In which our blogger confesses himself bemused

By , 19 December 2008 6:12 pm

One of the things about being a blog writer is the implicit assumption that you know what you’re talking about. Ideally, one likes to come over as something of a guru, a discerning and reliable guide to a confusing and perplexing world. I live in hope that, around coffee tables and water coolers the world over people are saying ‘You know the British and Americans are different; I’ve been reading some really excellent blogs on this by Chris Walley.’ What follows therefore is something of an embarrassing revelation and I hope you will forgive me.

The fact is I was in our local W H Smith (a big British newsagents/booksellers) the other day when I came across something that stopped me dead in my tracks and which frankly dear reader, I do not understand. It was an entire section simply labelled ‘Tragic Life Stories’. I should at this point have taken out my iPhone and taken a photograph for myself. However just to show you that it isn’t a delusion I have borrowed a photo from Flickr from someone else who was obviously as stunned as me.

Notice the exploitative titles such as Please Daddy No! and He Sold Me For A Few Cigarettes. Note too the extraordinary similarities of titling and imagery. Apparently this sort of thing is called ‘Grief Porn’ and it is quite obviously very big indeed.

Readers, I find myself doubly troubled. I think – no, I know – there is something very badly wrong here. But I am equally troubled because I don’t quite understand exactly what’s going on. Who reads this sort of thing? What is the motivation? Do readers enjoy feeling sympathy with the victims? Or – heaven forbid – do they take some deep (and possibly unacknowledged) vicarious pleasure in the acts that are perpetrated? Isn’t there enough real misery in the world that we need to read about it? (Perhaps that’s the point: we can close the book at the end and put it all behind us.) And isn’t there something grotesquely immoral about people making money out of misery? Oh and, incidentally, why are all the children white? Well if anyone has any clear answers or biblical insights I’d be interested in hearing them.

You may well say this is a miserable thought in the run-up to Christmas. In one sense it is; but isn’t this precisely the point about Christmas? That in the darkness of a very dark world, the Light shone? ‘The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it’ (John 1:5).

Wherever you are and in however deep a darkness, may you know Christ’s love at Christmas .

Chris

9 Responses to “In which our blogger confesses himself bemused”

  1. Graham says:

    It is not just WH Smith, it has spread further. There were at least 3 of these style of books in Tesco’s top 20 when we were in there last night. Only the most popularist authors and books seem to make it into tesco- so I think this is a very widespread phenomenon. As for why people read it- apart from the voyeuristic aspect, I feel it might be an extension of the hysterical red-top coverage of news like Maddie’s disappearance- a substitute if you will for that compulsive ‘car crash’ journalism.

  2. geoffs says:

    I agree with what Graham says. But I also think that some of those tragic life stories are not just a story of tragedy but also a celebration of escape from tragedy.

    I rarely read such books but did get hooked on the series of books by David Pelzer about his extremely abusive childhood. For me, it was not the voyeurism but the inspiration of reading about someone who was so downtrodden rise from the ashes and become whole again.

  3. Benjamin says:

    Chris,

    I shared your stunned horror/disgust when I walked through the Stansted airport’s WH Smith with fellow students. I think it was the same Please Daddy No! that one girl picked up and her friend quickly put back on the shelf for her. I read the back and stood transfixed that someone had the grim resolve to write such a book…

    Honestly, motive is out of my mind, but perhaps its my sympathy with abuse victims that bars me from contemplating the depths needed to pen pages of pain and perversion.

    The night of the heart certainly make the Nativity all the more pleasant to behold. For one evening the world’s hope could be seen and sung over.

    Cheers.

  4. Kathy-E says:

    Perhaps this type of book/book display is related to the coverage [overcoverage] by the media, especially the 24/7 ‘news’ media?? I’m an American and can attest that CNN/CNN Headline News/MSNBC/Foxnews are all going crazy over the story of Caylee Anthony. For those not familiar with this, she was a little 2 year old girl from Orlando, Florida who went missing June 2008. Her skeleton (ID’d by DNA) was discovered in the last week or so near her grandparents’ home. The little girl’s 22 year old mother was in jail already for her murder, due to what investigators’ had found even before the body was found. The news coverage though is almost like a shark feeding frenzy. Does this sort of thing feed the same human ‘need’ [can’t think of a better, more appropriate description!] as the books you’ve described?

  5. Chris says:

    Let me add a clarification to a blog that was written in some haste. 1) I thoroughly sympathise with those who have been abused; if they feel they are helped by writing down what they have gone through then I am all in favour of it. 2) I have not the slightest sympathy, in any shape or form, with abusers; if these books reduce the amount of abuse I am more than happy. 3) It is perfectly possible to imagine a thoroughly uplifting and edifying triumph-over-suffering type of book. But are these such books?

    Nevertheless I retain my unease. I feel there is an uncomfortable resonance with the sort of television programme or newspaper article that has some vaguely moral or objective title (‘We investigate the world of pornography…’ etc) but in reality (as we all know) is exploitative and titillating. but I’m interested in observations.

    Oh and next week, all being well, I want to write on ‘French Hens and Bible translations.’

  6. Chris says:

    Kathy-E,
    Your comment is very interesting. We had a very similar case 18 months ago of a very photogenic young British girl (‘Maddie’) who disappeared in strange circumstances in Portugal. She probably generated more column inches of newsprint than 9/11. I persist in my belief that there is something very odd and not very healthy about all this. But it’s good for the press.

    One possibility is that it is indeed a basic human need but it has been hitherto kept suppressed by moral convention and some sort of national Christian ethic. With the decline of the latter (at least in the UK) are we now seeing it becoming blatant? I repeat I really do not know what is going on.

  7. geoffs says:

    Chris, let me follow up my original post by saying that I identify fully with your unease over the “pushing” of this genre of books to the public.

    It is insidious. I believe there is the inherent human nature to be captivated with the suffering of others (why else do crowds gather at accident scenes, etc). Then there is the compounding of the problem on the part of the publishers and authors, for the purposes of generating a profit (IMO), to be more than willing to feed the public the fix for their addiction.

  8. Terry says:

    Hmmm…

    I’m not sure what to make of this either. I do know that the voyeur tendency is part of it for some readers (people love dirty laundry, and for some, the dirtier the better), but the other reasons mentioned are also valid.

    I noticed from the picture, Chris, that several of the books were written by Torey Hayden. Torey was for several years a teacher to troubled and mentally challenged children, and had great success in working with them. The two titles of hers that I’ve read are “One Child”, and “Somebody Else’s Kids”. Wonderfully written, and, to borrow the phrase, “most uplifting in celebration of the human spirit.” I highly recommend them.

    Are these stories tragic? I suppose they are, in that for some of the children, life will always be a struggle, and others have experienced things no child should. But the books’ emphasis is very much on the process of healing and learning, and on the victories gained. They are very inspirational. I really don’t see them belonging in such a category.

    But that’s an aside to the question, and I really don’t have a good answer to the purpose of such a genre.

    Take care,

    Terry

  9. Boaz says:

    Perhaps I’m being uncharitable here, but I think that this sort of thing–as well as many daytime television talk shows in the U.S. (including, but not limited to, Jerry Springer)–is so popular because people ultimately want to see others who are worse off than they are. The classic, and I would think correct, Christian response is, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” Instead, the thought is, “My life is terrible (or I am a terrible person), but these people really take the cake!”

    This may just be an explanation of what Graham called “that compulsive ‘car crash’ journalism,” but I think that the desire to see others as worse or worse off than one’s self is almost universal.

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