Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Breakfast Reading

Waking up to a bouquet of articles (at The Independent, The New York Times and The Telegraph) about fraudulent "misery memoirs", I feel prompted to cancel the plans I had for the morning and immediately put finger to keyboard.

The NYT discusses Love and Consequences by "Margaret B. Jones," which the author claimed to be a truthful account of her upbringing as a foster child in LA gangland. As was discovered a couple of days ago, the book was actually composed by one Margaret Seltzer, a young woman from a prosperous LA suburb apparently blessed with an imagination so wild it borders on the delusional.

The 'graph article mentions Jones'/Seltzer's book in connection with a comparable UK case: Kathy O'Beirne's Kathy's Story: A Childhood Hell Inside the Magdalene Laundries (aka Don't Ever Tell in Britain). An immediate best seller on publication in 2005, O'Beirne's account of the abuse she had suffered for years in the Magdalene home of Our Lady of Charity of High Park has now been exposed as a fraud by journalist Herman Kelly. Kelly's research, the results of which have become Kathy's Real Story, has uncovered, among other things, that there are no records of O'Beirne ever being in the home in question.

The articles bring to mind Germany's own literary scandal of this ilk, Feuerherz, an "autobiographical" account by Senahit Mehari, an Eritrean-born German pop star, whose claims to have been a child soldier are being seriously questioned as possible distortions of historical facts (including her life story). The author has admitted inventing key details of her book -- though this did not prevent the release of a film loosely based on it.

Given Homo sapiens' continuing fascination with confessing and "witnessing", the success of this type of text does not come as a surprise. There's a long tradition of "true" tales in the tradition of the Puritan spiritual autobiography, from Defoe's criminal Moll Flanders via Hogg's vicious antinomian Wringhim in Confessions of a Justified Sinner to McEwan's obnoxious Briony in Atonement (a prudish pubescent Puritan if ever there was one). The enduring popularity of confessional literature suggests that there is good reason to think of these texts in light of the social function of confession as a ritual whereby a sinner begs for reintegration into her or his community (even if the last two cases cast serious doubt over the success of this kind of reintegration).

But at least with Defoe, Hogg and McEwan, we know that we are dealing with fiction. In fact, Defoe's claim the his account of Moll Flanders is "truthful" -- established through the introduction of an intercepting editorial voice -- served as a defence against contemporary suspicions regarding fictional literature. He disguised his novels as confessions, because fiction qua fiction was then still considered by many a sinful waste of time.

While the current spate of what is sometimes disparagingly referred to as "misery lit" is part of this tradition of fiction as confession, it is also more troubling precisely because the authors of these allegedly non-fictional accounts deliberately set out to deceive their readers -- who themselves are only too happy to be taken in.

Granted, such sorrowful texts (and their current ubiquity and historical longevity) seem to testify to an apparently ingrained human sense of compassion. This might at first sight seem a good thing. But in manipulating readers' compassionate responses, misery literature also confirms Karen Halttunen's suspicion that a presumably humanitarian fascination with the suffering of others amounts to little more than a "pornography of pain".

"The truth" is far from irrelevant to this matter: the emotional punch readers experience when confronted with accounts of genuine suffering is far greater than that obtained through fiction. And it is this "punchiness" that makes misery lit so enormously marketable.

Which brings us to the other side of the coin. If the confession is a communal ritual in which the confessor begs for reintegration, then he or she too benefits from it. Michel Foucault makes that point when he calls the confession "a ritual of discourse in which the speaking subject is also the subject of the statement" (The History of Sexuality I, p.61). The confessor, precisely in affirming social power by participating in this communal ritual, asserts her or his identity as a person who deserves to be heard.

Apart feeding individual vanity, however, there are more down-to-earth benefits at stake in misery-lit. As the author of the Telegraph article astutely points out: misery lit is a neat little money spinner. "Inspirational memoirs," which differ on in degree from tell-all magazines for middle England's bored housewives, might make up as much as 9% of Britain's book market.
So why has other people's misery become such big business? One of the biggest factors is the impact of the rise of the supermarket: eight out of 10 misery memoirs are bought at the checkout, mostly by women (who make up 85 per cent of the market) who would not visit a bookshop but buy "true life" magazines such as Pick Me Up or Chat, which feature stories about abusive fathers, cheating husbands and distasteful diseases.
So, apart from being self-centred and egotistic, misery-lit is the soppily self-indulgent flip side of a culture dominated by the fantasy of the quick buck. In a world of the sub-mediocre, where people without talent, intelligence, charm or skills can become media superheroes, confession promises to be a route to the top (and dovetails neatly not only with a quasi democratic rags-to-riches fantasy, but also a more esoteric demand for "authenticity"). The X-factor and Oprah are both variations on that theme. In this climate, misery lit -- both of the truthful or deceitful variety -- was an accident waiting to happen.

Sadly, though not unpredictably, too many academics in search of an as yet unoccupied ecological niche have jumped on this cultural bandwagon. This is not to deny the reality of trauma (though I'm not so sure about therapeutic hopes for "closure" deriving from this reality). However, much of "trauma studies" -- especially in humanities departments -- is not only solipsistic and self-centred, but actually harmful to the understanding and treatment of truly traumatised people.

More disturbingly, there is a political angle to all this. Tales of personal suffering such as those mentioned here are often sold as having political relevance. Now. some of them might actually have this relevance. However, as the author of an article in die Zeit about the scandal surrounding Mehari's Feuerherz rightly points out, some tales of personal suffering might actually distract from or even undermine the political debates in which they claim to participate.

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