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Thursday Soapbox: Celebrity Autobiographies – A Secret Pleasure. By Samantha Tonge

Celebrity Autobiographies – A Secret Pleasure

In recent years there has been much disquiet in literary circles over the increasing popularity of celebrity autobiographies. Or, more to the point, over the amount of money publishing houses are prepared to pay their ‘authors’ – I use that word loosely – and the question of whether they are lowering reading standards. So is this concern justified?

I have always been a lover of such books, from back in the days when there was a clear difference between the meaning of autobiography and biography and when ‘ghostwriter’ was a term better accredited to a fantasy writer. I’d spend many hours devouring the life stories of Marilyn Monroe, of the Kennedy family, having grown up with a father who read no fiction, whose shelves bulged with story after story of politicians, journalists and sportsmen. There was no need for the word ‘celebrity’ on these books’ spines, it was a given that their subjects had true star quality, were true achievers in a particular field.

The rise of the C-lister, and Jordan

So what has changed, why is this genre now dominated by the life histories of C-list celebrities on the cusp of their life instead of at the end of it, famous only for their fifteen minutes of fame? Undoubtedly, the rise of reality television and the realisation of Andy Warhol’s prophecy has played a major part. I recall one of the first such programmes back in 1980, the The Big Time, in which Esther Rantzen plucked the soon-to-be popstar, Sheena Easten, from obscurity. Little did anyone realize that, over time, a plethora of such programmes would follow and promote a culture where less talented people than that Scottish gal would become famous – or should that read infamous – for simply being on the telly or in the papers. Writing in Prospect Magazine, in 2007, Trevor Dolby, who at the time was head of non-fiction at Orion, recalled the industry’s amazement at the success of Jordan’s 2004 book Being Jordan which was passed over by countless publishers. When a deal was eventually done, it went on to sell over one million copies.

In 1998 Eugene Pack wrote a live show called Celebrity Autobiography: In Their Own Words which is currently a success on Broadway. He was inspired by the staggering honesty of famous people when it came to revealing their private lives – and let’s face it, we all enjoy a secret pleasure in discovering some tasty titbit about a neighbour, a friend, let alone someone in the public eye. My mind regularly boggled whilst reading Sharon Osbourne’s Extreme and her tales of posting human excrement to her enemies. The difference nowadays is that such juicy revelations are the main selling point of these books, instead of being a titillating but small accompaniment to a more awe-inspiring story. Take Sian Lloyd’s recent book, A funny kind of love, inspired solely by her failed relationship with the MP Lembit Opik.

Autobiographies by those who don’t write, for those who don’t read…

“Autobiographies by those who don’t write for those who don’t read’” said Ben Macintyre in the Times in 2006. The ultimate coffee table book to lay next to the latest copy of your Hello! Magazine? Well, yes, it’s a shame. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we all read something with more gravitas? But we live in isolated times, children move away from their families to find work, people spend more time at home on their computer than gossiping over the garden fence or down at the working men’s club. We know more about Jordan, aka Katie Price, than Mrs Smith at number fourteen and, like it or not, this fulfils a need – culturally and psychologically gossiping has always been significant to us as individuals and as a society. It creates a sense of belonging, which is possibly missing from our alienated communities. Jade Goody’s drug-ridden childhood home, John Prescott’s bulimia, Robbie’s alchoholism… Despite a degree of schadenfreude, I suspect these stories are read with sympathy and touch on problems many of us can relate to. And if that makes us feel that maybe our own life isn’t so bad, that can only be a good thing. What’s more, these books encourage people to read who only buy books from supermarkets and would otherwise stick to magazines. As for the rest of us, they have simply diversified the market. And if you look hard enough, some autobiographies are indeed penned by the celebrity such as Jane Fonda’s My Life So Far, which is deliciously well-written. One should also praise the quality prose of some ghostwriters.

A risky business?

