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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 April 2007, 11:49 GMT 12:49 UK
Misery lit... read on
By Brendan O'Neill

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."

Boy in the woods
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
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"

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I have read one of these books and the absolute hell Toni Maguire went through as a child and has been able to overcome is truly a wonderful message for anyone who has suffered a simular ordeal. Surely it is helpful to realise you are not the only one, there are others, that someone else has managed to come out the other end and live their life. These experiences can be cathartic for those who have suffered at the hands of a parent, uncle, aunt, friends etc. This abuse does not have to be sexual it can be physical or mental abuse i.e. beatings or being constantly shouted at.I think it takes a great deal of courage to write about these things and applaud anyone who has done so.
D Avery, Bushey

When i read these books i get two things from it: emotional release (appreciation for my own fortunes) and a level of debase joy (reading others' suffering does seem to unleash some sort of sadistic tendency which id rather not experience. I cant read these books as the very idea that i might have some terrible alter persona is frightening. I'm not sure if this is more a reflection of my own deamons coming out, from my own past experience, or whether this is a commone thread in British Culture. I dont know which scares me more.
Nick - 17, London

At serious accident sites First Aiders are told to ignore the ones who are screaming. It's the quiet ones who are most badly injured. Writing about and dwelling on past bad things is like scratching a septic wound. Get over it and get on with life, heal the wounds with positive not negative behaviour. I see monetary gain as the motive in these publications. By the by, I have had a harrowing past, if there's a publisher out there......?
R D Britton, Redruth

I think many survivors of abuse read these books. Survivors grow up in silence, in shame. To see these stories in print, out there, into the world must comfort them. To read that others have experienced similar pains; it makes one fell more accepted, part of a larger group or community. I have lost my parents at a young age and I usually am attracted to novels with that theme. Survivors of abuse are just like everyone else; seeking their experiences in the words of others.
Marisa Hart, Montreal, Canada

I think the fascination with this kind of literature is partly down to the fact that it is so different from the reader's own experiences. Most people live relatively happy, safe, even mundane lives. Its another form of escapism, and probably the reason sci-fi and celebrity memoirs are so popular, too.
Aine, London

Just take a look at the women's magazines (if you can bear it). "Real story" after "true story" after "shocking real-life story".... mostly about paedophilia and sexual abuse. Hell, it's even in the girl's magazines like Bliss, which is even more worrying considering their target audience these days goes from about 11 or 12 up.
Dan Abrey, Oxford, UK

I worked in a bookstore and I see who buys these sorts of books. Aside from some "consciousness raising" the only thing they are good for is titillation. I firmly believe most people who read this sort of thing get a secret, possibly sexual, thrill out of it. Much like true crime novels that focus in gory detail how women are sexually tortured and murdered before the killer is brought to justice (and they sell EVEN BETTER if one of the murderers is also a woman!) the readers don't just enjoy the horror, or the draw of forbidden, they really seem to "get off on it". So what does that say about our media obsession with peadophilia? Is it not just shock that children suffer this, but something more sinister? It is not a matter of "empathy" that these things are so popular.
Anna, Orlando, US

I usually read books as escapasim. Getting away from the dreary tedium of everyday life by losing yourself in a good book is one of life's little joys. These sort "mis-lits" sound like the worst kind of trashy agony-aunt columns. I would sooner read a technical manual than this sort of dross. People may find it helpful to write this stuff down but actually publishing it seems to be wallowing in the culture of victimhood.
Matt, Hampshire

When you've had a less-than-perfect life, it is the way people overcome the issues that is most important. Perhaps Times columnists have had perfect lives and childhoods but I'd like to see all these judgmental vox-pops capped, I know you are trying to provide balance but some people are ridiculously insensitive in their extrapolations.
Louise, Manchester

I too am a child of abuse not only from a mother that showed no love but,to a father who showed love in the wrong way, I say cudo's to those brave enough to tell there stories (which I am in the process of doing) for there are so many out there young and old that could probably benifit from these stories. Juanda Harris
Juanda, USA

I can't imagine anything worse. We've turning into a pretty ghoulish society.
James Marriott, London, UK

But mislit is not at all new. Remember 'A Child Called 'It''and 'Angela's Ashes' a few years ago? The stiff upper lip gave way to a fat bottom line way before now...
Helena, Yonago Japan

I'd be interested to know how books like this do in the long-term. My guess would be Lolita has out sold all of these type of memoirs put together...
Jenny , London

Two words. Oliver Twist.
Ian Kemmish, Biggleswade, UK

writing about our problems and demons can be very theraputic but having these writings published does not sit well with me. I realise that its good to know that we are not alone in our misery but do we need to profit from our troubles?
SUE, retford, notts

