Wednesday, December 3, 2008

On compliance - and 'mis mem'

You would think that every bookshop today would have copies of Constance Briscoe’s memoir Ugly (Hodder) in their windows or front-of-store, following the author’s victory in court against her mother who was suing her for libel But if a straw poll taking in my local Waterstone’s, WH Smith and Books etc is anything to go by, you would be wrong. The reason may be innocent enough: the shops are out of stock. But I suspect that it might be the straitjacket of compliance at play here. Windows and front-of-store are sold months in advance in the chains, allowing very little room for flexibility. A publisher does not want to pay serious money for window space/table space, to find that it has been usurped by a backlist title that happens to have been on the News the night before. But there is an absurdity to this: the one book you should be able to see everywhere this week is Briscoe’s Ugly because it has enjoyed such massive publicity. This is where the independents are so much freer, so much more nimble.

The case has brought the subject of misery memoirs to the fore, with Nielsen recording a decline in sales in the genre. The area has been over-published, with Smiths even having a section marked ‘Troubled Lives’ now. There is also a uniformity in cover design bordering on the comical, despite the subject matter.

One forgotten title in amidst the scores is Carry me Home by the English writer Catherine Lucas This was quietly published in 2005 by Michael Joseph with a tasteful – if somewhat irrelevant – jacket. It is an outstanding spiritual memoir that ranks alongside the finest of religious writing. The title belongs in the religious and mind/body/spirit sections, yet was usually placed in the biography sections.

Having ‘failed’ in hardback, Penguin then gave it the ‘mis mem’ treatment with an eye on the supermarkets. Though somewhat jarring to those of us who had read the book, it was an understandable move: it could have got the title into Tesco et al. Sadly, this failed too and now the title hovers on going out of print.

For what it’s worth, I’ll give it a five star recommendation here. Lucas was met by her mother from school for a driving lesson. She asked her mum to take the wheel while she took off her jumper. The car careered off the road into a ditch. Her mother was killed; Lucas was unharmed. Grief and guilt sat within her into her adult life, with the most extraordinary consequences. This is an unusual, special book, one that has suffered from being incorrectly published by the wrong house: hopefully it will be picked up by someone else one day.

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