Arifa Akbar: Hooray for miserable writers

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Just as we are told that "bad news sells", so publishers began chanting a similar mantra in the 1990s when misery memoirs – first-person accounts of woe, ranging from sexual abuse to physical privation (or both, ideally, with a side order of anguish thrown in) – became highly marketable fare.

Such unexpurgated tales of woe as Dave Pelzer's A Child Called "It", in which he recalled the abuse suffered at the hands of his alcoholic mother, and Constance Briscoe's litany of domestic torture as a child, proved that real-life horror stories got books flying off shelves.

The misery memoir sub-genre has been described as "the book world's biggest boom sector", with Waterstone's erecting its own "Painful Lives" section, while WH Smith devotes a shelf stack to "Tragic Life Stories".

Now comes the fictionalised off-shoot, bemoans Daisy Goodwin, probably appealing to a similar readership – estimated to be overwhelmingly female.

But it's not just women who have been writing unhappy prose, and neither is this a new phenomenon. We have been reading mis-lit, of a kind, since the birth of Greek tragedy. And what about the anguished antiheroes of 19th-century Russian literature?

The dark prose of Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath has something to answer for, as Goodwin intimates, but they surely must be admired for writing so movingly and sharply about the darker corners of life. It strikes me that the rub is not the gloomy subject matter of modern day "mis lit" but the way in which it is written. If Goodwin feels like a "social worker" chewing through these books, the prose has not done its job.