Monday, December 12, 2011

Celebrity Memoirs I: A Tale of Literary Snobbishness?

Certain news stories recur with amusing frequency, and Christmas is a ripe time for Lazarus-like reappearances. Worried by spectres of debt, each year we are warned of the dangers of overusing our credit cards. And yet, at the same time, we hear of the high street’s woes, the waning foot-fall and revenues, and the inevitable early start of the ‘January’ sales. Life-writing too has its annual cycle, and at Christmas the book-charts are seemingly overrun by celebrity memoirs.

Much-loved yet much-maligned, ‘sleb’ tomes appear on the shelves in September and October each year, eyes (and marketing campaigns) set firmly on their hoped-for destinations: in our Christmas stockings, under our Christmas trees. And yet, ever since the economic downturn hit in 2008 -- since the credit well and truly began to crunch -- news reports have announced (and celebrated) the death of celebrity life-writing. Let’s take The Times as our example…

In 2008, the paper reported that “cash-strapped consumers [were] tiring of reading about celebrity lifestyles” -- indeed, “celebrity autobiographies” were at “the weakest end” of a struggling market. A year later, and in gleeful tone, The Times confidently remarked that “the decline of celebrity memoir comes as no great surprise.” In 2010 there was a new spin on this favourite story: the runaway success of Aleksandr Orlov’s A Simples Life (yes, that’s right, the meerkat from the adverts) was the cause of much hilarity, not least because it beat new memoirs by Stephen Fry and Paul O’Grady to the top of The Sunday Times non-fiction bestseller list. But what about this year? In yesterday’s Biteback column, Richard Brooks declared that celebrity memoirs were “staying stubbornly on the bookshop shelves.” He suggested we might finally be bored with celebrity culture, bored with “reading about the banal and the bleeding obvious.”

But what story do sales figures tell? 2006 was a bumper year for celebrity memoir, in large part due to the runaway success of Peter Kay’s The Sound of Laughter (582, 446 copies sold by Christmas, and continuing to sell well in 2007). Sales peaked in 2008 when the triumvirate of Dawn French, Paul O’Grady and Julie Walters dominated the charts. Since then, sales have declined but there has been no dramatic slump comparable to the tenacious rhetoric employed by the Times. (Forecast figures in the Guardian, however, suggest there will indeed be a noticeable drop in 2011 sales).

In a recent piece for the Guardian, Richard Lea considers why celebrity memoirs might be “[losing] star power at the tills” (yes, that’s right, this recurring story is not a Times exclusive, but the Guardian takes a different tack -- more on this anon). Lea interviews Jonathan Ruppin (of Foyles Bookshop) and his comments are singularly telling. Ruppin views current bestseller I, Partridge: We Need to Talk About Alan (Steve Coogan’s fictional mock-autobiography of his best-known character, and spoof of the celebrity genre), as a death-knell, a sign that “[c]elebrity memoir is fading fast.” He also blames falling sales on “buyer-fatigue”: “There’s a limit to how many Christmasses in a row you can buy someone a celebrity autobiography without looking like you’re not really putting much effort in.”

“It’s the best book I’ve ever written and one of the best books I’ve ever read. It’s not Hilary Mantel, it’s not Simon Schama, it’s not Andrew McNab. It’s all of those, yet it’s none of them...yet all of them.” -- Alan Partridge on I, Partridge


There are two points I’d like to address: 1) I, Partridge (and mock life-writing in general) as outrider of the apocalypse for celebrity memoir, and 2) the lavish overtone of literary snobbishness that tends to colour news reporting on celebrity memoir.

Smith College Libraries
I, Partridge follows in a long and esteemed line of mock life-writing. Virginia Woolf, for example, lampooned literary traditions of biography (particularly the ‘two fat volumes’ of Victorian biography, to borrow Lytton Strachey’s phrase) in Orlando (1928), before moving on to write the life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s pet cocker spaniel in Flush (1933). Elsewhere and earlier, George and Weedon Grossmith lampooned middle-class pomposity and self-importance (‘Pooterish-ness’) in their mock-autobiographical Diary of a Nobody (serialised in Punch between 1888-9). These texts are all subversive; they play with our expectations of genre and they expose or challenge social behaviours and norms. Coogan’s text is no different, and his ‘Pooterish’ Partridge fits neatly in the tradition of the Grossmith brothers. Coogan’s text also tells us something about the formulaic structures and plotting of much celebrity memoir, just as Woolf exposed the pruderies and omissions of Victorian biographical practice. And yet, a healthy dose of satire has never killed off a genre. Rather, it reinvigorates and reinvents.

