The bestseller lists are full of memoirs about miserable childhoods and anguished families. Waterstone's even has a "Painful Lives" shelf. Why are authors confessing their hurt so freely and do readers find morbid enjoyment in them?
In recent years, numerous new sub-genres have emerged in Britain's literary scene.
There has been "chick lit" (usually comedic novels about singletons looking for Mr Right), "mummy lit" (tales of new mums making a hash of juggling child and career), and "Brit lit" (which refers to new British novel-writing in general).
Now we have what Bookseller magazine refers to as "mis lit", or "misery memoirs", in which the author tells of his or her triumph over personal trauma. Referred to by publishing houses as "inspirational lit" - or "inspi-lit" - many, though by no means all, of the harrowing memoirs tell of being sexually abused as a child.
And they are proving to be hugely popular. Currently there are three such books in the top 10 best-selling paperbacks in Britain.
Two of the top 10 bestsellers
Don't Tell Mummy by Toni Maguire, "a memoir of childhood abuse", is at number one. It's followed closely by Betrayed, a mother's story of a family torn apart by her daughter's behaviour, and Silent Sisters, a memoir about "siblings who survived abuse". In the hardback top 10 there is Our Little Secret, which tells of a "boy molested from age of four" and Damaged, the story of a child abused by parents "involved in a sickening paedophile ring". Daddy's Little Girl, which recounts a girl's abuse by her father, sits just outside.
These memoirs sell in numbers that many mainstream novelists can only dream about. Of the top 100 bestselling paperbacks of 2006, 11 were memoirs about surviving abuse. With combined sales of 1.9 million copies, abuse memoirs made up 8.8% of sales in the 100 bestselling paperbacks last year.
Waterstone's now has a "Painful Lives" shelf which features the newest such examples; Borders has a "Real Lives" section.
They sell in supermarkets, too, including Asda and Tesco. According to Kate Elton of Arrow publishers, the market for these memoirs is "80% or 90% female".
What lies behind the speedy rise of the "misery memoir"? Is the popularity of these books a healthy sign that Britons are shaking off their stiff upper lips and finally talking out loud about painful events? Or is there an element of voyeurism, even salaciousness, in the snapping up of such memoirs? Helps healing
Some of the memoirists say they write in order to come to terms with their traumatic experiences - and to help readers to do likewise. There's compelling evidence that writing about serious emotional upheavals can improve mental and physical health
Professor James W Pennebaker
Toni Maguire, author of the top-selling paperback Don't Tell Mummy, in which she writes of her abuse at the hands of her father, said in a recent interview it was "difficult going back over the past, but writing helped me deal with the past. If readers take one thing away from reading the book I'd like it to be that they normalise the victim. People have got to realise that it is not shameful to be a victim", said Maguire.
James W Pennebaker, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas in the US, says that writing about traumatic experiences can indeed help the writer to deal with his or her emotions.
"There's compelling evidence that writing about serious emotional upheavals can improve mental and physical health," he says.
Professor Pennebaker admits scientific research into the value of expressive writing is still in the "early phases". But his research seems to show that trauma-writing is beneficial. Unsavoury side
"In our studies, we bring a group of people into the lab and randomly select some to write about a personal traumatic experience and others to write about something superficial. They write in 15- or 30-minute bursts over a period of three or four days. We found that those who write about trauma tend to see some improvement in wellbeing."
Do the books point to a national obsession with abuse?
The trauma-writers experienced health benefits - including improvement in immune function - and also reported feeling "less haunted" by their traumatic experiences.
However, Professor Pennebaker says his research only covers individuals who write "by themselves and for themselves".
"The act of writing can be therapeutic, but having your painful writing published is a different matter. Whether that is beneficial for the author is up for question. Sometimes it introduces new problems of its own. The author might be cut off by family and friends or find that their social worlds fall apart."
Others believe that the success of the misery memoir reveals something rather more unsavoury about contemporary Britain.
"I just don't buy the idea that people buy these books for information or advice, for an 'Open Sesame' to becoming free of their own harrowing memories", says Times columnist Carol Sarler.
"Rather they show that, as a nation, we seem utterly in thrall to paedophilia. We are obsessed with it. And now, with these books, we are wallowing in the muck of it. It's all rather disgusting." Most of us not being paedophiles, we are in a comfort zone with these books, where we feel edified and also morbidly thrilled
Gerry Feehily, a publisher-turned-novelist based in Paris, also believes these books are popular because they flatter readers' sense of moral outrage while also secretly titillating.
