Presented for your bewilderment, a display table I saw in Waterstones on Piccadilly the other night.

Normally, I mock similarly-designed items, but having a go at these near-identical covers feels a bit like stealing sweets from a baby (though of course that’s far more civilised behaviour than the subject matter of these books).

For those of you who aren’t familiar with these books, which are often racked under ‘Tragic Lives’ or similar in bookshops, they tend to be memoirs of terrible suffering which the authors suffered in their childhood, but which are presented as being ultimately uplifting. Often they’re the tales of horrific levels of abuse (verbal, physical, sexual and psychological), and thus the covers invariably feature an upset-looking child.

If I sound vague about the contents or dismissive about the marketing, that’s because I haven’t read any of them (though I’m told the initial books of this nature by Dave Pelzer are quite readable), and the packaging of them often ends up being unintentionally amusing to my obviously sick mind (the best example being Ma, He Sold Me For A Few Cigarettes – seriously, that’s a real book; click the link and see).

As I understand it, these books are known as ‘Misery-Lit’ or even ‘Bleakbusters’, and they sell very well indeed. They’re not the sort of book that I think I’d care to read, really, and there’s a large part of me that worries about the fine line that one has to tread between concern about an issue such as mistreatment of others, and a slightly unhealthy and voyeuristic interest in the specifics of the mistreatment; see Apt Pupil by Stephen King for an example of an obsession with ‘the gooshy stuff’ taken to an extreme level (he said, loading his argument)

One thing I recently read about these books, though, is that they’re ‘publishing’s dirty little secret’ (the irony of this is, I hope, not lost on the industry); whilst the various publishers wouldn’t make any claim that these were literary classics or necessarily even of great social merit, the books do sell in vast quantities, and of course this helps the publishers keep afloat during these difficult financial times – books such as those pictured effectively help subsidise the other tomes which don’t speed off the shelves so quickly, but whose authors might pick up both acclaim and awards further down the line. It’s the equivalent of a record label having both Seasick Steve and Coldplay on, I guess.

As I say, I’m vaguely uncomfortable about these books, and the picture of child + hand-written title + typed strapline hinting at the horrors within formula of the covers makes me prone to mock them, but I recently read something (embarrassingly, I can’t remember where, but if anyone can point me towards the origin, I’ll gladly link to it) which suggested that within the world of publishing itself, these books aren’t exactly taken too seriously.

A number of people within publishing firms, the story goes, held a competition to make up the most archetypal and yet repellent example of a Misery-lit book title, voting for the winner. There were, I gather, a large number of entries, but the winner was, by a substantial margin, the title No, Grandad, Not On My Face.