Pooter paints the bath
Diary of a Nobody 
Orlando, Flush, and Diary of a Nobody. All three enjoy canonical status; they are welcomed with open arms by literary and academic audiences and they are blessed with scholarly editions on publishers’ lists. But I, Partridge, though enjoying popular success, has been met with critical suspicion. This treatment is representative of general trends, in which celebrity memoirs -- in an age too close to enjoy the benefits of hindsight -- are widely ridiculed and derided. What lies behind Richard Brooks’ conflation of celebrity memoir with the “banal and bleeding obvious” (above)? What sentiment informs Erica Wagner’s belief that a “silver lining” of the recession has been the declining sales of “volumes [and yes, he is talking about celebrity memoirs] that some would barely classify as ‘books’.” And why, might we ask, is the apparent decline in “serious biography” blamed on the rise of “vapid celebrity memoirs […] flooding the market”? These reports, reviews and headlines (and again, these examples have been taken from The Times and Sunday Times) are awash with snobbery.

Celebrity memoirs are bad; they are not literature. This has become a critical truism. But more sensitive portrayals do exist. In his piece for the Guardian, Richard Lea balances the view of Jonathan Ruppin with soundbites taken from an interview with Alan Samson (from Weidenfield & Nicolson publishers). Rather than duplicate the dominant rhetoric of a race to the bottom in terms of gossip and vulgar revelation, Samson argues that increasing numbers of celebrity memoirs have produced a comparable rise in quality: “A really good celebrity book today is much better than it used to be -- better written, better structured and much more honest. Showbiz memoirs used to be just a bunch of anecdotes strung together which gave nothing away, but now they really tell the story of a life.” In a saturated market, it seems, your book has to be good to stand out. Mark Lawson has also been sympathetic in his view of the genre. Again, writing in the Guardian, he applauds the rise in “gently confessional”, self-penned celebrity memoirs. These too have produced a rise in quality: they “[contain] more essence of the person than the soulless airline-magazine tones that ghostwriters tend to apply to the tapes they transcribe.”

Inspired by these glimmers of hope, I determined to go out in search of celebrity memoirs, to read them for myself and to judge them for myself. The fact I have never read any in the past suggests my complicity with the snobbishness on display in the newspaper articles above. And yes, when faced with the rows of memoirs in an Oxfam bookshop, there were certain titles I could not bring myself to buy -- these included books by Chris Moyles and Katie Price. But I managed to choose three titles: Stephen Fry’s The Fry Chronicles, Dawn French’s Dear Fatty and Rupert Everett’s Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins.

Of the three, Dear Fatty has caught my attention and interest. But will my reaction be derision (in the style of The Times), sympathy (in the style of the Guardian) or (gasp!) could it be praise? Dear reader, you’ll just have to wait and see (until my next blog post that is...).


  1. I really enjoyed this post! The claim that celebrity biographies might erode the market for scholarly biography strikes me as particularly absurd. I suspect part of the snobbish disdain might have to do with the way celebrity biography – like, I suppose, all life-writing – is particularly content-focused. Even more than with genre fiction, in which form may trump content, _whose_ biography it is really matters (at least to the majority of buyers) when it’s a Celebrity Book. And since one of the most popular despairing claims about modern celebrity is that these people are “famous for being famous” or “famous for nothing” a celebrity biography (content- or context-driven) about a content-less celebrity would seem, I suppose, the most empty of books to a reviewer whose preference is for formally distinguished works of literary fiction or scholarly non-fiction. “What’s it about” or, even worse “who’s it about” often strike readers trained in more academic modes of reading as hopelessly na├»ve questions, but they seem central to the appeal of celebrity biography.

    1. Thanks Ginny! And thanks for your comment. I think you've really hit upon something -- the critical assumption that life-writing is content over form, subject over substance. I think this is a hangover from Victorian traditions, a long shadow cast by the lives of 'great men' and 'hero-worship'. I'm interested to see whether the celebrity memoirs I've recently got hold of challenge or unsettle this assumption -- are they doing anything interesting with form?

      It's intriguing that contemporary life-writing texts that show signs of becoming 'canonical' (e.g. Art Speigelman's *Maus*, Satrapi's *Persepolis*, Masters's *Stuart: A Life Backwards*) are overtly and self-consciously innovative in form. I wonder whether any 'sleb' tomes (such as *I, Partridge*) will ever have their experiments with form acknowledged?

  2. With more than 30 books and 14 New York Times Bestsellers ( all celeb driven work) under my belt I'd say this genre still works. There may be some books out there that aren't filled with a lot of new or exciting reveals, but it doesn't make the genre unimportant. Publishers rely on these books to boost their bottom line. As long as there are celebrities, there will always be a celebrity memoir market. Like it or not, these books are a mainstay.

    1. Thanks for commenting Laura! (And apologies for taking so long to reply!)

      I think you're absolutely right. Despite 2011's fall in sales for celebrity memoir in the UK, I don't consider this to be a sign of the 'end' for the genre. 2012 is sure to provide us with a new crop!

      The almost-universally negative response in the British press is an interesting phenomenon, however, and I wonder whether a journalist will ever be brave enough to break what now seems to be the 'party line'? In any case, I hope my blog post provides some sympathy and some defence for this much-maligned genre.