This is an extended version of the caption I originally wrote for this photo I took on Flickr
This is the “Tragic Life Stories” section in the Chancery Lane branch of WH Smith (snapped on slightly blurry cameraphone). There were six shelves in total (only four are visible here), dominated by one kind of book – recounting a tragic childhood blighted by some sort of disease, endemic poverty, a bitter divorce, being orphaned, or (in the majority of cases) an abusive/alcoholic/drug addict parent. Or even a combination of all these.
Aside: This is not meant to mock, belittle or in any other way dismiss the suffering that the people who wrote these books endured. That suffering is genuine and the pain they went through is not up for discussion here. Rather, my concern is the people who publish and the people who read these books.
Seeing this bookcase full of such stories made me think. This kind of book is relatively new, and it has never been more insanely popular than right now, a genre in its own right. A few times, I’ve seen a table in a bookshop in the Biography section with these books on, but this is the first time I’ve seen an entire bookcase devoted to it.
For starters, note how the aesthetic of the covers is nearly always the same. The title is usually in some sort of handwriting-style font. Maybe its an allusion to childhood innocence and as an opposition to the stern, printed typefaces of the adult world and all its nastiness; maybe it’s just a way of making the stories more “human” and touchy-feely. To reinforce the point, more often than not it’s accompanied by a photogenic child aged between 4 and 7 – always a model, never one of the person involved – forced into a pose of mock suffering. A real-life story, but it’s packaged and sold as if its fiction.
The titles vary from the enigmatic – “Alone”, “Damaged” – to the downright exploitative – “Please Daddy, No”, “Ma, He Sold Me For a Few Cigarettes”. Regardless of how suggestive they are, they are all deliberate so. Incidentally, while most are autobiographies, one person, Torey Hayden (third shelf), seems to do a remarkable trade, making a living telling a series of accounts about other people’s blighted childhoods.
The end result is a bland yet grim identikit look – human suffering has been industrialised into print. Each person’s unique and horrible life story has been carefully commoditised, packaged and airbrushed into a book seemingly indistinguishable from the rest. While sold as as someone telling their unique life story and experiences, in actual fact they just become another brick in the wall. The term “grief porn” has been bandied about for this sort of thing and one of the reasons I imagine is it is likened to porn is this how relentless identical and monotonous each human being is made.
The other pornographic aspect is to do with the kind of person who buys and reads this. Who exactly likes reading this kind of stuff? Certainly, there is something to be said for the notion that this kind of book can help as part of the recovery and closure process for the people involved here. And of course, other victims of abuse or an otherwise terrible childhood can draw comfort and succour from the fact they’re not alone, and they can read how others have recovered and moved on. I am not denying the rights of people to write or read books like this. Instead I am questioning why they are packaged in this way, and why a significant number of people who read this kind of book, who have not shared the same experiences, cannot get enough of them. When a central London branch of one of the UK’s leading booksellers is devoting six whole shelves to the genre, there must be a lot of them.
Who are they? Are they people trying to reassure themselves that despite their faults, they are not (or would never be) as bad a parent or guardian as depicted? Are they people who have just had such uneventful upbringings that they seek accounts of others’ to add colour to their own lives? Are they people get off on reading about suffering, and if so then why this particular kind of very individual and merciless suffering? Individual people’s exact motives are for buying this stuff will differ and I’m sure I have just scratched the surface, but the volume and tone of it seems to pander to a combination of rapacious consumption and relentless voyeurism. It is pornographic, as has been already summed up by Carol Sarler in The Times:
No. They may dress it up with fancy words — “tribute” is a favourite — but the cruder truth is that ersatz grief is now the new pornography; like the worst of hard-core, it is stimulus by proxy, voyeuristically piggy-backing upon that which might otherwise be deemed personal and private, for no better reason than frisson and the quickening of an otherwise jaded pulse.
This kind of activity falls under the umbrella of human behaviour referred to with terms such as “conspicuous compassion”, “recreational grieving”, “mourning sickness”, “vicarious suffering” – a public display of society desperate not just to empathise but also to be seen to be empathising, no matter what. The ongoing Madeleine McCann saga is a case in point (and it’s interesting to see how people have so viciously and hysterically turned on the McCanns once suspicion fell on them, rather than admit they might have been wrong).
This movement of conspicuous, to the point of aggressive, compassion has been dissected before and bloody hell, even Christopher Hitchens is right when he weighs in on the topic. This kind of book feeds into that mentality – the heart-jerking picture of a child and the brutal titles aren’t just to attract people to buy the book – they are also there so that when they read them, everyone else around them will know that they are someone who “cares” and “empathises”.
Yet despite its ostentatious goodliness and earnestness, the end result is the exact opposite of empathy – devouring every last word of someone’s desperately awful childhood before moving onto the next book about someone else’s equally awful experiences. In relentlessly consuming such material, the reader can quite happily disregard the actual human beings in the story – “who” the person was doesn’t matter, but “what” was done to them does. The subject of the book becomes defined as nothing but the victim of what they endured. It is a totally dehumanising process, made all the more obnoxious by the banner of “understanding” that it is performed under.