Fear not, though, if you believe such books should be tossed onto the nearest barbeque this summer. There is a feeling in the industry that these glossy tales from the world of celebrity may be going out of fashion. Not only are the enormous advances a risk for publishers, this genre is not one which brings in revenue from abroad. Coupled with this, viewing figures for reality shows are waning which might suggest the British Public is tiring of ‘Instant Celebrity’. With the recent failure of autobiographies by Leslie Ash, Kelly Brook, Gail Porter and Chantelle Houghten – which only sold 5000 copies – and scribes with talent more widely recognized talent such as Gary Barlow, Peter Kay and Dame Helen Mirren – publishers may become less prepared to shower C-listers with their money. The market is now saturated with gossip magazines, revealing every detail of these stars’ private lives already. Maybe they and their low price are ultimately satisfying the public’s need for gossip and tales of notoriety.

Samantha Tonge is an exciting new writer of contemporary women’s fiction. She’s currently dipping her toe into the business of finding a literary agent for her third novel.

Thanks to the illustrator Marcelo Vaz for this wonderful picture of a fox telling tall tales. His website is at portfoliodovaz.blogspot.com.

Thanks also to Rob Lee of Flickr for the Fox Tongue photo. Now that’s a fox who knows how to show off.

24 comments on “Thursday Soapbox: Celebrity Autobiographies – A Secret Pleasure. By Samantha Tonge

  1. RosyB
    June 19, 2008

    Thanks for that, Sam. Interesting piece. I suppose it is a quick-buck idea and reflects the reality TV phenomenon of recent years. Presumably publishing needs the publicity that can be generated by the celebrity as much as the celebrity needs the money paid out by the publisher, so it’s a kind of two-way street. Perhaps the market has just been over-saturated and there’s too much of it now, therefore diluting interest in any one autobiography.

    Two things I was going to mention, though (as I am taking this soapbox as an overall argument “for” more than “against”). First, is the related phenomenon of celebrities writing children’s books, which I think we had a piece about before. Don’t know what people think of this. And the other thing was the recent sort of political autobiography where politicians feel the need to write their autobiographies as soon as they finish their career or are sacked or as soon as they aren’t personally in power, rather than perhaps more of an assessing view a bit further down the line – this growing trend has been quite controversial, hasn’t it?

    To be honest, I am one of those that thinks our obsession with the details of celebrity’s tanning habits has started to pollute all aspects of the culture in a…well actually I have no big statement to make beyond “boring” really – just a boring way. I take all you say about gossip and bonding and curiosity etc and I think it has a place, but I think the money associated with it means that it has taken over and it is very expendable which also means (as you say) we’ll all get bored of it again quite quickly. The part I find depressing is that this replaces a possible investment in new writers that people haven’t heard of who might have interesting stuff to say and I do think writers should be invested in a bit and the culture shouldn’t be so orientated towards the completely of-the-moment trend. But that’s just my view. I like variety in all things but I think you need a bit of a will to make that happen or else whatever is the trend will always take over.

    Thanks again – lots of thought-provoking stuff there. 🙂
    ______________

    Just wanted to add that I can see that some celebrities (like Jane Fonda) must have had really interesting lives and have a lot to say. I think we should value that. So often these books are written when said celebrity is like 18 and then another book comes out when they are 21 and you’re thinking how interesting can it really be? (And also, if they are very exposed in the papers – how much of it is actually going to be new anyway.)

  2. Sam
    June 19, 2008

    Thanks, Rosy.

    I hadn’t heard about the controversy surrounding political autobiographies but i’m sure it’s as plain to you as is plain to me why this is happening, to claw back maximum profits publishers will want to publish memoirs at the ripe time and the huge advances they offer clearly sway these politicians into churning out their life story, instead of stepping back for a while and analysing the fallout of their departure. I found it extraordinary, though, that a Deputy Leader’s autobiography has recently been touted around on the back of his bulimia and this just goes to show how things have changed. I also suspect Cherie Blair has sold many a copy simply on the back of her sexual exploits at Balmoral.

    I agree the present culture of prying into every aspect of celebrities’ lives has become boring, but i do believe, as i say, that this reflects the disjointed nature of our society nowadays. As for this deflecting money from funds which could be invested in new writers well, i am a lover of the celebrity memoir, but i do agree with you as regards huge advances paid to celebrities for ‘writing’ novels, especially as a writer myself, I feel this dumbs down the whole notion of literature.

    I have absolutely nothing against any of these celebrities however – Kerry Katona, Jade Goody, Jordan… they’ve branded themselves and made millions. More fools us and their backers for handing over the money!

