Monday, 2 June 2008

Ma, I've Written A Misery Memoir

I was walking down the high street earlier (face to the open sky the passing deluge) when I was brought to a halt by a poster advertising a book called 'Ma, He Sold Me for a Few Cigarettes'. At first, not unreasonbly, I took this for a marketing spoof -along the lines of Nathan Barley's Wasp T12 Speechtool ('It's well weapon') - but no, it turned out to be entirely authentic and, indeed, on sale and doing well in Sainsburys. It is a 'misery memoir' of a grim Irish childhood by one Martha Long, and has a companion volume, 'Ma, I'm Locked Up in the Madhouse' (I'm not making that up either).
I suppose, as popular literary genres go, these misery memoirs are quite healthy, showing, as they do, that our individual fates are not socially determined and that the most extreme adversity can be overcome. They are, perhaps, a secular equivalent of those religious tracts ('A Brand From the Burning' etc) whose huge popularity in the 19th century now mystifies us. The continuing vogue for 'Ma, He Sold Me...' and the like certainly seems healthier and more easily understandable than the popularity of those ultra-grisly tales of sadistic serial killers and forensic scientists which, to judge by the book display in Sainsburys, are bigger than misery memoirs. Typically written by women, are these, I wonder, the modern equivalent of the whodunits of the golden age (also written mostly by women)? If so, it shows how far popular taste has sunk. Not that we should be surprised at that...

13 comments:

  1. I would have thought this bandwagon would be running out of steam by now.
    Several years ago, I think, the BBC DJ, ''talking head'', and writer, Andrew Collins, penned his autobiography on ordinary childhood, and called it 'Where did It All Go Right?' because, even by then, enough was enough.

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  2. Enough was enough Ian, especially since we now know that most of them belong in the fiction section.

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  3. The queen of written angst used to be Edna O`brien, Opening one of her books was like removing your own teeth without anaesthetic, she also used to appear on chat shows as the token Irishwoman screwed up by the convent system and radiated hugh amounts of repression of every shape and colour, I though that if anyone went near her with a naked flame she would explode.
    I was given (that's my excuse) a copy of Clarissa Dixon thingey's autobiography, well into misery memoir country, as you point out Nige it's surprising how many people suffer a terrible childhood and go on to lead successful lives.

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  5. Sitting in a cinema watching the film version of 'Angela's Ashes' remains one of the bleakest two hours of my life. It got so ridiculous that everybody started to cheer in the audience every time another one of the family popped their clogs.

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  6. I was in W. H. Smith in Gloucester a while back and they had a separate section for these things. It was next to 'Biography' and was called something like 'Tragic Life Stories'.

    I didn't know whether to scream, laugh or both.

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  7. According to the Bookseller last week, these books are now doing badly, thankfully.
    I think this is a pointless genre, mostly made-up and cashing in on everyone's baser instincts -- authors and readers. Dishonest all round. So I am glad to read that there is no longer any money in it.

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  8. Maxine, none of the financial structures of the populist book industry seems to make sense, if the rumours regarding the sorceress Cherie's payments are true then the book sales alone obviously do not make a profit, newspapers have an awful lot to answer for, and what's the point in producing a book, why not just the serial in the newspaper.

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  9. Many of these autobiographies are highly exaggerated, if not downright frauds.

    I understand Henry Morton Stanley's autobio was greatly fictionalized.

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  10. Malty, you write: "what's the point in producing a book, why not just the serial in the newspaper."

    Yes, indeed, for books such as Cherie Blair's (Jordan's, et al) publishers pay such huge advances that they have to recoup via newspaper serial, etc. Because of heavy price discounting, serial rights and this type of deal are more remunerative than actual sales.

    My comment about the misery memoirs was simply to point out that they aren't doing as well as they were, thankfully, so the lemming-like publishers will now move onto the next trend, which I hope will be less awful. And all those hawking misery memoirs will go on to ghost other types of book, as there won't be money for them in the misery memoir any more, though there may well be in other genres it is true.

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  11. The word is from the whacky world of publishing that these are running out of steam. There's only so many one can read.

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  12. I've just finished Martha's third book Ma, it's a cold aul night an I'm lookin for a Bed - and am really disappointed it didn't finish her life. I feel the last 2 books could have been chapters in the first book. I admire her spirit and wonder how much is imagination. Would love to know how her sibblings ended up and whether Jackser ever got his just desserts, but also I have friends that wouldn't finish the first book - I feel there's too much waffling going on - hopefully the next book is the last !

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