The Strange Art of Misery Lit

Borders bookshop has a “Real Lives” section. Waterstones ups the ante with “Painful Lives”. Amazon’s catch-all is the more enigmatic “True Endurance and Survival”. But earlier this week I found myself in the “Tragic Life Stories” aisle of WHSmiths. After taking in that, yes, a whole section of shelving had actually been given over to this subject, it struck me that while each book pertained to be a traumatic tale of an individual, they were marketed in such a way as to look entirely the same. Unlike the covers within the nearby Crime section, where even the most conventional might feature a gun, a knife, or something vaguely noir-ish; within Tragic Life Stories there is, apparently, no need to differentiate details. Each one is a tragic tale; each one has the same cover: a child’s face and a scrawled, handwritten title.

Section header

Borders bookshop has a “Real Lives” section. Waterstones ups the ante with “Painful Lives”. Amazon’s catch-all is the more enigmatic “True Endurance and Survival”. But earlier this week I found myself in the “Tragic Life Stories” aisle of WHSmiths. After taking in that, yes, a whole section of shelving had actually been given over to this subject, it struck me that while each book pertained to be a traumatic tale of an individual, they were marketed in such a way as to look entirely the same. Unlike the covers within the nearby Crime section, where even the most conventional might feature a gun, a knife, or something vaguely noir-ish; within Tragic Life Stories there is, apparently, no need to differentiate details. Each one is a tragic tale; each one has the same cover: a child’s face and a scrawled, handwritten title.

Scarred

While the genre itself isn’t particularly new – the book said to have launched this market, Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called It, came out in the mid-90s – WHSmiths have seemingly only carried a Tragic Life Stories section since the start of last year. (It’s been blogged about before, too: Chris Applegate’s post on “Grief Porn” is from late 2007, while Iain Rowan’s encounter happened earlier this month). But now “misery lit”, the industry term apparently coined by The Bookseller magazine, is big, big business.

Two titles

And the repetitious design aesthetic is there for a reason; namely, that the people that like this stuff will know what to look for. The title, usually handwritten, often scrawled, has something of the confessional about it; while the supporting image of an aggrieved child looks out with doe eyes (though rarely is this, of course, the actual victim or author – models are frequently used).

Esther Addley, writing on the subject in the Guardian, put it succinctly: “the volumes invariably carry a washed-out close-up of a particularly pretty child’s face on a pale background, with the title of the book in handwritten script. As Peter Saxton, biography buyer for Waterstone’s [says]: ‘White cover, swirly writing, big-eyed child. These are the visual clues that tell prospective buyers that they are going to be in their comfort (or discomfort) zone’.”

Addley also goes on to look at the nature of the titles of the books themselves: “In the UK at least, these increasingly follow one of two paths: the dramatic past participle (Wasted, Abandoned, Damaged) or the more discursive, directly heartstring-tugging phrase (Daddy’s Little Girl; Don’t Tell Mummy; Please, Daddy, No).”

Spines

One title that leapt out at me while in Smiths was Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl – included here (above, far left) among the reams of other no doubt troubling memoirs and diaries. Somehow, piling Frank’s work into this section seemed inappropriate. For one, Frank didn’t write her diary retrospectively or for publication – this was a thirteen year-old girl’s private record of her thoughts as her family hid from the Nazis during World War II. Written between June 12 1942 and August 1 1944, Frank’s Diary was published by her father in 1947, a few years after her death.

And while the cover of this particular edition (Penguin Modern Classics, 2000) features a portrait of a young girl; the girl is actually Frank.

Mar2000
March 2000, Penguin edition

Yet this edition is eight years old. So what does it look like now? Well, the way her diary has been presented since 2000 is revealing:

Mar2000/2
March 2000 Penguin new edition

Jan2002
January 2002 Puffin edition

Jun2007
June 2007 Penguin edition

The different treatment of the portrait is interesting, as is the use of handwritten text in the later editions (while one is Frank’s own signature, the title in the most recent edition can’t be Frank’s own; she originally wrote her diary in Dutch). It certainly looks like Penguin have been keeping an eye on a burgeoning market.

But there are signs of a growing backlash against Misery Lit. While authors who obtained book deals and, indeed, notoriety and sales through their stories of pain and misery have been exposed as fakes (see JT LeRoy and James Frey’s efforts), there have recently been even more high profile exposés: Kathy O’Beirne’s memoir, Kathy’s Story: A Childhood Hell Inside the Magdalene Laundries was recently revealed as fictitious; as was Misha Defonseca’s, Surviving With Wolves, which in a crude nod to Frank’s writings was billed as “the most extraordinary story of World War II”.

I didn’t find Defonseca’s book in the section – perhaps it had quietly been moved back into Fiction when the news broke.

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