Wounded Sentimentalism: The Literature of Uplift

Professor David James, Professorial Research Fellow in the Department of English Literature, delivered his inaugural lecture at the University of Birmingham on 20 May 2019.

These are not uplifting times: resurgent nationalism, state-sanctioned austerity, and patriotic isolationism have come to define the contemporary moment. 

But writers are offering some positive pushback, developing ameliorative forms for an era of emboldened xenophobia, social precarity, and escalating intolerance. One such response has arrived in the shape of ‘Up Lit’, a genre whose corrective mission is summarised by the former NHS psychiatrist and now full-time novelist, Joanna Cannon, who argues that ‘if we all chose the words we speak with as much care as we choose the words we write, the world might be a much more bearable place in which to live’.

With buoying tales of everyday kindness, Up Lit recalibrates for readers today sentimentalism’s longstanding lessons in compassion. But what would it mean to discover uplift in works that revolve around irremediable catastrophe rather than exemplary care, traumatic works that also refuse to afford readers easy access to the sentimental gratifications of sympathy?

Pursuing this question, the lecture turns to recent memoirs in which the uplifting force of language becomes most palpable, paradoxically, when writers dynamically express seemingly indescribable devastation.