I read a fair chunk of mis lit. And yes, I sob and have to put the book down when it becomes too much but ... but ... I am always able to pick it up again. It has befome a different kind of entertainment. Our morbid fascination has become a multi million pound industry!
Petra, Bagshot

I can't think of anything worse! For me, reading is about escapism. I don't want to read about the horrors people have lived through. I'm sorry for them, and hope that writing about their trauma helps them exorcise their demons, but I for one will be steering well clear of those shelves.
JR, London

The proliferation of misery memoirs and those that particularly focus on child abuse invariably helps to normalise paedophilia. Whilst I agree we should not remain silent about these events, my fear is that getting into the mindset of the abused will overtime desensitise us to the true ugly nature of these events. On the couple of occasions where I have been enticed by one of those books, reading just a few lines have so repulsed me that I have been unable to read any further and have simply put the book back on the shelf.
s marguerite, london

Having just finished the book 'Thin' by Grace Bowman, I realised how healing her account of recovering from anorexia has been to me personally. Whilst not an anorexic myself, I have been plagued with issues with my weight since an early teenager, and they show no sign of disappearing. I disagree with the accusation that I'm "wallowing in the muck" of another person's misery, as Carol Sarler claims, but rather, have found the tale of Grace's experience helps explain my own worries and puts them into perspective. If books such as these help just one reader, then surely it's worth having them on our shelves?
Body Worrier, London

People read these books, and the misery mags and watch the misery TV news for the same reason they rubberneck at a car accidents. If they compare their own lives with somebody who has had a really hard time, then their own lives doesn't seem that bad. It's certainly a lot easier than facing reality and dealing with your own issues.
Neil Wilson,

Wow, how incredibly self-righteous. If you want to know why people read these types of books, read a Torey Hayden book, then tell us again how we're secretly 'titillated' (an appalling choice of words) by the thought of children being molested and being able to read about it. I wonder if any of the puffed up, psycho-babblers have actually simply asked someone who has read the book, why they did so? Could it be possible that some people have been abused their entire lives, tried so very hard to tell people about it and had everything swept under the carpet and books like these help them realise 'Oh my God. It didn't just happen to me'? I'm sure there are some people out there who enjoy them as a light read, or have a morbid fascination, but for crying out loud - i've never read such a ridiculously self-important article in my life.
Nicola, Brighton

It is indeed theraputic to write about one's anguish as a young child, as those who have suffered at an early age tend to feel alone and outcast, and if those who have written books about such traumatising memories are reaching out to help others, whether victims or those associated with them, this is a good thing, although the fear of being rejected for publishing home truths may be off putting for some. It is human interest that draws us to these morbid true life tales, and though it may help some, the pity felt by the audience isn't usually welcomed, as for most who would write these books, living with such experiences may be the only thing they have ever known during childhood, and the sense of fantasy that is veiled over such horrible experiences is something comforting that guises the real emotion readers would be shocked to feel. Reading and writing about such experiences may be interesting or therapeutic for some, but there will always be a fine line between dealing with an issue, and putting it on display. I personally believe that although it may be difficult to write up such memories, dealing with them at a greater depth, and facing the consequences of the effects of the problems may have a far more detrimental effect than the author may first realise. These are peoples lives and experiences, that, although may be similar to others, will never be exactly the same, or fully appreciated by those who are in a similar or completely different situation. Each person and how they deal with whatever childhood trauma they may have faced is different, but any trauma is personal, and cannot be fully understood by anyone other than the victim. So in that sense, I believe that to fully deal with your issues, sharing them or otherwise, is to accept isolation in that part of your life and to adapt and move on, and seek better and more meaningful times in the future.
Anon, Winchester

I feel ladies throughout the world love a weepie, be it a book or movie, some sort of emotional release to relate to . My partner Sharon, would gladly sit through what I call the housewives channel, True Movies, with coffee and biccies and hankies on tap, and bawl her eyes out. The same her mum but with a book, I myself would rather watch Columbo for 6 hours but saying that I am a man. Ying and Yang I suppose.
Peter Hagan, Liverpool, England

Just because Mr Freehily may find the pornographic references in these books tittalating does not mean the 80-90% of female readers do. What a callouus and short sighted not to mention slightly weird view to take. Maybe the huge rise in child abuse means more people are reading these books because they can identify with them either through there own or someone they know's experiences. Maybe like a lot of great literature it is a social comment n the way we live?
danielle watt, berkhamsted england

Life is so unfair. No hope of bestseller riches for me. Any chance of success in the 'miz lit' stakes forever blighted by my parents' gift of a moderatlely happy, uneventful childhood. Picnics, a big garden, seaside holidays, security, bedtime stories. They tucked me up, my mum and dad. Can I sue?
Rory Keegan, Warwick

