YOU DON'T have to have had a rotten childhood to get a book published these days, but it helps. Actually it needs to be a little worse than rotten. Nor is difficult, lonely or sad really good enough. Publishers are looking for urban, poor, abusive or - even better - all three. Death is good, drugs a plus. It helps if you can write, but it's not essential.
This is the season, if not the year, of memoir madness. We are not talking famous people here. These are ordinary people with extraordinary tales. Over the next few weeks there is Susan J. Miller's Never Let Me Down (on her heroin-addicted father), followed by Andrea Ashworth's Once in a House on Fire (on her horrible stepfather) and Marya Hornbacher's Wasted (on her horrific eating disorders). Just out in paperback is Jenny Diski's Skating To Antarctica (miserable childhood and travelogue). And that's just the A-list. "There are so many of these 'They fuck you up, your mum and dad' type books," said one publicist. "It really is the thing now."
Some say that Blake Morrison started it all after Granta printed a modest run of his memoir And When Did You Last See Your Father? and had to reprint in double quick time. It's now sold some 100,000 copies and been translated into a dozen languages. "We have got a publishing trend here but I don't think I started it," he says, pointing instead to Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch and Jung Chang's Wild Swans. The whole thing got a huge push last year when retired New York City schoolteacher Frank McCourt won a Pulitzer for his story of growing up miserable in Limerick. "We do seem to be obsessed with real life," says literary agent Giles Gordon. "Maybe the English novel as we understand it is finished for now and this other type of writing is here. It even applies to poetry. I mean, why is Ted Hughes's new book of poetry so popular? Not because of the poems. It's because it's about his ex -dead wife. There is a real literalism to all of this." So, is it move over Oprah while we find out how bad can it get? Frank McCourt tells all in Angela's Ashes: "When I look back on my childhood, I wonder how I survived it at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood."
But, as it turns out, Frank, things could have been worse. "Andrea Ashworth's father drowned when she was five. Her sister was three, her mother 25," says the jacket to Once in a House on Fire. It also says that Andrea was born in 1969, is a junior research fellow at Jesus College, Oxford, and has written a "brave and sometimes achingly funny" book about growing up in Manchester. The first paragraph explains: "My father drowned when I was five years old. A picture of me, framed in gold plastic, was fished from his pocket and returned to my mother with a soggy wallet and a bunch of keys." He expired, it seems, in a shallow stream after he slipped while taking a pee. Soon, though, there was a stepfather and the smell of fear in the house.
I'd like to ask Andrea about her childhood but, her publishers explain, she cannot speak to the press - yet. They mumble about deals and serialisation and the like. I'd also like to ask television writer Colin Shindler about his forthcoming book Manchester United Ruined My Life, but he, too, is gagged for the moment. The publishers say that the book is more than the tales of a football fan. It is also about "a childhood destroyed by the sudden and shocking death of his mother and his slow emotional recovery through his love for Manchester City". A television programme, with Mr Shindler and Ian McShane, is planned as part of the promotion.
Susan J. Miller can talk. Her father was a heroin addict, though she didn't find out until she was 21. She found out a lot more, too. "One day when I was home from college on vacation, my father and I went into New York together," she writes. "As the bus doors shut, my father edged close to me, putting his mouth to my ear: 'I took acid before we left this morning and I'm just starting to get off'." Clearly, here was a dad with a difference.
She says that she has always wanted to write her own story. "But it was only when he died that I did. A couple of days after he died, I wrote what would be the first chapters." That was in 1988. The rest took years. It may have been therapeutic, but she also had real therapy. She is now 49 and, despite pressures, insisted on writing non-fiction. "I sent an extract to the New Yorker in 1994 and they said they couldn't publish this as non-fiction and asked me to do it as fiction. Now they publish all these little memoirs, but at that time they just didn't have a category in the magazine to take in these things," she says. Granta wasn't bothered by categories, though, and a publishing deal followed.
When I talk to her at home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, she is thrilled because she is about to appear on America's most prestigious arts talk show. I ask her if she isn't worried that everyone with a miserable childhood will want to write about it now. "I know. I know. It's become this big sort of cliche. It's going to become more accepted and there will be the good and the bad. Now it's a still a sort of phenomenon and everything is getting lumped together."
Years ago, Susan Miller would probably have had to publish her book as fiction. Now, though, publishers are urging some who should be novelists to let them sell their hurt-and-tell stories for real. "For me, the danger is that people are going to forget how great fiction is. I think first novels are particularly tough to get published, and this genre is in danger of side-lining them," says Morrison. Gordon is only half-joking when he says that the trend is part of a New Labour puritanism. "Novels are too dangerous. They aren't part of real life," he says.
Certainly real life does seem to be where it's at these days: television is teeming with docu-soaps and real crime pro-grammes and newspaper columnists write in detail about death, divorce and/or dumplings. "I think we are seeing the same trend in the media and television," says Amanda Dalton of the Arvon Foundation for writers in West Yorkshire, which has offered courses in autobiography. "I must say that, in books, there are a lot of rotten childhoods about at the moment. Sometimes autobiography can generate wonderful writing and sometimes it can generate the most appalling stuff. That is really when people should go for therapy. It can be very undisciplined and self-indulgent and is perhaps only interesting in the way that road accidents are interesting."
One author who is going strictly for road kill is columnist and acclaimed afternoon chat show presenter Bel Littlejohn. You may have read her searing, intimate and moving tales in the Guardian or perhaps sampled her health column, "Me and My Verrucca". Her close personal friend (some would say creator) Craig Brown confirms that Bel will be joining the publishing trend of the decade. Are we to be treated to a slim volume, Beyond the Verrucca perhaps? "Bel is writing a book, but it is called Hug Me When I Weep For I Weep for the World and as a sub-title, The Lonely Struggles of Bel Littlejohn," he says. "She will divulge all her childhood traumas in that, but for the moment I can't really remember what they are." Actually Bel has already hinted that the book will contain death, divorce and some vivid descriptions of masturbation. Fact is the new fiction, she says. Read it and weep.
'Never Let Me Down' by Susan J Miller is published by Bloomsbury