The writeup below suffers from a considerable lack of knowledge due to never actually having read any cover-to-cover, and a rather Anglocentric perspective. Sorry.
'Misery memoir' (also 'misery lit' and 'misery porn') is a term for a genre of autobiography which sells extremely well, particularly in Britain and America. They are typically concerned with childhood hardship (particularly physical/sexual abuse by an adult).
Probably the best-known misery memoir is A Child Called "It", Dave Pelzer's account of vicious maltreatment by his alcoholic mother in the 70s. It was first published in 1995 by Health Communications, Inc. but appears to have only really started selling in the late 90s and 2000, partly due to an appearance on Montel Williams and partly to Pelzer's considerable promotion). It was only then that British publishers, who had previously thought the content too unpleasant to sell, took an interest. The book ended up selling 1.6m copies, and Pelzer wrote two sequels covering his adolescence and adulthood.
Another early example was Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt. Published in 1996, it too was a bestseller and spawned two sequels ('Tis and Teacher Man). It differs from what we now consider a 'misery memoir' because it is concerned not with abuse, but with poverty and alcoholism in Ireland in the 30s and 40s. It was filmed in 1999. Like Angela's Ashes, many of these early misery memoirs were of some historical interest - another book cited as a progenitor was Wild Swans, Jung Chang's account of life in Communist China.
A number of other accounts followed in the early 2000s, and the market began to grow very quickly. Pelzer's memoirs had set a precedent which was eagerly followed right down to the cover design, which almost invariably features a photo of a sad-looking child (usually washed-out sepia) and a handwritten title which hints at the content (and may be inspirational e.g. I Choose to Live or borderline tasteless e.g. Please, Daddy, No). Much of the success came from the fact that, as Pelzer's UK publisher Trevor Dolby put it, they are "bought by people who don't normally read books". The story of how horrific abuse was overcome mattered more to the general public than how well it was written.
In 2004, in Britain at least, the growth seemed to stop temporarily when Dan Brown's book The da Vinci Code went after a similar market. This market was now very much established on both sides of the Atlantic, with Oprah and Richard and Judy both running book clubs catering to it. The genre had now well and truly transcended its American origins, despite initial concerns that stereotypical British stiff-upper-lip reticence would make them unpopular over here. Some have claimed that this success is largely due to the British media's long-running obsession with child abuse.
The market doubled from £12m to £24m in 2005, and the last three years have brought a wave of new titles. Richard and Judy even ran a competition asking viewers to phone in with their harrowing life stories, with a Random House contract for the winner (Betrayed by Lyndsey Harris). In many cases, the actual books were ghost-written, often by Andrew Crofts, a leading ghostwriter who has increasingly been given co-author credit on misery memoirs.
A Child Called "It", The Lost Boy, A Man Named Dave - Dave Pelzer
Angela's Ashes - Frank McCourt
Wild Swans - Jung Chang
Don't Tell Mummy - Toni Maguire
Please, Daddy, No - Stuart Howarth
Just Another Kid, Ghost Girl - Torey Hayden
Behind Closed Doors - Jenny Tomlin
Damaged - Cathy Glass
A Million Little Pieces - James Frey
Street Kid - Judy Westwater
No Way Home - Sue Martin
The books are typically bought by middle-aged, middle-class women (80-90% of the buyers are female, though authors might be of either gender), often in supermarkets rather than bookshops (which is why they might fail to appear on official bestseller lists). Nonetheless, many bookshops now have dedicated misery memoir sections (Waterstones: 'Painful Lives', Borders: 'Real Lives'). Several are published each month, and a misery memoir might sell from 60,000 to half a million copies. Most major publishing houses have got in on the act, with Harper Collins, Orion and Random House being particularly important.
The content of misery memoirs is, without a doubt, profoundly unpleasant. As the genre has become more successful, it's unsurprising that ethical questions have been raised about them.
It does seem rather ghoulish for people to devour these tales of untold sadness and suffering as light reading material, but it's nothing new - writers have always used their past suffering in their work. Lurid unpleasantness is and has always been entertaining, from Roman gladiators to the grisly crimes in Law and Order. Furthermore, the publishers' term - inspirational lit or 'inspi-lit' - highlights the fact that the stories tend to end well - the victims escape or are rescued, build normal lives and write successful books. It could equally be argued that it's not suffering, per se, but overcoming it, that sells books. (Pelzer has now moved into self-help books.)
