Recently I happened to be in Belfast’s WH Smith searching for a card to give to my mother for Mother’s Day. In such shops the calendar year is punctuated almost weekly by festivals of consumerism for which it is absolutely imperative to expend one’s money on the tat suggested by appropriate displays (if you do not you are being both churlish and negligent). Mother’s Day is just such an event, sandwiched between Christmas and St Patrick’s Day, and Smith’s were punting, amongst other wonderful items, cards which would speak to your mother in the dulcet tones of Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard, Donnie Osmond or indeed Daniel O’Donnell. Classy.
With a card sorted out the intrepid shopper needs a gift to go alongside and with its roots primarily as a book-seller, Smith’s were offering a range of appropriate titles. Alongside the displays of romances and celebrity biographies, outfitted in saccharine Mother’s Day lavender and bedecked with images of fluffy puppies, sat a large – nae a bursting – section entitled “Miserable Childhoods”. Assenting to the basic tenet of market capitalism, supply conforming to demand, it can only be assumed that a not insubstantial proportion of offspring wish to pay tribute to their mother’s nurturing skills by presenting her 500 odd pages detailing the desolation which can be wreaked on a child.
Of course the reason that so many books detailing miserable childhoods are published is because people read them. Over at Comment Is Free, Libby Brooks asks why authenticity is so important to readers and why there is an insistence that such stories are memoirs rather than fiction. Misery memoirs, whether concerned with childhood or not, have been subject to allegations of embellishment and have even been exposed as entirely manufactured. Brooks mentions James Frey’s addiction ‘memoir’ A Million Little Pieces and Margaret Seltzer, whose book about a drug-running mixed race child was exposed as fiction. I recall controversy concerning the authenticity of Frank McCourt’s books and the storm of protest issuing from Limerick in particular when Angela’s Ashes became popular. Brooks argues that ‘all writing is creative’ and the veracity of these books is not an issue if they are written well and point to a more universal truth.
I wonder why exactly these books have become so popular at all. That some people who have undergone terrible experiences have turned these into successful books does not surprise me, but I wonder what it says about readers that there is such a voracious appetite for misery. Reading a book is not a passive experience like watching television or a film, nor is it a short-lived experience such as reading a newspaper article. When you read a book, you spend a substantial amount of time with that book. You build a relationship with it and develop an emotional connection with its narrative. What motivates people to spend so much time immersed in the unpleasant experiences of others?
In Libby Brook’s article she suggests that “proxy maundering is [being] mistaken for emotional literacy”. This proxy maundering can sometimes be fairly indistinguishable from lurid fascination. The content of these childhood memoirs seems to be disproportionately concerned with physical, psychological and sexual abuse. For me it is sufficient to know that these things occur and perhaps to hear of their occurrence on news bulletins. I appreciate that they are hugely damaging and I understand that it is imperative to attempt to stop such things. I do not need to immerse myself in the worlds of successive victims and nor frankly do I want to. If a book is exceptional it may illuminate, educate and enlighten in a way that enriches the reader, but the sheer proliferation of these titles makes me sceptical as to their quality.