When did misery become so entertaining. Realistic television drama seemingly has to have a storyline based on murder, rape or violence, misery memoirs are filling the shelves in bookshops and I don’t think anyone has smiled on Eastenders for years. Why is misery more realistic than joy? Is it because it is gritty and edgy. Or, ironically, is it that it provides viewers with the feelgood factor, because they highlight that humdrum lives of drudgery are preferable to the fictional lives of most people in Albert Square.

Most critics trace the beginning of the genre of Misery Memoirs to ‘A Child Called “It”‘, a 1995 memoir by American Dave Pelzer, in which he details the outrageous abuse he claims to have suffered at the hands of his alcoholic mother, and two subsequent books which continue the story. Misery lit has been described as “the book world’s biggest boom sector”.Works in the genre comprised 11 of the top 100 bestselling English paperbacks of 2006, selling nearly two million copies between them.The Waterstone’s chain of British book retailers even established a  “Painful Lives” section; Borders followed suit with “Real Lives”. At the W H Smith chain, the section is entitled “Tragic Life Stories”; in each case side-stepping the dilemma of whether to categorize the books under Fiction or Non-fiction. Usually when a book of this type is published, outraged friends and relatives will claim that the facts are untrue and the documented abuse didn’t really happen in that way.

These are not tales to be read (or watched) with pleasure yet an astonishing number of people want to read them and the readership for these books is estimated to be “80% or 90% female.” Judging by comments on Amazon, most readers write of feeling “inspired” and I suppose by the time you reach the end of the gruelling read there is a sense of the author reaching triumph over adversity. He or she has after all managed to write a book about their horrific experience and will probably make some sort of living from the royalties it brings. The TV schedules too are jammed with programmes about the ill, the socially inept or the plain dysfunctional yet they grab the ratings. I can understand the satisfaction of watching crime thrillers, a detective unravelling the mystery can be the lazy equivalent of completing a crossword puzzle, or at least watching someone complete a crossword puzzle. Perhaps our lives are so comfortable that we enjoy the fictional turmoil of reading misery memoirs or watching discomforting scenarios. Maybe it gives us a buzz, making us feel alive whilst we sit on the settee eating Maltesers.

One commentator suggested that these books and programmes may raise  awareness but ultimately they are purely about titillation, read and watched for for the same reason voyeurs rubberneck at a car accident. And perhaps it was ever thus: is it really any different to the Romans’ gladiatorial combat, chariot racing and other brutal spectacles or going out to see a public hanging? Probably not.

Advertisements