Hic Lit! Reformed drinkers' true-life tales flood best-seller lists

Alcoholics are less anonymous in latest book craze

Susie Mesure
Sunday 17 February 2008 01:00 GMT

The calendar may say it's February, but for a group of teetotallers it will be forever January – the month of detox. They are the voices behind a new force in literature, as this year's crop of confessional biographies takes a sober turn.

Meet the growing clique of "hic lit" authors who have forsaken the demon drink and are saving themselves fortunes in therapists' fees by writing about their travails. Publishers are falling over themselves in the hunt for the next big title in the "painful lives" genre that has so captivated readers since bursting on to the book scene a couple of years ago, clocking up annual sales of more than £24m.

Alice King, a professional wine writer, will be the latest to join the throng when High Sobriety: Confessions of a Drinker, hits the shelves this week. Her book comes just days after Tania Glyde bid farewell to her inner white wine witch with Cleaning Up: How I Gave Up Drinking and Lived. Tom Sykes's What Did I Do Last Night? has just been released in paperback, and Nicola Barry's Mother's Ruin, which paints an ugly picture of how alcoholism can run in the family, is due out next month.

Peter Saxton, biography buyer at Waterstone's, said: "Books about alcohol addiction have particular appeal. A lot of people can relate quite directly to the subject, because alcohol plays a part in many of our lives in some way or another." Rachel Russell, director of books at WH Smith, sees the titles' strength as "the triumph over adversity theme, which hooks a lot of people".

Authors and alcoholism have a long history – think Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and Charles Bukowski – but the days when writers' pens dripped with neat alcohol are long gone. Publishers see "hic lit" as the natural successor to the "real lives" columns that dominate women's magazines. Ms Russell added: "It's voyeurism. People buy the books for the same reason that they buy Bizarre magazine to see the unsavoury pictures."

To date, James Frey's drinking memoir, A Million Little Pieces, has racked up the strongest sales – according to Nielsen Bookscan, which compiles industry figures for the UK, it sold nearly 20,000 copies last year – but Nielsen's Andre Breedt cautioned that Frey's was a special case, sparking additional interest after he confessed to Oprah Winfrey that he had exaggerated parts of his tale. With sales topping 5,000 copies, Sykes's account of turning his drinking problem into his vocation with a job as the nightlife columnist for the New York Post has been another hit.

Scott Pack, Waterstone's former head buyer, who now works at independent publisher The Friday Project, said: "These are the sort of books that are popular with people who don't buy books very often. You can be snotty and think it's not great literature but it gets people reading. Plus real-life stories are more interesting than anything you can make up and these sorts of books are often written unpretentiously."

The craze for "misery literature" dates from Angela's Ashes in 1996, and in 2000 Dave Pelzer's A Child Called It broke new ground by detailing the horrors of child abuse. It is Amazon's 11th best-selling "endurance and survival" biography. Some commentators knock the controversial genre as little better than pornography in another guise.

This summer will bring some relief in the form of a title that parodies the unadulterated distress of "mis lit". My God Awful Life, by Michael Kelly and Sunny McCreary, promises the story of a man whose life goes downhill after choking on his umbilical cord.

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