Misery Memoir Genre: Do Grim Novels Dominate Book Market?

Posted at 23:41pm on 14th July 2010

As an author I am, naturally, interested in the book market. Consequently, when I was shown a newspaper article a few months ago by a friend, about the continuing proliferation of misery memoir metamorphosing into a novel, I read it, avidly.

MISERY MEMOIR: WHAT IS IT?

The misery memoir genre came to prominence in the late 1990’s, with books like Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes – a literary masterpiece about the author’s grim childhood in Ireland – and the more controversial, A Child Called It by David Pelzer. Describing the abuse suffered at the hand of his alcoholic mother, Pelzer’s account was later refuted by his brothers and grandmother. Subsequently, similar books were discovered to be fraudulent – fiction portrayed as fact.

“If you were a betting man, the statistical probability of someone having so many terrible events in their life stretched credibility," said Herman Kelly, writing about Kathy O'Beirne's 2005 memoir, Kathy's Story: A Childhood Hell Inside The Magdalene Laundries. The book was later roundly denounced as a work of fiction by members of Kathy’s family.

AUTOBIOGRAPHY: WHAT IS ITS PURPOSE?

Autobiography, when true, and when it details accounts of abuse, hardship and trauma, may be cathartic for its authors, but what does it do for readers? Does it merely indulge humanity’s baser instincts: a natural prurience; a lust to be scandalised? Or does it serve a purpose in uplifting human nature by portraying an inspirational story of triumph over adversity?

Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield fulfils this aim. Described as ‘stories that restore your faith in human nature’, the book is a series of true accounts of ‘ordinary people doing extraordinary things.’

Triumph over adversity was certainly my aim when I wrote Divorced But Not Defeated (now out of print). Published in 1984, when divorce was still mired in stigma – especially in church circles – my publishers originally wanted it to be titled ‘Surviving Divorce’. The optimist in me found that too negative a concept, evoking imagery of a drowning woman clinging, falteringly, to a life raft. My book was written to show not simply that survival was possible after divorce, but that one could thrive. ‘Not Defeated’ had more of a triumphal ring in my ears. Besides, the poet in me liked the alliteration of my choice of title.

MIS LIT: GRIM NOVELS

Sometimes, one genre spawns another. The newspaper article with which I began this post, was a lament about the dominance in the book market by mis lit – novels which follow a similar format to misery memoirs. Described in 2008, by the Daily Mail, as tales of drunken mothers, bestial fathers, paedophilia and incest which have become the titillating popcorn of publishing today, they are seen by literary agent Lizzy Kremer, of David Higham Associates, as ‘fulfilling readers’ needs to be emotionally moved by what they are reading’. Others, however, perceive them as merciless, humourless and wretched.

Portrayed by Daisy Goodwin, chairwoman of the Orange Prize judging panel as ‘grim’, they are epitomised by such titles as: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy and The Gathering by Anne Enright. The former explores the relationship between a father and his young son in a post-apocalyptical world, in which everything is annihilated; the latter, the sexual shenanigans of a dysfunctional Irish family, following a funeral. ‘Bleak’ might be an apt description of both. The only inspiration or uplifting effect, I would suggest, might be a sense of relief in knowing that ‘there but for the grace of God go I.’

INSPIRATIONAL NOVELS

Conflict resolution and relationship psychology are, of course, the stuff of which fiction is made, as any author undertaking a creative writing project will tell you. There’s plenty to be found in my novel, A Painful Post Mortem and if ever a book could be said to be ‘fulfilling readers’ needs to be emotionally moved by what they are reading’ (Lizzy Kremer above) I believe this is it. At least, that’s what readers’ reviews have led me to believe!

A PAINFUL POST MORTEM

The story is of a mother’s enduring love when, following her divorce, her fourteen year old daughter takes to drugs. It’s a story of hope and despair, anger and affection, exasperation and pity, and it could be applied to a million mothers, and more, as they watch the seeds sewn in their children begin to show the promise of budding youth – only to see that first flowering dashed to the ground and trampled underfoot.

Bleak? Yes! But uplifting, too, as the reader sees the effect of the relentless, unconditional qualities of parental love win through. Buy a copy here at a discounted price. All proceeds are for charities helping to educate young people in the pitfalls of drug abuse, and those caring for the child victims of HIV and AIDS. What could be a more uplifting outlook from what might, in today’s book market, be called a novel in the mis lit genre, than bringing hope not only to readers, but also to the beneficiaries of these charities: Rachel, who, at 13 is mother to 6 kids orphaned by AIDS; these teenagers in the UK.

Author of a number of books, one a Sunday Times No 4 Bestseller, Mel Menzies is also an experienced Speaker at live events, as well as on Radio and TV. Book her here for your event.

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Photograph: Through the rain

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