Misery Lit

As someone whose idea of a perfect day ends between clean sheets with a book I have been itching to read all day (sad, I know, but true) I was delighted when I was asked to chair the judges of the Orange prize for the best novel written in English by a woman.

But one hundred and twenty nine novels later I feel like a social worker in Haringey. It’s not that the books weren’t good, there were at least thirty I would have paid good money for, but because by and large their subject matter was so unremittingly grim. T.S. eliot once said that humankind cannot bear too much reality, but if you are a judge of the Orange Prize this year you had no choice. I read novels that started with a rape, carried on through a civil war and ended with a bombing; there were books where babies were abused, bayonetted and brought up as dogs, I persevered through stories where women were trafficked, abused, raped vaginally, anally (with and without needles) and finally murdered. And that’s not to mention the countless stories of quiet despair. In 2010 the future’s not so much Orange as gunmetal grey spotted here and there with dark red.

Of course there is nothing new about grim. None of the books I read contained a scene as harrowing as the passage in Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy when Jude discovers that little Jude has hanged all his siblings, “becos we are too meny”. No fictional woman has ever suffered for as long as the eponymous heroine of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa and Greek tragedies are full of infanticide, incest and eye gouging. But generally great fiction contains light and shade – the horrors of the bottle factory and Mr Murdstone in David Copperfield were balanced by the joys of Mr. Micawber and Betsey Trotwood. Even Tess has a few jollies with Angel Clare before it all goes pear-shaped. Of course there were books among the Orange submissions that balanced misery with redemption and took the reader on a journey rather than subjecting them to a mail order catalogue of misfortune and these were the books that we chose for the long list. I will happily read a book about human trafficking in Belgium if it has a compelling story and engaging characters, but I don’t want to read first-hand accounts lightly fictionalized.

The Orange prize is for women only but misery lit is not a purely female phenomenon. Sue Perkins who was a judge on the Booker last year said that there are books by men and women that she still shudders to recall, “That’s eight months of my life I won’t get back. The theme of the year was casual rape, usually set in the 50’s . And animal abuse, why spend thirty pages carefully delineating the nuances of a character if you can just have him ritually slaughter a cat.” She has been so affected by the experience that at the moment she isn’t reading anything written after 1900. “I’ll get over it eventually but right now I am having some down time with Moby Dick.”

So why are there so many novels sprinkled with rape and child abuse? Surely, the activities of the Catholic Church aside, these writers are all not following rule 101 of creative writing and writing about what they know? Why is there so little humour in modern literary fiction? The agent Derek Johns whose clients include Andrew O’Hagan, Sebastian Barry and Linda Grant says that it is much harder to sell a funny book, ‘humour in literary fiction is considered to be a bit suspect.’ This week Ian Mc Ewan has been at pains to defend his new book Solar from the charge of humour, claiming that ‘there are great stretches of it that really aren’t funny at all.’

Juliet Annan, the editorial director of Fig Tree books who publishes The Help which is funny, even though its subject matter – the treatment of black maids in the Mississippi of 1961 – is anything but, says that “I am always surprised by how frightened my colleagues at the literary imprints are of humour or lightness of tone. I think the most interesting books are the ones that use humour to deal with serious things. I love a bit of bleak but there’s an awful lot of it out there. You shouldn’t have to suffer as you read.” Amanda Craig, whose book Hearts and Minds is also on the long list, makes the distinction between serious and solemn. “ A lot of authors confuse the two. I actually had a lot of problems with my publisher over the comedy parts of Hearts and Minds; he wanted it all to be the grim stuff, and I argued that life itself a mixture of comedy and tragedy, and a novel should reflect this. I think it’s like the gap between Baroque music, and Romantic. In Baroque music, there is darkness but always a movement towards light and life and joy and hope. I detest the current trend for thinking that a literary novel is all miserabilist. There are plenty of examples of horrible subjects treated as comedy in classic literature – Lolita, David Copperfield, The Way We Live Now spring to mind – and the seriousness is no less serious for that. Whereas now, far too many serious novels make me want to slit my wrists at the end.”

So where is the push to the dark side coming from? Not from individual readers it seems. Jo Rutherford atToppings bookshop in Ely says that she constantly has people coming in ‘asking for something “uplifting” and it can be a struggle to find anything that fits the bill. I get customers who are going into hospital and they want to read something cheering. It can be really hard to find them the right book.” She says that the real demand for books about human trafficking in Antwerp or foot binding in Lithuania or female circumcision, are the book groups. “Issue led books work much better for book groups, “ says Jo Rutherford, “It makes for a much better evening.”

Juliet annan agrees, ‘You need something other than style and nuance to talk about before you move on to the cupcakes or open the second bottle.” Funny books don’t wash with book group crowd. Tried it. Like late Victorian working men’s clubs book groups want ‘improving’ books and the marketing departments of publishers love that says Annan, “ because it gives them something to glomm on to.” Of course there is nothing wrong with book groups, but publishers need to remember that most people read for pleasure; my heart sank every time I saw the words suitable for book groups on the back of a proof. Call me old fashioned but I want to be seduced by a book not hectored into submission.

Kate Mosse the founder of the Orange Prize and bestselling novelist, thinks that the reason that so many works of literary fiction now have such disturbing subject matter is due to the escalation of violence across fiction generally,
“There are some crime writers now that I genuinely cannot bring myself to read because they are so horrific. I think this change has meant that everyone’s threshold for violence has changed. I think a lot of writers of literary fiction are responding to this and are desperately looking trying to find ways to shock.” She thinks that one of the reasons that so many women writers are drawn to such dark subject matter is that ‘they are trying so hard not to be Jane Austen. If women writers write humorously about the domestic arena they get put in pink covers and struggle to be taken seriously.” It is true that editors don’t tend to enter books with pink covers for literary prizes. Of the one and hundred and twenty nine books that were submitted only a fraction had even a hint of pastel, although one of them The Way Things Look to Me by Roopa Farooqi has ended up on the long list.

I think it is time for publishers to stop treating literary fiction as the novelistic equivalent of cod liver oil: if it’s nasty it must be good for you. I don’t want happy endings or belly laughs on every page but I do want a book I can go happily to bed with, and I promise that this year’s Orange winner will be that.

Copyright Daisy Goodwin. All Rights Reserved