Misery lit is in good company

From its earliest works, world literature has never wanted for tragic tales.

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But the literature of misery and "misery lit" aren't quite the same thing. The contemporary misery memoir is considered to have begun with the one-two punch of Dave Pelzer's A Child Called It in 1995 and the late Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes the following year. To find the real antecedents of the genre as it stands today, you can start in the 18th century. Although a work of fiction, Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders (1722) appealed directly to the market for gallows confessions or ballads on the lives of condemned criminals. Writing at a time where notions of "improving" literature clashed with a popular demand for sensation, Defoe was well placed to exploit the conventions of life-writing in his novel.

More recent ancestors of the misery memoir began to arise in early 20th-century Ireland, after the War of Independence, when autobiographies plumbing the depths of rural Irish misery, such as Peig Sayers's Peig, became compulsory reading in Irish schools. Peig offered an utterly relentless portrait of a rain-sodden, disease-stricken country beneath permanent grey skies, in which infants either died at birth or grew up crippled, families were evicted weekly from their hovels and everyone, everywhere, was hungry.

The mention of Sayers's writing can still raise goose pimples on a certain generation of Irishmen: it raised more than that from Flann O'Brien, whose wicked satire The Poor Mouth, written in 1941, still functions as one of the best ripostes to the misery memoir. In O'Brien's Corcadoragha, a place of perpetual rain, suffering, related in "learnt smooth Gaelic", becomes comically endemic. One character "had neither pig nor cup nor any household goods. In the depths of winter I often saw him on the hillside fighting and competing with a stray dog, both contending for a narrow hard bone".

"Putting on the poor mouth" was a Gaelic expression that meant overselling the seriousness of one's situation in the hope that creditors would show pity and leave you alone. Later in the century, however, putting on the poor mouth became a way of ensuring that publishers would beat a path to your door. The extraordinary success of A Child Called It in 1995, detailing Pelzer's horrid abuse at the hands of his mother, set publishing houses in desperate search of fuller and franker confessionals. The year after, McCourt won the Pulitzer Prize for his unremitting account of a childhood in grinding poverty in 1930s Limerick.

Dubbed "inspirational memoirs" by publishing houses and frantically commissioned, the books began to flow. Shelf marks evolved: Real Lives in Borders, Painful Lives in Waterstone's, Tragic Life Stories in WH Smith. A specific cover vocabulary developed: child's face, swirly handwriting, emotionally evocative title. And the sales shifted away from bookshops, away from the deprecations of the literary pages. Eighty per cent of inspirational memoirs are sold in supermarkets.

There were times when these shelf marks cunningly sidestepped the issue of whether some of these memoirs were fictional or not. The question became current when the writers James Frey, Misha Defonseca and Binjamin Wilkomirski had their bestselling autobiographies trashed under similarly ignominious circumstances. Frey's record of a misspent youth was denounced as fabrication, with Frey forced to abase himself live on Oprah Winfrey's TV show. Defonseca's account of a childhood raised by wolves after escaping from a concentration camp was revealed as a fantasy. Wilkomirski's account of his war-time childhood also turned out to be false.

But these high-profile cases have done little to abate the popularity of misery lit. With writers such as Pelzer selling upwards of 3.5 million copies in the UK alone, and McCourt's books racking up sales of more than 10 million copies in the US since 1996, the seam may not dry up any time soon.