    Sam

  3. rosyb
    June 19, 2008

    Yes, it’s funny that the things we know about those books are the bulimia and the Balmoral hanky-panky isn’t it? LOL! As you say, things have changed a bit.

    “I agree the present culture of prying into every aspect of celebrities’ lives has become boring, but i do believe, as i say, that this reflects the disjointed nature of our society nowadays.”

    I agree, I think, in part. Although I still think people have plenty of people to gossip about in work – although maybe gossiping about celebrities allows everyone to have common touchstones. But I’m not sure how harmless it all is. The way we raise people up and then crow over their downfall. The way we “like” people or “don’t like” people we don’t know at all, judge them, have people continually stalking them trying to catch the odd gusset shot or evidence of cellulite. There is a very nasty vindictive side as well as the human curious side. And maybe the nasty vindictive side is also just human – we are jealous of their glamour or their wealth or the perceived attention they are getting and want to see them suffer. But it is also quite ugly all of that.

    The other point being that so much of this personal detail stuff seems unbelievable or spun or whatever. We don’t even know what people are really like or their lives. The autobiography is so often just a continuation of the image that has been created for consumption. It is all a game, the whole thing. 🙂

  4. Rosy Thornton
    June 19, 2008

    Great piece, Sam – well done for sticking your nose above the parapet with a defence of what in bookish circles is widely regarded as the indefensible.

    Personally, I don’t read celeb autobiogs because I have very little interest in the lives and loves of the glitterazi or the sub-gliterazzi. Fashion, the celeb scene, Big Brother, Hello! magazine: all pretty much pass me by. But I can relate to your secret vice because there is a parallel sub-category of which I cannot get enough, purchased under Amazon’s plain brown cardboard and snaffled home to read in bed. Football autobiographies are my drug of choice. Players I admire, platers I hate, lower-leaguers, has-beens. In fact, grinding tales of months on the physio’s table and of bumping around the lower reaches of the football league are in many ways the essence of the genre. The writing is sometimes surprisingly goog, but often terrible – but the writing, in this case, is simply not the point. If I want a well-turned sentence, I’ll turn to Barbara Trapido (and I frequently do). But there are times when only the smell of the bootroom quite hits the spot.

    Ther’s surely room out there for everybody’s illicit pleasures?

  5. Rosy Thornton
    June 19, 2008

    (‘Surprisingly goog’?? Unlike my typing!)

  6. Sam
    June 19, 2008

    LOL Rosy, T! No, i really do draw the line at football autobiographies:)

    Yes, Snowy, some very valid points there, but maybe it is a plus that, with all these magazines, celebrities at least have some control over what image they wish to project in their memoirs.

    It seems like a very long time ago – well, it is, in fact, – when shocking facts about stars were really only revealed after their death. I’m thinking of Elvis Presley, Bing Crosby, Crawford… I suppose at least nowadays, when everything is revealed almost as soon as it is happening, that these folk are still alive and can put forward some sort of defence.

    Sam

  7. ireneintheworld
    June 19, 2008

    Great piece Sam. I’m a biography reader too, but I definitely make a distinction between wannabes and really-in-the-business people; I would never be interested in reading biographies of someone under a certain age who had no perceived skills, talent or trade behind them – what a flimsy kind of life to lead! But, I do agree that people need trash-lit in their lives and it does have a place in the melting pot – we have the choice to read or not…which is a good thing.

  8. Sam
    June 19, 2008

    Thanks, Irene.

    I suppose i find them fascinating because i’m a real people-watcher and if someone behaves in a certain way, i want to know why. Simon Cowell, for example (trying to remember the exact details here) in his book explained how he grew up near a film lot, i think, and very often at the end of the day screen legends would pop in for a cup of tea with his mother, with Simon sitting on their lap. Clearly this explains why it takes a lot to impress him now!

    And George Bush. I read a bio about him and his wife and one episode sticks out: during his teenage years his mother would take him to play golf. She didn’t approve of the ‘f’ word, however, which escaped his lips if he hit a bad shot. So, if he was playing badly, he would ‘f’ as much as possible so she would send him to wait in the car. He’d rather miss a game than lose it.

    Sam

  9. Nik
    June 19, 2008

    What an interesting and thoughful piece. I really enjoyed it.

