Misery Memoirs

illustration by Stewf

I suppose it’s possible that the phrase ‘misery memoir’ is not always used in a pejorative fashion. I suppose.

I wonder if Mary Gaitskill’s own views come through when she writes here, on the importance of difficult subject matter:

I loved the Anne Frank show. It made me feel something for other people, an awful connection with dead strangers more intimate than any relationship I had with my living peers. It made me feel vindicated and angry and self-righteous. The television presentation padded it enough so that it induced a mild feeling of sorrow and sensitivity instead of actual pain.

– from Two Girls, Fat And Thin, by Mary Gaitskill

After all, by writing this novel about two women who have been sexually abused and tortured in various ways, in some people’s words, Gaitskill has effectively written a ‘misery memoir’.

Any reader is perfectly entitled to avoid reading Misery Memoirs, in the same way anyone is entitled to bury one’s head in the sand. But fiction about misery is perhaps some of the most important fiction we have. Sometimes those who suffer don’t have much else.

We need the books that affect us like disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.


“People don’t usually keep their happy thoughts as secrets. It’s the sadness in our hearts that we hide from the world.”

–  @ReveccaP, on the proliferation of sad PostSecret confessions

I’m pretty sure I don’t believe [this], but which I’ll simulate here anyway: contemporary short story writers have gotten too specialized/dark/mopey. They don’t have enough “real life” in their stories—that is, they’re not taking up the real concerns of real readers. They aren’t storytellers, really (in that around-the-campfire sense) but margin-dwellers, writing stories in response (not to life itself), but to other hothouse stories, and all these stories do, really, is uphold a certain knee-jerk, lazy, default humanist ethic, etc., etc. Where’s the joy? Isn’t there lots to celebrate in life? This model (as you can tell) is dangerously close to reactionary (“Just write something I can read and I’ll read it! Why so negative! You sure seem well-fed enough, mister!”), and I don’t buy it for a number of reasons, the main one of which is that sometimes joy can express itself in strange ways, and also because stories have always been dark (i.e., Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the Crucifixion).

George Saunders

I think a good novel can be a doorstop to despair. I also think the real bravery comes with those who prepared to go through that door and look at the world in all its grime and torment, and still find something of value, no matter how small.


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And in other news, I love a good disease flick.