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Misery Memoirs—a ‘voyeur’s wet dream’

5 July, 2007

Have you noticed the trend in memoir writing? The most popular ones are usually ‘tell-all’ accounts of childhood suffering. These particular memoirists drag out all the skeletons in their closet. Big sales are more likely if the memoir includes an account of a childhood filled with extreme abuse. Current popular titles include God’s Call Girl, A Child Called It, and A Million Tiny Pieces.

Frank Furedi (The Spiked Review of Books, Issue 1, May 07) argues that these kinds of memoir do not give readers an uplift, a positive affirmation about survival, but rather comprise a ‘pornography of emotional hurt’. He likens reading them to ‘a voyeur’s wet dream’.

Is this type of memoir-writing popular because we’re so used to people on TV shows spilling their guts about past or present traumas? Think of the voyeuristic appeal of tell-all-dirt shows hosted by Jerry Springer, Dr Phil, Oprah Winfrey, and Judge Judy. As viewers, we can revel in someone else’s life being worse than our own.

Tim Adams (http://observer.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,,1697020,00.html) agrees that media is making misery ‘the new celebrity’. The incredible popularity of misery memoirs has led to an ‘arms race’, with authors vying to increase sales by publishing the most ‘extreme confession’.

The lure of a huge reading public can tempt writers to fake their childhood. James Frey’s A Million Tiny Pieces was one of the biggest selling books in 2005. Then it was exposed as a fraud. According to Adams, Frey originally wrote the story as a fiction. But when publishers were not interested, he presented it as a memoir. Is he now in disgrace because of the discovery that he lied? No–Now it is being called an ’embellished memoir’.

So where does this leave would-be memoirists who either don’t have any sad skeletons in their childhood closet, or don’t want to drag them out?

Yes, you can still write your memoir, without going down ‘misery’ street. Elizabeth Gilbert (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/01/books/review/Gilbert-t.html) reviewed the memoir of Mildred Armstrong Kalish, titled Little Heathens: Hard times and high spirits on an Iowa farm during the Great Depression. Kalish had a strict upbringing on a farm during the Great Depression. Her father disappeared when she was a child, apparently forced by her strict grandfather to leave his family. After mentioning this, she never again refers to him in her memoir.

Maybe it’s this restraint that causes Gilbert to comment on the memoir’s ‘amazing twist’, i.e., that Kalish ‘absolutely loved her childhood’. And this love, in turn, transmits to readers a sense of ‘ joy, affection, wonder and even envy’. Gilbert comments specifically about Kalish’s absent father: ‘Now that…flies in the face of all current literary convention. No self-respecting modern memoirist (myself included!) would ever abandon such a juicy bit of suffering as a banished father. Surely one could milk volumes of pain (and book deals) from such misfortune!’

So if you’re writing a positive memoir, you may get it published. But given the popularity of the misery memoirs, don’t expect it to become a bestseller!


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2 Comments leave one →
  1. 6 October, 2009 7:56 am

    You’re right, it can be liberating to write down one’s memory of bad experiences. Some people leave it at that; others decide to publish.
    Some publish because they want to let others know that bad things do happen. Others publish simply because they can, given that such memoirs have a ready market.

    Like

  2. 5 October, 2009 10:24 pm

    It took me 30 years to come to terms with my upbringing and to put pen to paper. But I can tell you, the whole process unburdened me. It felt like a huge weight had been taken off my shoulders. No more baggage, which I’d carried around all my life, to smother me. Liberating…

    Like

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