Thursday, 20 November 2008

Misery memoirs

You must have noticed all those tales of childhood pain-and-suffering known to booksellers as misery memoirs (or to you and me as shit-lit). It seems people can't get enough of all this vicarious torment, and sales have gone through the roof.

There's so much demand for these shocking stories of vicious parents and damaged lives that publishers have raked in over £24 million. The best known are Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes" and Dave Pelzer's "A Child called It".

Personally I can't understand why so many people want to wallow at such length in harrowing accounts of personal distress. Surely they're more depressing than inspiring?

But more to the point, many are a pack of lies from start to finish, a cynical hoax on a gullible public who take them at face value. Which is one reason why this lucrative market is now flagging.

Margaret B Jones, who wrote about growing up in gangland Los Angeles, later admitted she had made it all up. The tale of a masochistic rent boy by J T Leroy also turned out to be pure invention. James Frey's account of his alcohol and drug saturated life was found to be full of fabrications and alterations.

A heart-rending book by Misha Defonseca about her survival during the Holocaust was translated into 18 languages and filmed before she admitted it was all bunkum. She hadn't in fact lived with wolves to evade the Nazis, hadn't trekked 3000 miles looking for her parents - and wasn't even Jewish.

A hunger for fame and fortune prompted a lot of unscrupulous individuals to jump on the shit-lit bandwagon and dish out their own portion of psychic mayhem.

Unfortunately they didn't bargain on the growing suspicions of a few hard-nosed readers that reality had been hastily abandoned on page one.

It's one thing to stir people's sympathy and horror at painful experiences no child should have to go through. It's quite another to loosen their tears with a whopping pile of porkies. The publishers' crock of gold has turned abruptly into scrap metal, and red faces are everywhere.


  1. I heard about the court case earlier on the news. I haven't read her book (though Husband has) The subject isn't my idea of a good read and I'm even more glad now that I haven't put myself through all the emotions that reading it might bring.

  2. There's enough of this angst and abuse in the news, I couldn't be bothered paying $28 for a paperback full of it frankly. Gimme a good old thriller anytime.

  3. Suburbia - Not my sort of read either. I know some people say they're inspired by someone who's overcome an awful childhood to have a fulfilling life, but I prefer to get my inspiration from other sources.

    Baino - My opinion entirely. You only have to read about the wretched lives many third world children endure, that's quite horrifying enough.

  4. The Author of "A Million Little Pieces" had to admit he'd embellished many of the facts for dramatic effect much to the ridicule of many - still makes a good if depressing read

  5. Yes, I was going to mention James Frey as well, except that his book isn't total fiction, just liberally sprinkled with made-up episodes and embellishments. Still, that's quite bad enough. And his book was actually lauded by Oprah!

  6. Gosh Nick, I was just reading a review of a book by a woman who lived in a family of dumpster-divers and there is suspicion that her story ain't the truth!! Darned if I can find the title now.
    I agree with you and commenters, I've no time for these type of books.
    As for Frank McCourt I always felt he was laughing up his sleeve at us.
    Shit-Lit, good one!

  7. www - If so much of these books is personal recollection nobody else can confirm, it must always be tempting to "enhance" a few things. Obviously I've missed a chance here - I could have earned a fortune from my own horrific, rat-infested memoirs!

  8. I hadn't heard about this person who lied about surviving the Holocaust. Wow. How low-down and immoral to do such a thing. I guess the desire for money makes folks do anything these days.

  9. Liz - You're right, some people are so seduced by large sums of money they'll stoop to any amount of deceit to get them. And she didn't care about all the genuine survivors of the Holocaust who might not be believed because of her.