Reading: Misery Literature, Publishing Boom

With the popularity of reality TV, everyone’s angling for a piece of the action. In book publishing, real life stories are in, which makes literary fiction uninteresting, unfashionable and financially unviable. In fact, it is more difficult than ever for a hard-working novelist to get noticed by agents and publishers.

Real-Life Stories

Unfortunately, it’s not about to change any time soon. Memoir writing is becoming more and more popular, and it’s no longer confined to statesmen, artists and other famous types looking back over an eventful life. As a matter of fact, everyone’s doing it—bored housewives, reformed industry captains, disillusioned twenty-somethings, even teens reflecting on harsh high school experiences. The trouble is most of their stories aren’t that interesting, and unless the author is talented and hardworking (perhaps a frustrated novelist?), there isn’t much chance the writing will make it so.

Alarming Trend

This has led to the production of wilder, more outlandish and more wrenching stories. There’s the one about the young woman who worked in a brothel for ten years to support her heroin habit. There’s the one about the young boy physically and emotionally abused by his mother. And the one about the little girl who spent a childhood being raped by her father. These tales of real-life trauma are known as misery memoirs, or ‘mis-lit’ for short. Bookseller declares that mis-lit has emerged as the liveliest new category of books. The Independent identifies it as the book world’s biggest boom sector.

Of the top 100 best selling paperbacks of 2006 in the UK, eleven were misery memoirs, with total sales of more than 1.9 million copies. Also in 2006, the top selling misery memoir (Behind Closed Doors, by Jenny Tomlin) sold 278,000 copies, more than six times the number sold by that year’s Booker Prize winner (Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss). HarperCollins reports a 31 per cent increase in profits thanks to mis-lit.

This trend is disturbing for two reasons. First, these lurid stories encourage an unhealthy voyeurism, allowing readers to revel in the misfortunes of others and perhaps, in extreme cases, even normalising child abuse and paedophilia. Second, because market demand is high, more and more people are churning out these chilling tales of abasement, even when they are not true.

A Temptation for Writers

Writers have realised that mis-lit is a road to publishing success. Many have succumbed to the temptation to elaborate on or even completely fabricate large swaths of “the truth”. In the US, Norma Kouri’s story of an honour killing and James Frey’s harrowing tale of his years as a drug addicted criminal have been shown to be largely works of fiction. Relatives of Constance Briscoe have discredited much of the childhood misery she wrote about. There are no records or witnesses to verify that Kathy O’Beirne, who wrote a memoir of life inside Ireland’s Magdalene laundries, ever lived there. Most recently, there are discrepancies in Ismael Beah’s account of child soldiering in Sierra Leone.

Does it Matter?

If these writers represented their works as fiction, in the current climate it is improbable that they would have been published at all. Even if they were, it’s unlikely they would have achieved the same degree of success. The fault lies with the publishing industry, sure, but it is the book buying public with its large appetite for such reading that is to blame for creating the current market.

Peter Saxton of Waterstone bookstores said, “I think non-fiction should be exactly that, but people read these books for a gripping read more than anything else. It’s hard to imagine a reader feeling short-changed because such things didn’t happen.”

Perhaps the answer lies in the kind of disclaimer that often appears at the beginning of made-for-television movies: “Based on true events”. This would allow for some literary license and avoid the potential outcry when a work is shown to be less than one hundred per cent non-fiction. Or perhaps a disclaimer closer to the reality of the situation, something like: “This is a work of fiction, but wouldn’t it be awful if it were true!”


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