Joan Smith: One woman's misery is another bookseller's joy

One pitch is to sell new authors by comparing them to well-known writers
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If Princess Diana had ever written a novel, I think we can guess what it would be like: the story of one woman's brave struggle to overcome a solitary childhood, marriage to an uncaring husband and a series of disappointing love affairs.

The pages would ripple with tears, heartache and hopeless male characters, none of them deserving of our heroine or her superb taste in frocks. (She wept, but she wore Versace.) It's hard to imagine a more perfect recipe for the emerging genre of MisLit – like ChickLit, but without the jokes – and I'm sure publishers would fall over each other in the rush to acquire the rights.

They would almost certainly enter it for the Orange Prize, the annual award for women's fiction which has attracted a bumper crop of MisLit this year. After wading through 129 entries, the chair of the judges, author and TV producer Daisy Goodwin, seems to have had enough of fictional woe. "There's not been much wit and not much joy, there's a lot of grimness out there", she said. "There are a lot of books about Asian sisters. There are a lot of books that start with a rape. Pleasure seems to have become a rather neglected element in publishing".

The cynical part of me says that Goodwin need only wait a year or two. MisLit may be the big thing at present but in time it will be replaced by something else as publishers restlessly strive for the elusive formula that will guarantee sales.

MisLit is a logical development from the misery memoir, which tapped a previously unsuspected market for autobiographical writing from people whose parents beat them within an inch of their lives or forced them to swallow bleach.

These books have been so successful that they now have their own section in my local branch of Waterstone's, divided off from biography and filed under the fabulously inclusive rubric "troubled lives". I mean, which of us doesn't have a troubled life?

The misery memoir is a competitive genre, requiring ever more baroque forms of abuse and prompting suspicions – wholly unfounded, I'm sure – that one or two authors may have exaggerated their experiences just a little.

MisLit isn't susceptible to such accusations and it almost certainly shares an audience with self-help books, which are similarly aimed at women who are dissatisfied with their men, their jobs, their friends, their parents and (for all I know) their pets.

Readers don't buy these books to have their ideas challenged or to be introduced to unfamiliar worlds; it's fiction as therapy, helping women feel better about all the things that have gone wrong in their lives.

I'm a little nervous about the familiar complaint that women write too much about the domestic sphere, having personal experience of the bewilderment which results when a female author steps outside it; when I published a novel, What Will Survive, which was partly set in South Lebanon during the Israeli occupation, I kept being asked whether it was a romance or a thriller.

Women have always written novels which concentrate on feelings and relationships, and some of them – The Women's Room by Marilyn French comes to mind – have sold millions of copies. The point is that other types of fiction were being published at the same time; in 1973, when Rita Mae Brown's lesbian bildungsroman Rubyfruit Jungle was creating waves, readers were also devouring the sexual adventures of Erica Jong's heroine Isadora Wing in Fear of Flying. Daisy Goodwin castigates publishers for failing to offer "light and shade" and she's right to complain about the trend for novels which look and feel interchangeable. The problem is that publishers don't know how to sell books in the digital age, when traditional bookshops are closing and online retailers wield immense power, so they've become reliant on some very blunt marketing tools.

Foremost among them is trying to persuade readers to buy new authors by comparing them to well-known writers – "If you love X, you'll adore Y" – and the inevitable result is a stifling sameness. Authors have become brands and one of the most important questions isn't whether a first novel is brilliantly original; it's whether it's likely to be included in a "three for the price of two" promotion at the front of bookshops.

Goodwin thinks that publishers are "lagging behind what the public wants". I believe it's the other way round, that we've got into this situation because publishers spend too much time trying to guess just that. A free market in books has not produced a free market in fiction, and what we've ended up with is a lot of novels which are safe, predictable and commercial.

Now where did I put that unfinished manuscript Princess Diana entrusted to me not long before she died?

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