Tragic Lit – an interesting genre

From CR Blog.

Borders bookshop has a “Real Lives” section. Waterstones ups the ante with “Painful Lives”. Amazon’s catch-all is the more enigmatic “True Endurance and Survival”. But earlier this week I found myself in the “Tragic Life Stories” aisle of WHSmiths. After taking in that, yes, a whole section of shelving had actually been given over to this subject, it struck me that while each book pertained to be a traumatic tale of an individual, they were marketed in such a way as to look entirely the same. Unlike the covers within the nearby Crime section, where even the most conventional might feature a gun, a knife, or something vaguely noir-ish; within Tragic Life Stories there is, apparently, no need to differentiate details. Each one is a tragic tale; each one has the same cover: a child’s face and a scrawled, handwritten title.

While the genre itself isn’t particularly new – the book said to have launched this market, Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called It, came out in the mid-90s – WHSmiths have seemingly only carried a Tragic Life Stories section since the start of last year. But now “misery lit”, the industry term apparently coined by The Bookseller magazine, is big, big business.

And the repetitious design aesthetic is there for a reason; namely, that the people that like this stuff will know what to look for. The title, usually handwritten, often scrawled, has something of the confessional about it; while the supporting image of an aggrieved child looks out with doe eyes (though rarely is this, of course, the actual victim or author – models are frequently used).

Esther Addley, writing on the subject in the Guardian, put it succinctly: “the volumes invariably carry a washed-out close-up of a particularly pretty child’s face on a pale background, with the title of the book in handwritten script. As Peter Saxton, biography buyer for Waterstone’s [says]: ‘White cover, swirly writing, big-eyed child. These are the visual clues that tell prospective buyers that they are going to be in their comfort (or discomfort) zone’.”

Addley also goes on to look at the nature of the titles of the books themselves: “In the UK at least, these increasingly follow one of two paths: the dramatic past participle (Wasted, Abandoned, Damaged) or the more discursive, directly heartstring-tugging phrase (Daddy’s Little Girl; Don’t Tell Mummy; Please, Daddy, No).”

But there are signs of a growing backlash against Misery Lit. While authors who obtained book deals and, indeed, notoriety and sales through their stories of pain and misery have been exposed as fakes (see JT LeRoy and James Frey’s efforts), there have recently been even more high profile exposés: Kathy O’Beirne’s memoir, Kathy’s Story: A Childhood Hell Inside the Magdalene Laundries was recently revealed as fictitious; as was Misha Defonseca’s, Surviving With Wolves, which in a crude nod to Frank’s writings was billed as “the most extraordinary story of World War II”.

Interesting indeed. But, not a section I’ll be running to next time I’m in my local Borders, I think.

2 Replies to “Tragic Lit – an interesting genre”

  1. What bugs me about the frauds is that it obscures stories by people that actually HAVE stories to tell. Could you imagine if Anne Frank’s diary came out now, in today’s jaded climate? Frauds like that annoy me on many levels. But I agree with you; this is not a section I’ll be rushing to. I like to read for entertainment or education, not for catharsis.

  2. I love my angst, but set in a world separate from reality. I think I’ll steer clear of this section. Life is depressing enough.

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