    Nik

  10. Sam
    June 19, 2008

    Thanks, Nik:)

  11. Lisa
    June 19, 2008

    Great Soapbox, Sam. I don’t read Celebrity Autobiographies, but then I don’t really read much non-fiction. On the subject of slebs, I used to read Heat magazine years ago, but then I saw some paparazzi guy acting horribly towards Alex Parks (of all people), pushing this camera in her face, while she was trying to fend him off. Lost the appetite for those sorts of magazines after that. The way they got their pictures just seemed so predatory and aggressive.

    I might be tempted to read an autobiography of someone interesting who’d been about for a few decades, but reading one of Jordan’s autobiographies doesn’t really appeal, I must admit.

    I thought this was interesting:

    “Autobiographies by those who don’t write for those who don’t read’” said Ben Macintyre in the Times in 2006.

    I hadn’t really thought of it that way – do you think there’s any truth in that?

    I’m with you on the quality prose of some ghostwriters.

  12. Sam
    June 19, 2008

    Thanks, Lisa.

    I think it’s a bit harsh, to be honest because most people writing their autobiographies traditionally, unless they are journalists,aren’t writers as such, they are putting pen to paper to tell their life story, probably with a heck of a lot of help from their publisher’s editing department. And as for the reader, well, i’m sure he’s right, the c-list memoirs probably sell well with people who only usually read magazines, but i don’t see this as a negative thing, i think it’s great that any sort of book would sell to a niche who don’t normally pick up a book for pleasure.

    Sam

  13. Jack Thompson
    June 19, 2008

    Hi
    Please have a bit of sympathy for Kelly Brook. her book came out in the middle of her TV show Strictly Come Dancing and she only managed one book signing which was near her home in Kent. Also she must be the only guest on the Jonathan Ross show not to have their book plugged when she appeared with Penny Lancaster. Even the Hollywood ‘A’ list can’t wait to get their grubby paperbacks out! A very nicely produced book of quality construction and not marketed at all well.

  14. Sam
    June 19, 2008

    Hi Jack,

    yeh, i believe her dad was very ill at the time (in fact died), which will have clearly affected the sales’ drive.

  15. marygm
    June 19, 2008

    Great piece, Sam and well-argued too!
    Like you, I’m love people-watching and trying to understand why they behave the way they do. I like reading autobiogs but not the sleb kind. You’re probably right when you say that the C-list kind have a lot to do with reality TV (which I hate – I think it plays to the voyeuristic, laviscious side of human nature that we all have)
    I was surprised when you mentioned in your piece that sales of 5000 copies is considered failure in this genre. So many fiction writers would be thrilled to sell that many. It really puts into perspective the difference in sales.

    Mary

    PS This reminded me of a poster my friend has. It has turn-of-the-century women chatting over a fence. The caption is “I hate to spead gossip… but the problem is: what else can you do with it?”

  16. Sam
    June 19, 2008

    Thanks, Mary – and great quote!

    Yes, i thought that about the 5000 copies, i mean that’s more than some books that win the Booker prize, isn’t it? But, i suppose compared to Jordan’s one million it’s nothing and is also a disaster when the ‘author’ has been paid, thousands of pounds in advance.

    Sam

  17. Jackie
    June 20, 2008

    This is a topic which has been discussed a lot lately in the U.S., mainly because of the huge advances. The bios that sell best here are the ones of celebs who’ve had long careers, such as Barbara Walters and reveal a scandal in the book.
    The type of biographies I hate are those by the likes of York Memberly, who cobble books together from already published interviews etc. That is worse than ghost writing, it’s cheating, actually.
    Nicely done piece, Ms. Tonge, on a timely topic.

  18. RosyB
    June 20, 2008

    Hey Sam, I asked Monica Janssens to give us some of the best titles in the genre last week – I was wondering whether you could tell us some autobiogs you think are a good read.

  19. Sam
    June 20, 2008

    Mary, that quote came from the ‘adult’ model Amanda Lear who said: ‘I do so hate to spread rumours, but what else can one do with them?’

    According to wiki, she is a model, adult model, polyglot, painter, novelist, actress, media personality, composer, lyricist, and singer. She was Disco Queen in Continental Europe, the Eastern Bloc and most other parts of the world in the mid 1970s to the early 1980s, and she first came to the public’s attention as the fetishistically clad model on the cover of Roxy Music’s album ‘For Your Pleasure’ in 1973.

