The phenomenon that is misery

08 February 2008

Flicking through the latest edition of The Bookseller, I see that there are four titles in the non-fiction top twenty list of bestselling books which come under the bracket 'Life Stories', as in, for example, Maria Landon's Daddy’s Little Earner, or Constance Briscoe's Beyond Ugly. Arguably, the darkness of human life that these books so often depict is becoming a national fascination.

In a major supermarket store the other week, they had bracketed these tear-jerkers into three different levels, for maximum impact and they practically had a whole four shelves to themselves. The first was the type evoking life beyond being sold into an arranged marriage, or the slave-trade, or whatever it may be, that is a far cry from your upbringing in the backstreets of a Northern English town and your local comp; the second was a more home-spun, diddly, dooly tale of upbringing in rural poverty where, despite the lack of shoe-laces and the need for potato peelings to light the fire, the narrator rose above it to write it all down and make millions in the telling; the final theme is the one where a small child with beautiful big eyes has been beaten to pulp in the back bedroom, or sent to school with matches stuck under his finger nails, or sold on the street corner for a packet of fags.

Now, I'm not knocking any of these books, because you only have to read the newspapers every day to see that in this country, and elsewhere in the world, individuals are subjected to the most appalling acts of cruelty. What I do find odd though, is that way that they sell in absolute shed-loads, because apparently they have tapped into that glorious thing: 'public empathy'. Isn't it more that people are vicariously curious about a life they have never led (and are pretty glad they haven't) and want to read about it warts 'n' all, rather than one they have narrowly escaped themselves? And why is it 'public empathy'? I don't know, somehow it just doesn't wash with me that all these readers are sympathetic to the cause. Aren't real acts of kindness those shown by someone such as the New Zealand novelist, Janet Frame, who used to take her bread rolls and butter pats from the various hotels she was staying in around the world when on book tours, wrap them up in cellophane, and leave them on benches for the homeless and hungry to eat.

This morning, on my way through the huge transport muddle that is King's Cross station, there was a girl sitting alone on a stairway crying. It was rush hour and streams of people tutted crossly as they pushed past her (much in the way that they do when some poor hapless person has thrown themselves on the line, thereby holding up the network); no-one stopped to ask her whether they could help, or offered her solace, or even a cup of water. Perhaps if she tells the tale that is hers, a young Dutch girl, alone for the first time abroad, trying to battle her way through the overwhelming crush of the London rush-hour and a travel network that is baffling in the extreme, and wraps it up with a picture of herself on the cover, looking pretty but forlorn, then they'll show her some support, under the guise of public empathy.