There's also a parallel obsession in 'literature' today relating to the front covers. Walk into any large bookshop, look at the covers of the contemporary fiction paperbacks, and count how many feature photographs of adolescent or pre-adolescent girl's legs. Rarely the girl herself - they almost always simply show lower legs and feet, or possibly up to the waist. What is the obsession? I've never read any of these books, and frankly the covers would make me uneasy doing so. Is it just one publishing house with a slightly dodgy Art Director? Or is there a conspiracy at work in the publishing field...?
Dan, Manchester

I find it all a bit creepy. The texts are incredibly graphic - far more graphic than news articles are permitted to go, or movies. I think part of the attraction is that normal people probably never even comprehended the sorts of acts committed. How many things, as an adult, can truly shock or surprise you? The whole thing's odd.
Dena, UK

I think it is slowly but surely coming to people's attention that incestuous child sexual abuse is far more prevalent than we know. As a victim myself I find that I empathise greatly with the writers of these biographies and I wish I could have the strength to speak out and denounce my abuser. I'm sure by doing so that I would have a great weight lifted from my shoulders, but feel for those who knew my abuser as it would shock them too much and in one case I'm sure it would send one of them 'over the edge'. Perhaps, although I feel that it would take a great deal of strength to speak out, I am in fact stronger than I think, but what a burden it is to carry this feeling that I am the one who is guilty, when I am so obviously not.

Try reading "Where Did It All Go Right?" by Andrew Collins. It's about a normal, happy childhood...and a much better read I think
Richard Button, Faversham

I saw a 'tragic life stories' shelf in WH Smiths the other day.
Holly, Oxford

There's a problematic side to this loss of the stiff upper approach which is very worryingly expressed by the popularity of mis-lit. The thing that worries me is the way we are encouranged to identify ourselves as victims and blame events happening now on what we think happened in the past. This is more paralysing than liberating as it reduces the belief in making yourself in the hear and now.
Simon Belt, New Mills, Derbyshire, UK

Voyeurism. This is a just a new version of the real life crime story genre. People whose only form of titillation is in other people's 'real' emotion. Vicariousness at its most goulish.
Micah, London

Our society nowadays is so broken down that the only way for us to feel better about ourselves is reading sad and morbid stories of other peoples experiences, whether factual or fictional.
Ash, Tanzania

Voyeurism and pity for people who buy their books in supermarkets next to the shelf of "my husband cheated on me" magazines, who watch Oprah crying on daytime TV as victims tell their stories for the massses, who wouldn't help someone next door if their lives depended on it but need to get their emotional fix from somewhere less close to home.
Rebecca, Cambs, UK

I personally find no interest in such reading materials. In fact, I was recently reading the Memoir of Lynn Sherr, a US tv reporter. Towards the end, the book became such a "poor me" read, I slammed the book shut.
Kara Tyson, Mobile, AL USA

A lot of my friends and family read these books, all female, I can't actually read them I find them depressing. I know they are stories of 'against all odds' vein and I commend the people for facing upto their difficult pasts but, having had two different people only 'try' to abuse me (one of these men I didn't know and he actually tried to abduct me from a carpark when I was about 6 after masterbating infront of me), these books make me realise what could have happened and makes me feel empty or dead inside. I know that sounds weird but that's how it is. Maybe a lot of women read these though because they have suffered something like it and they can relate to it. When I was at school I knew two girls out of my six/seven close friends who had been abused. Makes you wonder how common it really is. Scary.
?, Nottingham UK

There are two books called Our Little Secret. The second was written by Tori Dante who was abused by her father as a girl. I've read this and it made me realise what a betrayal of trust this was, and how awful it was for her to testify against her own father in court. Whilst the media can harp on about Sarah's Law the fact is that most abuse is carried out by people known to the victim.
John Airey, Peterborough, UK

I've read a couple of books that I guess could be classed as misery memoirs, but part of that was to try and come to terms with my own problematic childhood. Did it to try and see how others dealt (or in some cases didn't deal) with overcoming obstacles. More to do with seeing how others got "worked", and to see what I could learn from their experiences. I do tend to avoid anything with soft-focus pics of kids with teddy bears on, for some reason I find them distasteful, not sure why.
elles, london

Bleeeugh! It's the literary equivalent of slowing down to look at a car crash, surely? I'm not disputing the therapeutic benefits of writing things down (which I do myself in the form of a diary), but having it published is just nasty.
Kate, Oxford,Uk

Kate, writing as someone who has just had one of these books published, I for one can confirm that putting it down in a diary is just continuing the secrecy. If the shame and guilt could be released in that way I'm sure everyone would choose it. But mostly it isn't. Publication is the ultimate way of ending that secrecy, however difficult that is for the author or controversial that may be.
Anya Peters, England

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