Walk into any branch of Waterstones, or any other high-street bookseller, and it won’t take you long to find the great swathe of ‘True Life’ stories that have dominated the market over the past few years. The tally must stand at several hundred titles by now, and it appears to be increasing with every passing week. But who are these people who are putting pen to paper (to quote an outmoded turn of phrase) and baring their souls for all to see?
I am one of the guilty millions who bought a copy of Dave Peltzer’s A Child Called It. I read it, didn’t enjoy it and didn’t bother with any of the four or five further books from the same author. There is only so much of one person’s misery one can take… isn’t there?
Given the proliferation of these titles and the horrific incidents they recount it would appear we have a near-ghoulish fascination with other people’s misery and pain and we can’t get enough of it, it seems. Or is there a darker, more sinister reason for this form of literary voyeurism?
Many of the tales recounted deal with the thorny subject of childhood sexual abuse, often incestuous in nature. Is there a section of modern society that actually enjoys these stories and gets off on reading them? The answer, sadly, is more than likely ‘yes’. For every perversion there is a voyeur, a practitioner, an acolyte, a devotee and a ‘dreamer’: someone who takes their pleasure at a safe distance without, thankfully, indulging in the actuality of the acts being described.
But who are the people who write these books? What compels a reasonably sane, ordinary and content man or woman to suddenly want to pour their inner-most, darkest and most horrific memories into a book for other people to read? Well, the oldest reason of all springs immediately to mind: good old-fashioned grubby pound notes for a start. I have no doubts whatsoever that more than a small majority of these souls see all those heart-rending titles on W H Smith’s bookshelves and think “I could earn a few bob here”. Next thing you know they’re pounding away on their laptop telling their awful story, followed a few months later by yet another title added to the pantheon of similar ‘misery lit’ titles already available.
I had a very troubled upbringing, as bad as some in those books, not as bad as others, but it was my upbringing. It is my pain, my memories, my story. I would no more dream of writing it down and wait for it to be published than I would walk naked down my local High Street, for that is, for me, what it would feel like to expose my soul like that.
I have heard it is therapeutic, cathartic even, to write it all down. Maybe it is, but to then have it published and made available for the public to consume is anathema to me. I am, by nature (and nurture!), a private person. I confide in very few people about my childhood because it still pains me and can still, even in my middle-age, bring me to tears. Sharing all that with hundreds of thousands of strangers makes me feel a little ill.
On the other side of that coin is my natural cynicism: Peltzer’s first book was a tragic read, but were the various sequels really necessary? Looking at the success of his first book was Peltzer motivated by a generous urge to tell his entire story for the good of his soul… or his bank-balance? Suspicious me says the latter, as I do with regard to many of the other folk who publish these books. It’s all about the money.
Which brings me to my biggest suspicion of all: I have grave and serious doubts that not many of these so-called ‘true stories’ are actually true at all. No business worth its salt would let pass an opportunity to cash-in on a profitable trend, whatever that trend may be. In this instance it’s ‘misery-lit’; I have a strong suspicion that there is a team of ghost writers composing these formulaic stories to order. I picture men and women with a better-than-average story-telling talent being recruited by the big publishing houses to produce these books-to-order a la Mills and Boon, churning them out at tediously regular intervals…
Above all else, if all these stories really are true can anyone answer me this: accepting the pain, the hurt, the misery, the shame, the violence and everything else perpetrated against these people as kids why do NOT ONE OF THEIR BOOKS have a blurb on them along the lines of a portion of the proceeds of the sale of this book will go to children’s charities to help other children in distress? I would have thought a true catharsis would be seeing your tale of misery doing some good in the long run with the money earned from telling your story going to help a poor kid who is living your story today.
Why isn’t it?