… high-concept means simple, plot-driven, not subtle, easy to sell to the masses?

Oops! Book descriptors don't seem to workDoesn’t seem to fit with uplit, does it?
Or with upmarket, either?

Might even be called trashy?

Then again, most of the books I like (and the ones I try to write, too) are strongly character-based. That rules me out on the high-concept front, too. Ah well.

Book descriptors 3 : Joanna 0

At least I’ve sort of nailed down these popular book descriptors, even if I can’t find a way of fitting my own books into them. So my education has improved. Just a fraction.

What about the kind of books you like? Or those you write?

Joanna the unfitting?

14 thoughts on “Book descriptors : but what do they actually mean?

  1. Liz Fielding

    Thanks for the mention, Joanna. I am happy to declare that I’m with Marian Keyes in declaring genre romance whether it’s historical, medical or contemporary to be totally “uplift” in that no matter what the characters have to go through, the end will always leave you feeling uplifted and happy. And right now that is what I want from a book whether it’s romance or crime. I’ve never been able to pin any of my own books down to High Concept, a description which should be left where it started, with the movies. Upmarket…? I think I prefer the word quality – in both writing and story telling – and there are many much-loved writers who fall within that category who would be dismissed, unread, by the upmarket lot. They don’t know what they’re missing.

    Reply
    1. Joanna Post author

      My pleasure re the mention, Liz. Your stories do give me a lift so, for me, they’re uplit. I think you’re right to prefer “quality” to “upmarket” too. But, sadly, those are the words that keep being bandied around.

      Reply
  2. Sophie

    Goodness, real food for thought here.

    I’m afraid I agree with you about Eleanor Oliphant being depressing. I read most of it with distress, in dread of what was to come. By the end, I felt I’d squeaked under the wire because her story wasn’t a total car crash. But kindness, hope and compassion? Not so much.

    It sounds as if high concept is basically either a parable or something like Snakes on a Plane. Very odd.

    Reply
    1. Joanna Post author

      We’re on the same wavelength with Eleanor Oliphant. For me, if uplit means reading three-quarters or more of a book full of grim depression in order to have a glimmer of compassion in the last few pages, I think I’ll pass. Because what sticks in my poor brain is the grim.

      Re High-concept, you’re bang on. The Wikipedia article I referenced says this:
      “Extreme examples of high-concept films are Snakes on a Plane and Hobo with a Shotgun, which describe their entire premises in their titles.”

      PS At one stage, the studio changed the title. Samuel L Jackson made them change it back. He said, “We’re totally changing that back. That’s the only reason I took the job: I read the title.” So, sometimes, high-concept works in interesting ways 😉

      Reply
  3. lesley2cats

    But that description of “high concept” appears to be a paradox. Snakes on a Plane isn’t highbrow, is it? It’s bog standard appeal-to-the-masses stuff. I would associate high concept with something perhaps slightly more “literary”. Anyway, I’m happy to be low concept, lowbrow and anything else low, frankly. It’s more comfortable down here. And thanks for the mention, Joanna.

    Reply
  4. Sarah Mallory

    Thank you, Joanna, I am glad to know I am not alone – I don’t have a clue what half these terms mean and even with your wonderful explanations I don’t think I will ever really be comfortable with them. I enjoyed Eleanor Oliphant, but “up-lit”, really? I didn’t find it as uplifting as many books I have read (esp those written by fellow hive members!) Thanks for mentioning my books, BTW, but as for giving them a book descriptor – well, historical romance, romantic adventure, or, to go back several decades “a jolly good yarn” just about covers it! Why, oh why do people want to fit books into these categories? I see lots of books described as romcom, but the stories vary so widely that category is a very big one! Hmmph. Yours grumpily.

    Reply
  5. Sue Cook

    I’m with you on Eleanor Oliphant. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and there was a glimmer of hope at the end, but I would not call it an ‘uplifting’ book by any means. Give me a crime anyday – I know what I’m getting!

    Reply
    1. Joanna Post author

      Too right, Sue. With crime (as also with romance) there’s an implicit promise to the reader. I agree that’s more uplifting to read.

      Reply
  6. Elizabeth Hawksley

    I’m so pleased to find that others, too, didn’t get on with ‘Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine.’ For me, it was a lot of horrible people being horrible to each other. I was glad when it ended.

    Reply
    1. Joanna Post author

      Snap! But it’s interesting to me that everyone seems to have finished it, rather than chucking it at the wall. Was that because we were all desperate for a glimmer of hope?

      Reply
  7. Elizabeth Hawksley

    It wasn’t so much that I was desperate for a glimmer of hope – I really wanted to enjoy the book I’d heard so much about so I thought I’d better finish it so that, if I continued to dislike it, I could at least SPEAK with conviction! .

    Reply

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