Boyd Tonkin: Why misery needs company

The Week In Books
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A visiting Vulcan who dropped in to take the temperature of British culture and society would – in any chosen week – come away staggered by the howling hypocrisy and flagrant double standards perpetually on show. This week, our judicious alien's bemusement might have shot right off the scale. It seems – from every screamer of a red-top headline – that we loathe the idea of cruelty to defenceless children so viscerally that any professional who fails to prevent it straight away becomes a town-hall fiend in human form.

Then our interplanetary guest might beam over to the High Court, and hear the proceedings of a current case. Mrs Carmen Briscoe-Mitchell is suing her own daughter, the barrister and judge Constance Briscoe, for libel.

We can wait until the jury's verdict before passing sentence on Ugly, the autobiography in which Briscoe junior wrote of an upbringing allegedly scarred by violence and neglect. What matters is that the book, which has sold well over half a million copies, only exists because the genre of "misery memoir" had revealed a voracious appetite among readers for gruesome yarns of childhood pain and suffering. British publishing began by importing this grisly cult, in the maudlin form of Dave Pelzer's A Child Called It and its follow-ups. But it quickly overtook the US models in sadism – and sales.

True, these ranks of near-identical books adhered to the old magazine-story formula of "TOT" (triumph over tragedy). Their heart-warming finales affirmed the human spirit's power to chase away the devils conjured by vile relations and abusive homes.

Yet most consumers did not grab at the latest "mismem" on the supermarket shelf because of that obligatory last-gasp serving of moral uplift. Beatings, scarrings, burnings, bullying and humiliation sold these books. Each deceptively innocent cover – a vulnerable waif with puppy-dog eyes framed against a pure-white background – held out the promise of torture and terror within. One perverse outcome of the trend was that every author who remotely fell within this category found themselves trussed up in its costume.

Jasvinder Sanghera, who escaped a coercive marriage in Derby, had worked courageously for Asian women fleeing family control over many years before she published Shame. It delves deeper, and sees further, than most of its neighbours on the mis-lit shelf. Yet the packaging brackets it inseparably with them. Forced marriage, you might say.

The customer-purchase trails on Amazon tell their own story about the one-track passion of misery mavens. Buyers of Betrayed also opted for Damaged, for Abandoned, for Hidden – not to mention the likes of Please, Daddy, No and Don't Ever Tell. Prurience powered this market, a relish for flesh-creeping torment that pulp fiction used to satisfy in less questionable ways. For the misery memoir, claims to verifiable truth (now tested in court) gold-plated every narrative. So where does the depiction of actual, not imagined, child abuse for commercial gain land you in Britain? Not in the dock, if you're a smart corporate publisher, but with a storming bestseller on your hands.

At least, that used to be the case. Reports this spring indicated that buyers had began to tire of misery lit, with the sector's sales worth a third less than a year before. Perhaps this week's legal challenge will mark the beginning of the end. Or else the focus of the market might shift into book-length witch-hunts of demonic social workers. There seems to be an avid audience for that.

As for some proper thought about why so many decent, blameless readers should find a twisted thrill in these dismal tales of hardship and horror, our Vulcan will scratch his alien head. No one dares, or bothers, to ask. Many mis-lit fans are mothers with young children: not ghouls, but loving parents, who may sometimes feel themselves at their wits' end. A case for the (utterly human) Dr Freud?

P.S.Should literary heirs and executors burn after reading? The choice turns on whether the deceased maestro really meant a work to perish in the flames. Dimitri Nabokov, son of Vladimir, has been defending his decision to publish The Original of Laura even though the author of Lolita made a deathbed request to his wife to destroy his final novel. Dmitri does not believe the book was truly destined for the fire. The puzzle of intention haunts the most famous breach of promise. Max Brod, friend and executor of Franz Kafka (left), broke his vow in order to save The Trial, The Castle, America – and much else – in 1924. For Brod, "Franz should have appointed another executor if he had been absolutely... determined that his instructions should stand." Writers who want a bad seed to die with them have to strike the match, or delete the file, themselves.