This blog isn't about elephants. It's about books.

Misery Lit

Shy Keenan's Book 'Broken'

I went into the library the other day to get some misery literature book for uh, research purposes. Because I only read it ironically. Anyway. I asked a young man at the front if he could point me in the direction of some misery lit. He asked me ‘mystery?’ I said, no, misery. He looked confused. I explained to him that I was looking for a book with a sad child on the front cover with a snappy one or two word title, or a horrible rhetorical question. He nodded. He knew what I meant. It wasn’t in biographies, because only a few are proven biographies, and they boast this fact.

The books most often start by saying ‘My mother was so and so and my father was so and so’ as an attempt to establish what the author’s life could have been like if appearances weren’t deceiving. The vast majority of these books are written by a ghost-writer. The vast majority of them end in the author (most often women, although sometimes men) have their own children and thus decide to change their circumstances. If the book is based on a court case it might include that, although some do not.

The misery lit genre was started by a book called ‘A Child Called It’. Dave Pelzer writes of how he survived brutal physical and emotional abuse at his alcoholic mother’s hands. Catherine Roerba was never criminally charged, and the book has drawn heavy support and criticism: an educator claimed that Pelzer was the most severely abused pupil she had ever seen, whereas his brother and other sides of the family said that Pelzer liked getting attention and that the abuse wasn’t entirely happened on him. Whatever the case, this tragic autobiographical work cannot be proven to be true, driving book shops and libraries to create a section for misery lit called something akin to ‘Tragic Lives’ or any variation thereof.

It would be unfair to say that these works have no literary merit. After all, they are books, highly profitable books at that, written by (mostly, now, the reader is lead to assume) successful and mostly female authors as an instrument of therapy and recovery from their dreadful lives. And it is not just it’s truthfulness that’s come under attack: some argue that it could be enjoyed only due to a sense of voyeurism. The questions remains. Why are these books so popular? Could it be voyeurism, support for the victims, maybe a little bit of ‘at least someone has it worse than me’? According to wikipedia, ‘Other critics locate the genre’s popular appeal in its combination of moral outrage and titillation’.

Why do you read misery lit?