The content might also seem to reflect badly on society. In the UK, where anti-paedophile hysteria has led to assaults against paediatricians, the growth of misery memoirs is seen as symptomatic of a national obsession with child abuse, particularly given the levels of detail involved. On the other hand, perhaps the atmosphere of panic surrounding abuse (exemplified in the Satanic panic of the 80s) would be lessened if people knew more about what was involved, even if from graphic bestsellers.
Danuta Kean, in an article for the Daily Mail, disagrees:
"An argument repeated by publishers to me when justifying the harrowing detail is that "the readers of these books are less well educated and need graphic detail to make them understand the impact of abuse".
Oh, please! How stupid does a person have to be if they don't understand the terrible impact of sexual abuse without having to read the horrific detail?"
However, there's considerable evidence to suggest that writing about such traumatic experiences has a cathartic effect (see BBC link below), and I don't think anyone can begrudge the victims of such abuse an attempt to deal with it emotionally. Furthermore, they do inspire child abuse victims to speak out and realise there is no shame in being a victim. As Stuart Howarth puts it:
Child Abuse has become a part of everyday life because we
choose to ignore it - it is too nasty to even consider that it happens.
The truth is, it happens and in order to learn we must first of all listen
to survivors stories. Not only will it educate society, it will heal the
It is a well-established truth of criminal psychology that abuse, left untreated, breeds more abuse. Frankly, I'd prefer informed discussion, no matter how unpleasant, to trying to sweep it under the rug only for it to emerge in occasional bursts of prurient and counter-productive obsession.
A number of issues have surfaced surrounding the veracity of some misery memoirs:
- Dave Pelzer's account has been challenged by some family members, including his younger brother Stephen. But his other brother, Richard, also wrote a misery memoir which appears to back up most of his writing, but he too has argued with David. It is known that Dave Pelzer distorts the truth for the purposes of self-promotion (such as referring to A Child Called "It" as a Pulitzer Prize nominee, when it was in fact just a submission).
- The relatives of Constance Briscoe, whose book Ugly depicted an abusive south London childhood, have cast doubts on some of her claims.
- James Frey's A Million Tiny Pieces, a memoir of his criminal career which was heavily promoted by Oprah, was exposed as largely untrue. Having initially stood by him, Oprah then attacked him live on her show.
- The misery memoir has been parodied in My Godawful Life by Sunny McCreary. Thanks to E2 user Hazelnut, who describes it as "a parody misery memoir about a boy who was
prostituted by his parents, locked in the attic and bullied by pigeons,
and signed up for experimental baboon's arse/face transplant surgery.
Then things got really bad..."
Whither now for the misery memoir? Most publishers now believe the genre is massively overpublished, but the demand for these tales seems to be as high as ever. Twists have been put on the genre - the 'celeb mis mem' market includes memoirs by Kerry Katona and TV cleaner Kim Woodburn, while 'sports misery' aims to expand the concept into a male market. Perhaps the best example is Paul Gascoigne, who followed up his fairly neutral Gazza: My Story with the darker Being Gazza which addresses his mental illness and drugs problems.
Sources and Further Reading
Amazon's top 100 'tragic life stories' (see what I mean about the covers?)
Amazon - Please, Daddy, No by Stuart Howarth (quoted above)
Amazon - My Godawful Life by Sunny McCreary
Dave Pelzer, the Child Abuse Entrepreneur - David Plotz, Slate.com, 29 September 2000
Dysfunction for Dollars - Pat Jordan, New York Times, 28 July 2002
Feel the pain - Tim Adams, the Observer, 29 January 2006
Mis Lit: Misery Lit is book world's biggest boom sector - Anthony Barnes, the Independent, 4 March 2007
Mis lit: is this the end for the misery memoir? - Daily Telegraph, 5 March 2008
Misery lit... read on - Brendan O'Neill, BBC News Magazine, 17 April 2007
So bad it's good - Esther Addley, the Guardian, 15 June 2007
The pornography of misery memoirs - Danuta Kean, Daily Mail, 10 October 2007 (quoted above)
Tugging at heart strings - Liz Bury, the Bookseller, 22 February 2007