"Paedophiles are down there with the Nazis and Judas as all-time bad folk, so these stories are easy on the writer, easy on the reader. Most of us not being paedophiles, we are in a comfort zone with these books, where we feel edified and also morbidly thrilled."
And because the memoirs are born out of an existing consensus that child abusers are wicked, they cannot be considered to be challenging or "real" literature, says Feehily.
"For me, any real literature avoids a ready-made consensus, or even challenges the consensus. Few of the books on abuse rise above the level of curio, documentary or pure opportunism", he says. Liz Bury of Bookseller thinks we should be more generous. The rise of the misery memoir shows there has been a "great shift in attitudes in Britain" - we have become more willing to talk about nasty events rather than pursing our lips and staying quiet, she says. "Maybe there is a voyeuristic impulse behind some people's purchase of these memoirs," says Ms Bury. "But probably the vast majority of readers are motivated by empathy rather than a desire to pore over someone else's pain"
Interesting. There was also an article about this in the latest Psychologies magazine.
I find reading such books therapuetic because I know I am not alone. Although usually they went through 'worse' than I did, whatever that means, I can still relate.
My manager calls them 'I've had a s----y life books'. But yeah.
Being somewhat of a writer myself, I couldn't publish anything along those lines with my parents still alive. Plus fear of reprisal from the bullies, and any law stuff connected with my school, which was severely negligent.
Instead I shall probably write something about healing from trauma and emotional abuse, using my own experience.
I have that magazine, haven't gotten around to reading it yet. If I had spare pennies I would subscribe, its good.
I think that relating to an inspiration story is good for some people, but it does leave that potential loophole for people to compare themselves to the story teller, and that can make things worse. I am reading a book called "Thin" by Grace Bowman at the moment and she is right about how her book, same genre as above, could tip share or have a negative effect on someone... depending on how they read it - but it is her personal experience of overcoming Anorexia.
I would love to be able to write a book at some point, its often something a lot of people chose to do. I think you should Katherine, would I get a signed copy? =P
I subsribe to psychologies, but I haven't read this months yet :/ That reminds me to do so actually.
Anyway interesting artical, but I don't know. I think people like to read bad stories to feel better about themselves, and because it's more interesting than a happy story. Is that a bit simplistic? Hmm.
Hunger only for a taste of justice, hunger only for a world of truth, for all that you have is your soul.
I bought some of these misery book's recently - Mainly because having read the review's they sounded interesting or people recommended them and the betrayed one because it looked interesting (I didnt enjoy it though) Mind you I also bought a thriller and several trashy novels - i.e. chick lit!
I do find it amazing though how many of these book's are around currently.
When we lose twenty pounds... we may be losing the twenty best pounds we have! We may be losing the pounds that contain our genius, our humanity, our love and honesty. ~Woody Allen
Is a chocolate muffin loving glitter ball
i have one called "the boy" by kevin lewis. i couldnt actually relate to any of it so thats not why i read it. i saw the guy on tv promoting it and he just seemed like such an amazing guy and telling a bit of his story made me want to read it. so i bought it. its really sad and i read a lot of it thinking "i didnt actually think stuff like that happened" and it made me look at things differently. not necessarily in a good way. it made me question people for a while after knowing that people can be really horrid sometimes.
i wouldnt read any of the books that are out at the moment though. far too triggering. the one i bought i could detach myself from so i felt safe reading it.
voyeurism has always been a huge part of the literary game - this was all at a peak years ago with nabokov and lolita and all that entailed.
shakespeare tapped into voyeurism - look at the 'rape of lucrece'... it's one of the driving forces of reading...what's wrong with that? it's not how you hook people in but what you give them to take away from it that counts. if you get nothing but a vague thrill then no, it isnt literature. but if your beliefs and opinions are stimulated or challenged then who cares if voyeurism helped to get you to that point.
it's not how you hook people in but what you give them to take away from it that counts. if you get nothing but a vague thrill then no, it isnt literature. but if your beliefs and opinions are stimulated or challenged then who cares if voyeurism helped to get you to that point.
Hehe, no worries. And yes, some scenes in that I still remember too. He wa then sued, or got into trouble for using real names and not clearing things with people [like they would say yes] before he published, I think.
My favourites include 'Damaged' by Cathy Glass, a foster carer of a little girl with Dissociative Identity Disorder.
Its amazing that such books can hopefully inform people about less known mental health issues, and the effects of abuse and early trauma. Hopefully this will eventually reduce some of the stigma and fear people have about those with mental illnesses due to abuse and trauma.
'Ugly' by Constance Briscoe is also good. I eagerly await the sequel.....