They're filled with violence, abuse and neglect - and they sell millions. Why have we become suckers for a hard-luck story, asks Fiona McCann
The winter is nigh upon us and the nights are closing in: what better way to relax into the new season than by curling up in front of the fire with a glass of wine and a copy of The Little Prisoner: How a Childhood Was Stolen and a Trust Betrayed. Or after a tough day at the office, you might want to pluck from your bedside table a copy of Not Without My Sister: The True Story of Three Girls Violated and Betrayed by Those They Trusted.
Millions of readers around the world are doing just that, and fuelling a boom that has led publishers and agents to christen an entire new genre with the trite moniker that has become synonymous with bestseller: misery lit.
It is the collective name given to the current slew of stories about difficult childhoods, usually written in the first person and punctuated with a message of hope or resilience, though this generally only comes after 400-odd pages of serious gloom.
"In the last five or 10 years, it's the biggest phenomenon and really come out of nowhere," says Maria Dickenson, books purchasing manager at Eason's. "We just had our publisher presentations for next spring and I've never seen so many. Normally with a trend like this it might last a year, but this one looks like it's here to stay." So much so, in fact, that a number of branches of the Waterstone's bookshop chain now boast entire shelves devoted to what they are calling "Painful Lives". "If it continues at this sort of rate, we might consider establishing a section in Eason's," says Dickenson.
Until such time, however, misery-seekers need not panic: these true-life stories are not difficult to locate, given the generic packaging that makes them easily identifiable. Find a pale cover with a picture of a doleful child turned slightly away from the camera, bearing a title in the style of a handwritten scrawl, and you know you've hit on a Painful Life. For further clues, check out the titles, which range from dramatic one-worders - Damagedor Abandoned- to the heartstring-tugging plaintive pleas along the lines of Please, Daddy, Noand Tell Me Why, Mummy.
The subtitles elaborate even further, giving the readers even more of an insight into the kind of read that awaits them: No Way Home: The Terrifying Story of Life in a Children's Home; and a Little Girl's Struggle to Surviveor Broken Wings: A Breathtaking Story of Joy, Hope;and Love: A Story of Childhood Abuse. . . and Ultimate Freedom.
DESPITE THE BLATANTLY downbeat content that is spelled out on the cover, these books are selling in huge quantities. Across the world, people are only too eager to read about other people's sorry lives, with sales in "mis lit" booming in the UK and the US. The Irish are particularly well-represented in the genre: Kathy O'Beirne's Don't Ever Tell: A True Tale of a Childhood Destroyed by Neglect and Fearhas enjoyed massive success both here and in Britain, while the bluntly-titled Ma, He Sold Me For A Few Cigarettes- no subtitle required there - looks set to follow suit.
Some even suggest the whole mis lit phenomenon began here with Angela's Ashes, Frank McCourt's humorous tale of misery, poverty, death and destitution, but the truth is we've been masters of the literary béal bocht since long before.
"I am an old woman now, with one foot in the grave and the other on its edge." With such a promising opening an entire genre was born, one that is only now reaping the kind of financial rewards for which Peig would have given her eye teeth - or whatever teeth she had left. Peig, who was clearly far enough from the grave to spend several hundred pages discussing how favourably it compared to the difficult life she had led, is no doubt turning in it now.
With her impoverished childhood, churlish husband and sporadically dying children, she was early proof that the Irish showed a particular aptitude for the genre. The main difference is that there's big money to be made from it these days: O'Beirne's memoir has already sold some 50,000 copies in Ireland alone, up there with Anne Enright's recent Man Booker winner The Gathering.
So are the Irish particularly miserable, or just particularly eager to talk - or write - about it? Dickenson points to new freedom in a once-repressive society, which is allowing people to give voice to things they never could before. "With the stories of clerical abuse, there are sadly plenty such tales to tell," she says.
When it comes to readership, our appetite for doom and gloom appears to be on a par with our US and British counterparts. "I wouldn't say that there's a big difference between our receptiveness to it and anywhere else - sales in America and the UK are big too. But it's certainly not something that the Irish psyche is rejecting," says Dickenson.
According to Dickenson, those who read misery literature tend to do so on a regular basis, much like magazine readers who devour true-life story pages with eye-grabbing headlines along the lines of "My Amputation Hell" or "He Bathed Me in Acid and Left Me for Dead". Those who turn up religiously in Eason's for their latest mis-fix are predominantly female and generally young, says Dickenson. What it is about the genre that they find so compelling is another question. Pure Schadenfreude? An extension of the impulse to gawk at a traffic accident or flock to a stranger's funeral? Or a sense of compassion for those less fortunate? "If you think about the public fascination with Madeleine McCann and what they're going through, it's the book equivalent of that," says Dickenson. "It is born of sympathy, but there's a very intense fascination with what other people have been through."
CORA COLEMAN IS the author of Nobody's Child, a memoir of her own childhood of domestic abuse at the hands of a violent father. She is aware that there may be some among her readers who take perverse pleasure in reading about her suffering. "I think it's a kind of vicarious pleasure. It underlines the safety and the happiness of their own lives by comparison," she says. This doesn't bother her, she adds - she wrote with an entirely different audience in mind.
"I wanted to address two kinds of people: people who grew up like me and are stuck in that unhealed state, and other people who haven't experienced stuff like that but might want to know what it's like."
Coleman wrote the book, however, not for her readers but for herself. "I've had a very eventful life and a lot of it has been very negative, but writing the book has given meaning to an awful lot of crap," she says. "It very much had a healing effect."
She is aware that some people might accuse her of cashing in on the mis-lit wave, but given the difficulties she has experienced over the course of her life, such concerns won't see her losing any sleep. "It's just my story. To a certain extent it's been shoe-horned into the genre, in order to give it some publicity, to give it some exposure, but it's my story and I've told it, and I'm happy to have told it."