I was contacted by an American reader recently, who was in a state of distress. She had posted on the Facebook page of the writer Cathy Glass. Cathy is the pen-name of a lady who has written 28 books about her experiences as a foster mother to at-risk children, as well as a four self-help books and, more recently, a crime novel. Cathy is a publishing phenomenon and has a hugely loyal legion of fans who await each new title with bated breath.
My friend was upset because, in her post, she had made reference to the genre Cathy writes as ‘misery lit’. Ms Glass is famous for being quite reclusive and not often engaging with fans on social media, but she emerged from her writing cave long enough to ask my embarrassed pal not to use that term when discussing her books.
I was more than a little amused, but I felt sorry for my distraught reader, too. It was as if she’d gone to Stratford, stumbled across a reanimated Shakespeare, and informed him she liked his funny ones, but found the historicals a bit dry and ponderous.
Of course, she’d encountered one of the great debates in publishing, one that is still miles away from any kind of resolution – what are you supposed to call this type of book? And maybe more importantly, is the genre really respectable at all?
My friend, the author John Connolly, was in Edinburgh once on a book tour, and he texted me intermittently as he went about the city, letting me know what sections in the bookshops he visited my titles were filed under (he has a dark sense of humour, does John).
My books sat under headings like Miserable Childhoods; Hard Lives; Dark Memoirs; Pop Psychology; Alternative Lifestyles (not sure what that one was insinuating) and Misery Biogs. Looking at some of those suggestions, I can live with misery lit.
Regrettably, others can’t.
‘I just can’t read your sort of book!’
I am often told that when I visit book shops or go to launches. Some people will say this with a facial expression that is three-parts sympathy, one-part disgust, as if they are trying to work out what sort of person would choose to write books that dwell on such torrid themes. The sentiment is perhaps best summed up by a quote from The Guardian – this comes from a 2007 piece by journalist Esther Addley: “Reproducing like bacteria, a new literary genre has wholly infected the bestseller charts. As much as 30% of the non-fiction paperback chart on any given week is made up of accounts of grinding childhood misery.”
As I said, misery lit is, in many people’s eyes, not quite respectable. In fact, there seems to be a belief that it barely qualifies as real writing at all.
I was chatting with an agent recently who represents a lot of ‘inspirational memoirs’ (for your information – which might be particularly useful to those among you intending to post on the social media pages of certain writers – this is the preferred terminology). She told me that the vast majority of the books she brings to publication in this field are ghost-written. In fact, she has a stable of ghost-writers who can turn a manuscript around in a matter of weeks.
When I thought about this, it made sense. I’m a former child protection worker with a college education. Writing my first book wasn’t exactly easy, but I’d written articles, a dissertation and a post-graduate thesis before, so I had at least a vague idea of what I was getting myself into. Writing a book must be a terrifying prospect for someone who left school early, or whose experience of education was a negative or abusive one.
It’s easy to turn your nose up at a ghost-written memoir of abuse, but please stop and think about it for a moment.
There is a real skill inherent in the endeavour – ghost writers must tell the story in the voice of the subject of the book, which often means using simple language and avoiding more ‘writerly’ tropes. This, obviously, results in books that tend to be all plot: ‘this happened, then that happened, then we did this,’ which in the world of misery lit tends to mean a lot of recounting of tough experiences, usually told in pretty direct terminology. But that is exactly what a lot of the readers are looking for: they want to read the story, find out what happened. They’re not asking for a lot of window-dressing.
To be continued . . . the second part of this article will appear shortly.
(c) Shane Dunphy
About The Boy They Tried to Hide:
The Boy They Tried to Hide is the startling, true account of how truth is sometimes stranger than fiction …
Shane Dunphy was working as a resource teacher in a rural town when he was approached by the mother of one of his pupils, seeking help. She is worried for her troubled young son, who has been found leaving the house late at night to go deep into the woods near their home. He has spoken of meetings with a friend, Thomas, but no one else has seen him or knows who he is.
As Shane tries to discover what’s going on, a sexual predator he helped bring to justice years before reappears. The man is looking to settle a score, and has picked someone close to Shane as his next victim.
In The Boy They Tried to Hide, Shane Dunphy revisits cases he encountered during his time as a child protection worker and journalist and, in doing so, once again discovers that leaving the past behind is harder than it seems.
Order your copy online here.