Old Whinger's Corner Part 73: Misery Lit/Real Life Stories
There is a genre for every kind of book now, even sub-divisions of those genres, becoming more and more specific. Fantasy and Science Fiction for example are divided into a whole range of pigeon holes: Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic; Cyberpunk; Space Opera; Time Travel; Put It Down And Get Yourself A Girlfriend... I once mused on creating an anarchist sub-division of detective fiction but despite the intricacies of the plot, blackmail, murder and several red herrings thrown in to the mix, it was always going to end with the sleuth turning to his faithful crusty sidekick and saying:
“ I deduce that Lord Fondle-Arse was killed by the Maid with the cordless hedge trimmer in the Billiard Room, yet in the final analysis it is Society and the State which is to blame.” Politically correct it may have been but it probably wouldn’t have sold very well to be honest.
Real Life Stories is a genre that should, but doesn’t, have these sub-divisions. I would have always thought that when browsing in a large bookstore that the shelves in front of me labelled 'Real Life Stories' would be straining under the weight of tales of derring-do: Climbing Everest with a Spoon, Uni-cycling up the Autobahn. But they’re not this type of literature at all. The books that masquerade under the Real Life Story moniker are better known by the term ‘Misery Lit’, this should be the maxim for these books but in reality it isn’t. In the interest of increased sales, WH Smith use the mentioned banner of 'Real Life Stories' whereas Waterstones, with a more erudite outlook, use 'Painful Lives'. Regardless of either the operative word ‘Misery’ is far more apt to both the book itself and the experience of reading it.
The books themselves are in the main a uniform white, both cover, back and spine. Young male and female faces stare out at you, lips pursed (there are no smiles here). The portrait’s colouring is muted, as if the very lifeblood has been sucked from them. How can such an innocent face as this be abused? Well they can, and if you stump up seven pounds ninety nine, you’ll read how in all its unsavoury detail. Along with the more memorable titles such as David Pelzer’s Pulitzer nominated A Child Called It, there is a whole slew of descriptive adjectives: Scarred, Hidden, Cherished, usually written in a childish hand across the frontspiece, some push the boat out further: Cry Silent Tears, Catch Me Before I Fall and the sure-fire winner should there ever be an award for cynical mawkish heart-tugging title, Daddy Please, No.
As The Smiths once pointed out, “Barbarism Begins At Home” and when you turn that first page and work through chapter one you are into territory such as: parents killed tragically whilst a baby, packed off to uncaring aunt and uncle, forced to live under the stairs, bullied by a spoilt overweight cousin, accepted into Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry... all forms of abuse here, from your standard mental and physical cruelty to some of the most inventive forms of torture that even the CIA would be proud of. It’s a long slog through alcoholic parents, evil step brothers, predatory uncles and a litany of understaffed social services, powerless teachers and useless policemen, was it ever any different? However, unlike the recent Baby P case, redemption eventually comes and as we near the end the protagonist forgives, looks to the future and all’s well that ends well.
What purpose do these books serve? Is it catharsis for people who’ve suffered similar upbringings? Or maybe they’re the new classics, Oliver Twist updated with sexual abuse and domestic violence. Do people read them and say ‘well my life ain’t so bad after all’ or conversely, is it voyeurism in a paperback for those of the righteously indignant and moral outrage brigade who still need their fix of cruel titillation, the sort who would attack any person or thing that began with the letters PAE...
Angry mob torch Spanish paella restaurant
The publishers know that after the runaway success of A Child Called It, that ‘misery sells’ and these things can be churned out whether true, embellished or just made up to a simple template. Whether you believe in supply or demand curves or the adage ‘the public gets what the public wants’ or even ‘the public wants what the public gets’, it is a sad indictment of the times we live in.
My own real life memoir: No! Uncle Adolf. Not the Bunker Again! will be published in the autumn of this year.