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On the rise of the misery memoir

In an essay recently posted on The Observer‘s website, Tim Adams explores the role of misery in British pop culture, writing of immensely popular “true-life” tabloid-style magazines that are filled with brief, fluffily written, and tragic stories of child abuse and murder, and a Big Brother-style reality TV show featuring a house of heroin addicts attempting to kick their habits.

First-person non-fiction accounts of tragedy, what Adams calls “misery memoirs,” are also common, so common that Richard Madeley and Judy Finnegan of Channel 4’s popular Richard and Judy Book Club recently held a contest in which viewers could call in and reveal the tragedies of their lives. Thousands responded, finalists were chosen, and viewers were asked to vote on their favourite, which then received a £25,000 book deal with Random House.

As one would expect, the essay segues into a discussion about James Frey. According to Adams, Frey’s case is the perfect illustration of the opposition between “real life, complex and nuanced and difficult,” and “‘real life,’ manufactured and marketed and manipulative.” He argues that, in this age of reality entertainment, people derive pleasure from the pain of others and look, ironically, to human tragedy as an escapist device through which one “can indulge [one]self in other people’s emotions without ever properly engaging in the messy business of real life.”

Related links:
Click here for the Tim Adams piece