In which The Author reflects on a publishing phenomenon
My friend Emily has recently read a book. She claims it’s the first book she’s ever read. Apparently she found it in a friend’s caravan and it caught her eye.
As soon as I saw the cover – a posed photograph of a child crying, with the title in a luridly coloured font, designed to look like a child’s laborious printing – I knew pretty much what the content would be.
Book jackets have become as clichéd as cinema posters. You can spot a chick-lit novel at twenty paces these days – the cartoon cover and jolly pink typeface which speak of frothy giggles for the commitment-phobic Bridget Jones set. You can do the same with a crime thriller (some sort of assemblage of objects against a blood-spattered background, with the title seemingly scratched into the very fabric of the cover like a desperate dying message to the CID), a fantasy epic (huge mountainous vistas, a musclebound man with a sword, and a creature from one’s darkest nightmares), or a massive international hit in translation (which actually does look like a film poster – a nod to the fact that the rights have probably already been sold to Spielberg).
It saves us a lot of time in work, deciding where something should be shelved, but it can also cause great confusion for customers. Often we have to exchange a book on the grounds that the customer’s already bought it. How can they tell? They all look the same, to be fair.
The type of cover I saw in Emily’s hand spoke of something else entirely – a relatively new phenomenon in publishing. It’s a clear indicator of a heartbreaking account of abusive parenting/institutional abuse/drug or alcohol addiction/self-harming/homelessness/self-destructive relationships (delete as applicable) but (of course) eventual redemption through adoption by a loving family/help from a gifted teacher/sobriety/finding true love/finding God/ discovery of a hidden talent/meeting one’s biological parents/embarking on a court case (once again, delete as applicable).
Emily’s book was called Mummy Doesn’t Love You by Alexander Sinclair, and it’s just one of dozens of similar autobiographies which have been published over the past few years.
It all began with an American guy named Dave Pelzer, about ten years ago. He wrote an account of his early childhood under the title A Child Called ‘It’, which became a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic. He followed it in quick succession with The Lost Boy and A Man Called Dave. Real gorehounds can buy the three books in an omnibus edition. I’m not sure if there’s a coupon in the back entitling one to a month’s free supply of Prozac when you’ve finished reading them. I’ll have to check tomorrow.
Mr Pelzer is now hugely wealthy as a direct result of sharing his traumatic upbringing with the world. He’s a bit of a self-help guru now, and has even written a Guide to Life.
That was all it took for every child who’s ever been locked in the cupboard under the stairs to decide that their story was worth telling. Over the past few years, there’s been a steady stream of so-called ‘Misery Memoirs’ from UK publishers. Waterstones even has a subcategory in the biography section labelled ‘Painful Lives’, to make it easier for people who wallow in trash like Jeremy Kyle’s show to find the TV tie-ins.
It struck me while talking to Emily over the weekend that this must be the publishing equivalent of the famous Four Yorkshiremen comedy sketch. Picture if you will four middle-aged guys sitting round at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, discussing their troubled early lives.
‘My mother used to sit me on t’ cooker until me flesh was burned and blackened.’
‘Cooker? You were lucky! Me father used to pour neat brandy down me throat until I were unconscious and then throw me onto t’ coal fire!’
‘You had it easy! Me uncle used to shag me up t’ arse every night until I was seven years old. After that. it were threesomes with me babby sister!’
‘Luxury! My parents used to inject me with pure heroin as soon as I’d finished sucking my mother’s tits, then they’d cut off me arms and legs with a chainsaw, feed the still-bleeding stumps to t’ dog, and dance up and down the street, waving me head on a pole and singin’ “Superman” by Black Lace!’
‘Aye. And you try telling young people that – they won’t believe yer!’