A curse on these misery memoirs...How writers are making money through morbid stories

Last updated at 08:29 20 March 2008

At the end of 2003 I met a successful woman writer who'd read in the papers about the end of my marriage to Jonathan Dimbleby.

"I hope you're going to write a book about it!" she said with some glee. I shook my head. "But you must!" she went on.

"Tell it like it was. And if you don't want to write it as a true story, just turn it into a novel. You'll do really well."

When I protested that I couldn't possibly do that because it would be wrong, she replied: "But why shouldn't you?"

Maybe her counsel made commercial sense, but I'm glad I didn't take it.

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Morbid: Misery stories are now bestsellers (posed by model)

There's enough personal misery swilling around the shelves of bookshops without me adding to the woe.

Surely some details are best kept private - or is that just being prissy?

Certainly, I'm out of tune with the times.

After all, any celebrity autobiography nowadays (from Sharon Osbourne to Frank Bruno) is required to take us on a turbulent ride from trouble to trouble - dodgy parents, colon cancer, mental illness, alcohol and drug abuse, etc. Happy lives don't make good "stories".

In recent years the biggest publishing bandwagon has rolled along, fuelled by pain and suffering, and there's no sign of it stopping.

This week the BBC journalist Kirsty Lang, chairman of the Orange Broadband Prize For Fiction, complained that the non-fiction "misery memoir" has had a destructive effect on novels, too.

I am one of her fellow judges, and agree that there were times - during the hefty amount of reading necessary to draw up our 20-strong longlist - when I longed to ditch the "serious" books and watch endless repeats of Last Of The Summer Wine for some much-needed light relief.

"Aaagh, no!" I'd think, ploughing through yet more sobbing, worthy words, "not another dead baby/missing child/traumatised mother!"

That's the trouble - too much misery toughens the heart, whereas the best art softens it.

The one word publishers (who certainly aren't sobbing) will use to describe these "tragic" fiction and non-fiction tales alike is "inspirational".

Buy this, they say, and your life will be enhanced.

Reading how a character-overcomes adversity will leave you with a sense of uplift, a renewed optimism that the human spirit will always prevail.

Well, up to a point. It all depends how well it's done.

Some of these books leave you with nothing but a sense of profound depression.

Yes, they may make you grateful your life's not as bad as that, but they also open a window on the worst aspects of human nature which you might have preferred to keep closed.

Not so much gut-wrenching as stomach-churning.

I must emphasise right away that there is a world of difference between some of the novels that have made it through to our excellent Orange Prize longlist - truly sad and horrifying though they might be - and the voyeuristic genre dubbed "misery-lit", which critics dismiss as the pornography of pain.

We all love a good tear-jerker (what film producer David Puttnam calls a "three-handkerchief movie"), while Shakespeare knew what the Greek playwrights demonstrated - that tragedy can be cathartic.

A play such as King Lear leaves you wrung out, for very good reason.

Equally, brilliant modern memoirs such as Tim Lott's The Scent Of Dried Roses (about his mother's suicide) and Joan Didion's The Year Of Magical Thinking (which deals with great grief after a husband's sudden death) leave you with a heightened sense of pity for the human condition which transcends the individual story beautifully told within the book covers.

Anyone who knows the work of Thomas Hardy (or who has seen the movie Tess Of The d'Urbervilles) will know that suffering and sorrow in art can be the start of a journey of greater understanding within your own life. This is why we read great books and listen to music, even if it makes us cry.

But what happens when the urge to make money from misery is so great that greedy writers tell massive porkies - offering fiction as fact?

Last year one of the biggest-selling misery memoirs - Don't Ever Tell - was exposed as a fake.

Its author, Kathy O'Beirne, claimed that "the Devil himself could not have invented a better hell" than a childhood in which she claimed she had her hand thrust into boiling fat by her cruel father, was raped by a priest, imprisoned and tormented by sadistic nuns, and gave birth at 13, giving her baby up for adoption.

Her publishers might as well have offered this farrago up for a fiction prize because it was all a fantasy.

Like the now-discredited Amerienhancedcan book on drug addiction, A Thousand Little Pieces by James Frey, O'Beirne's book traded cynically on the reading public's voracious appetite for shock-horror.

If it didn't happen to you, then make it all up.

This demeans the art of fiction and of great memoir alike. But there's no doubt that they sell.

Thirty per cent of the non-fiction charts each week are "real-life" accounts of neglect, abuse and sexual violence.

We can look back to the runaway success of books such as Dave Pelzer's "It" trilogy to understand why so many writers have been tempted to cash in.

Titles like Worthless, Deceived, Destroyed, Please Daddy No and Loss Of Innocence tell a pretty cynical tale.

Today, I look at my mountains of Orange Prize submissions (those which didn't make the longlist) and compare them to some of the misery memoirs, and what's interesting is how similar they look - a shadowy picture, usually of a child, beneath a "handwritten" title.

It's hard to tell whether the fiction is packaged to look like memoir, or vice versa.

You feel there's something nastily manipulative about the whole exercise.

We're used to people spilling their emotional guts on national TV.

There must be a link between the likes of Jerry Springer, Oprah, Dr Phil, the freak show that's Big Brother and the grisly stories of sexual abuse and mental deprivation which fill the pages of some "true-life" magazines, as well as the shelves of Waterstones.

I'm afraid some of the novels I've read recently are the literary equivalent of Jeremy Kyle: flashy, but hollow at the centre.

But just as a beautifully-made TV documentary about a boy with cystic fibrosis who wants to be a conductor will make you cry yet gladden your heart, so there are novels which tackle unhappy subjects yet still leave you with a smile on your face.

On our list, for example, Lottery by Patricia Wood is about a guy with special needs who wins the lottery, defeats his nasty family and (...well, I won't give away the ending, just say that this saga is as delightful and uplifting as Forrest Gump).

Similarly, The Room Of Lost Things by Stella Duffy made me cry yet left me glad to be alive.

Lullabies For Little Criminals by Heather O'Neill is about a neglected 13-year-old in Montreal who will triumph because of her unsullied spirit.

Rose Tremain's The Road Home takes you right inside the mind of an economic migrant from Eastern Europe, and provides as happy an ending as you could wish for. And so on.

Such novels (and many others like them) have in common fine prose and what I can only call a sense of forgiveness for human failings.

If they push boundaries, it's not to shock but to extend our understanding.

This is what we need - not to be harrowed.

We mustn't forget that happy endings (in Shakespeare, in the great classics and in modern writing) are vital to the human psyche.

We need reassurance that people will love, marry, live in harmony, die in peace. Too much bleakness can make us lose hope of a better world.

The modern cult of misery - which has infected children's fiction, too - offers no such hope. The danger is that by dwelling too long in the gutter, we forget to look up at the stars.

Read Bel Mooney's advice column in the Mail on Saturday.

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