Is it a problem of too much soap opera in the diet, is it the voyeur instinct, or is it a kind of vicarious sado-masochistic tendency deep in the psyche that has driven the misery lit genre which has infected our airport and supermarket book stores for the past few decades?
While the sales of The News of the World and other numerous shock-horror exposé newspapers have always been fuelled by these instincts, the flood of best-selling memoirs gratifying these with tales of miserable childhoods, miserable marriages and other variations on how terrible life can be, is a relatively new phenomenon.
It has all been reminiscent of the famous Monty Python skit when few a of the Pythons – John Cleese and company – were recounting their miserable childhoods, each one vying to be more miserable than the other. It went something like this: First Yorkshireman: "Oh! you should have seen where our mother had to bring us up — we was brought up in a shoe". Second Yorkshireman: "A shoe! You was lucky. Our mother had to rear us in a shoe box." Third Yorkshireman:"A shoe box! We didn’t even have a shoe box."
Now this literary genre accounts for a sizable proportion of annual publishing output. But is its very success in danger of killing it off, with one exaggeration following another right into fantasy land, Monty Python style? The truth no longer seems adequate to satiate the appetite for misery. And when the true stories don’t seem terrible enough invention takes over, parading itself as truth. Now exposés of a different kind are taking place and the bubble may be about to go "pop". The goose that laid the golden egg seems to be in danger of expiring.
It has been said that this genre got its kick-start in an Irish context when an ex-pat Irishman, Frank McCourt, then a teacher in the New York, released to the world his account of his miserable childhood in Angela’s Ashes. The people of Limerick — where Frank spent his childhood — were not all that pleased with his portrayal of their community. It was alleged that from some of their memories that the misery element in the brew was significantly over-cooked. Nevertheless, the book sold in millions, enjoyed a global reach in multiple translations and was duly filmed.
But you can have too much of a good thing — or as in this case, a bad thing — and when more and more miserable memoirs began to hit the bookstalls some questions began to be asked. Sadly in Ireland there have been enough true stories about abusive regimes in orphanages, in shelters of one kind or another for the socially deprived or disadvantaged, to give the ring of truth to many others which are turning out to be very dubious, giving rise to the suspicion that the eye for the fast buck combined with the ability turn a good phrase have tempted some to play fast and loose with the truth and the reading public.
A few suspicious journalists have now begun to expose a number of these "true stories". Monique De Wael, writing under the pseudonym Misha Defonseca, has now admitted that what she presented as a memoir of a Jewish childhood in war-torn Europe is in fact fiction: a story of a six-year-old girl searching for her parents across Europe and in the process managing to kill a Nazi officer. She was even befriended and given shelter by a pack of wolves. Some wags described it as Schindler’s List meets The Jungle Book. Monique/Misha isn’t even Jewish.
Following the exposé of Love and Consequences, Margaret B. Jones’ memoir of "her life" growing up as a part native-American child in an LA ghetto as a work of fiction, now pulped by her publishers, editors — and those addicted to this type of thing — are going to have to be very careful when presented with specimens of the genre in future. But the publishers will be reluctant to scrutinise too closely given the money-spinner this feeding frenzy has been for them. This genre accounts for 9 per cent of the British book market at present, raking in £24 million. Harper Collins attributes a large part of its 31 percent increase in annual profits to the demand for this kind of thing. The Irish seem to have a voracious appetite for it.
Ireland is currently dealing with an allegation by a journalist that one of the more celebrated home-based mis lit specimens is in fact a deceptive work of fiction. This is Kathy O’Bierne’s memoir of a childhood inside the Magdalen laundries — an institution which was also the subject of a controversial film. In Ireland it was entitled, Kathy’s Story: A Childhood Hell Inside the Magdalen Laundries. Elsewhere it was entitled Don’t Ever Tell.
The latter has a ring of irony now that an enterprising journalist has published a book entitled Kathy’s Real Story, asking some very pertinent questions about the story told in O’Beirne’s book. O’Beirne and her publishers stand over what they have done but when Herman Kelly, the journalist investigating the authenticity of the memoir, produced documentation on a TV show some months ago, he was physically set upon by the author. He had produced a birth certificate and school records which showed that what purported to be factual in the book about her age and her alleged adoption were not true.
Kelly’s suspicions were first aroused by the very improbability of the horror story which O’Beirne was telling. As he read it "alarm bells started ringing. Even in the introductory chapter, every single thing is black and white. If you were a betting man, the statistical probability of someone having so many terrible events in their life really stretched credibility." Kelly began investigating, looking for records of O’Beirne’s time in the institution. There were none — despite the fact that the institution had maintained meticulous records. Former workers in the laundry had no memory of her and in any case girls as young as O’Beirne claimed to be at the time were not admitted there. Members of O’Beirne’s own family have denied the account she offers.
So will all this wean an addicted readership off this fare? Will the 400,000 copies of O’Beirne’s book which have been sold blush for shame and be discarded by their admiring readers. Sadly, probably not.
However, there is still the consolation that these phenomena do eventually fade and in a hundred years time The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, the novels of Dickens, will still be what will be remembered as the great reads in a lifetime of reading the good, the bad and the ugly. The stories of lives, fictional and non-fictional, which show us what we are, a mixture of hopes and fears, successes and failures, some black spots, more white and a good deal of gray, will still be what move and inspire us.
Michael Kirke is a freelance writer in Dublin.