Thursday 16 October 2008

Abusing the Abuse Industry

A recent visit to a chain bookshop that shall not be named saw me looking in disbelief at a display they had set up by the front entrance. It was a small wall of misery memoirs, of the abused child variety.

There are a couple of odd things about this: first of all, I've never understood the hunger people have to read about this stuff. One or two books, sure, that might make sense. But when I worked in a bookshop, the same people would buy these things by the score. They would start off with a Dave Pelzer or two, and soon they'd be waist-deep in child rape, bashings and underage prostitution.

I don't know whether these customers were former abuse victims themselves, unable to tear their minds off a topic which had become all-consuming, or whether they were getting a voyeuristic and, frankly, pornographic kick out of these books (see also the endless lovingly described serial-killer/torture-porn that has become de rigeur in certain blockbuster thrillers these days). Shit, I sound like an old man.

Secondly, and more startlingly, all of these books look exactly the bloody same!

How does the modern child-abuse afficionado remember which ones they've read? They all use the same limited pastel palette, washed-out photos of unhappy kids, unconvincing "hand-drawn" fonts for titles, and (except in a couple of cases) little sans-serif fonts for author names.

(Please note: I am not making mock of the abused, I am simply depressed by the commodification of child misery and by the vast audience it commands.)


Kate said...

Oh God I hate those books! We have a whole separate bay for them in our shop (the people of Wolverhampton are a miserable lot). At least the covers all looking the same makes it easy to know where to put it. In fact that's what I told one of our new staff, miserable looking child on cover = Real Lives bay.

PS: Love this blog.

Sara K. said...

All I can say is wow and weird—what astonishing homogeneity! But this roundup is also fascinating because we're witnessing the creation of a visual style. I mean, if you take chick lit, that visual style really just echoed the crap that's been thrown at women a girls for years—it drew on iconography that has been floating around for years, and that has a history even older than its current iteration. Chick lit covers don't look all that different from Barbie packaging. But this seems new to me. Especially the handwriting typography.

I've never paid attention to this sort of book. But maybe I'll start looking out for it. Is this a universal design at this point, or just an Australian thing? Wonder what first set it off. Was there one really popular book and the rest followed a trend?

JRSM said...

Kate: Thanks! Yes, you'd know as soon as one came out of the box from the distributor what it was, without eve needing to read the blurb--or the title, for that matter.

Sara: You're right, it's a style that's formed over just a few years, and now there seems to be no deviation from it at all. From what I can see it's pretty universal--most of the books pictured are from the UK, but some are also from the US.

Anonymous said...

I like the fact that these egregious books have been given their own section (in my local bookstore, it's "Painful Pasts") as it decontaminates the biographies area where they had previously been stored.

I read of a competition recently, whether real or not I'm unsure, where people were asked to invent the most lurid title for a misery memoir. The winner was Not On My Face, Grandad.

Otherwise, a nice summary of some of the best titles can be had here.

JRSM said...

They're almost un-satirisable (to coin an ugly word), aren't they?

Steerforth said...

Before I left bookselling last year, I remember a publisher's rep' complaining that the sales figures for new misery memoirs weren't as good as they used to be. I'd love to conclude that the genre was in decline, but I suspect that its more down to market saturation.

These books are like crack cocaine for working-class women. I used to sell lots of these books as 'holiday reading'! What sort of person wants to spend their time sitting on a lovely, sunny beach reading about a child being raped by their father? Bizarre.

I love 'Not On My Face, Grandad'

JRSM said...

Please, please, PLEASE let it be a market in decline! The holiday reading thing is genuinely bizarre. I know from someone who works in Christian bookselling that there's a similar market for martyr memoirs (not autobiographies, for obvious reasons)--books/magazines about Christian missionaries being beheaded by Janjaweed loonies, that sort of thing.

Anonymous said...

That left me speechless on multiple levels. Maybe Boston area escaped this trend? This post deserves an expansion into an (illustrated) article, if you haven't already done so. (Publisher's Weekly, or maybe Rain Taxi?)

JRSM said...

I'm moving to Boston!

Anonymous said...

Wholly by coincidence I read this post while on the radio I could hear part of an interview with an "ex-sex-offfender" - so looking at those miserable child faces had an extra nauseating edge. For a while I thought it must have been a wind up, how the covers went on and on with those same bloddy handdrawn fonts - then I reaslised no one making a joke would go to such lengths to make SO many covers. That these books exist in such formats reinforces my suspicion that people deliberately engage with such works so that they can try to distance themselves from such things by specifcally saying how horrible they find it. A very sad state of affairs. But not surprising. Alas. Jax

JRSM said...

Jax, I can't help feeling there's something quite pornographic in the disgust/enjoyment people have in reading these books.

Anonymous said...

Certainly something unhealthly about it. An unheathly interest in something distasteful. I'm pretty sure there's a word for that. "Prurient" comes to mind, but I think there's a better one. Of course, if quizzed as to why, their answer: "but it's not the horrid things I enjoy, it's how people come out stronger from their hardships." Etc. Except does that mean that such hardships actually make us better people? Should we all suffer a little abuse just to boost our moral outlook?Is it character building? - Jax