    She was perhaps born somewhere between 1939 and 1946 to a father who was either English, Russian, French or Indonesian, and who served in the British Navy, or prossibly the French Legion, and a mother who was either English, Russian, French, Vietnamese, Mongolian or maybe Chinese. She was born as either Amanda Tapp, Alain Tapp or Peki D’Oslo, reputedly in Hong Kong, Saigon or Switzerland. In 1979 she married French aristocrat Alain-Philippe Malagnac d’Argens de Villèle who, in fact, was the former lover turned adopted son of controversial gay novelist Roger Peyrefitte. She had earlier married a Scottish gentleman for fifty pounds. It is rumoured that she might be transsexual.

    Now, I think that’s one sleb biography that even I might be persuaded to read.

  20. Moira
    June 20, 2008

    Crikey, Sam. I’m … speechless.

  21. marygm
    June 20, 2008

    Sam, at last a celebrity I’ve heard of! Amanda Lear is often invited to talk shows here in France but I never really knew what she did to make her famous – I think I assumed she was a retired actress or whatever. She speaks excellent French and always seems to have a new, (very much) younger man on her arm. What a life she’s had!

  22. Sam
    June 20, 2008

    Bit confusing with the Sam’s here:)

    Thanks, Jackie!

    Well, Rosy:

    Jane Fonda’s, of course – My LIfe So Far

    Anne Robinson – Memoirs of and Unfit Mother – interesting stuff, especially of her days as an alcoholic journo

    Michael J Fox – Lucky Man – very inspiring, his fight against Parkinsons – and greatly nostalgic for those of us who grew up enjoying his films

    George and Laura – Chris Anderson

    And for Rosy T (:)) GAzza: MY story – plus, interstingly, typical Gazza, honest as ever, ‘With Hunter Davis’ is added onto the title, ie not pretending he wrote it himself.

    These are the more high-brow ones:) I also really enjoyed Robbie Williams’, Sharon Osbourne’s, Simon Cowell’s Shane Richie’s…

    🙂

  23. Leena
    June 20, 2008

    Sam #2, wow – that’s what I call a life…

    Sam #1: that was very interesting – thank you. I don’t know much about celebrity biographies, nor do I know much about their sales figures, but from what I do know it seems to me that in the current climate, most ‘celebrities’ are so hollow and their lives so uninteresting (no matter how many sex scandals or reality TV shows they’ve been involved in) that there seems to be barely enough material to fill an in-depth magazine article, let alone a full-length book. Which makes me wonder. (I don’t necessarily think a person needs to have been talented and accomplished for their (auto)biography to be interesting, by the way. But there needs to be something there, surely? Wit, a forceful personality, a certain perceptiveness perhaps… even a life like Amanda Lear’s… something more than a ‘trademark’.)

    I can’t help but think that there are two types of books that might be more appealing than a biography proper to the majority of the projected audience for Chantelle et al. Firstly, a malicious (or snarkily humorous… and malicious) collection of juicy gossip – a sort of gossip rag in book form. I think there are many such books already, or at least I have seen ones about Hollywood. Secondly, a coffee-table type of book about the celeb du jour – something with snippets about the celeb’s life, their personal (and hugely fascinating, I’m sure) musings, and lots and lots of personal-seeming pictures… something that gives the reader a peek behind the scenes, lots of ‘inside information’ and aspirational tips to those who dream of becoming celebrities of no particular talent themselves (which, they say, would be most of us nowadays).

    In other words, if the (auto)biographies of hollow C-list celebrities fail, it may mean people are beginning to lose interest (thank goodness) – or it may simply mean that the meatier format is all wrong for a decidedly unmeaty story.

  24. Sam
    June 20, 2008

    Thanks, Leena.
    Yes, i mean i am a fan of the genre, but even i fail to see how some young instant reality show celebs have managed to fill a whole book with interesting or inspirational anecdotes. Certainly i think there is money to be made in gossip-rag style books, i believe Piers Morgan’s could probably be described as this, or Rupert Everett’s.
    I believe the bio of Pete who won BB bombed,which surprises me – i have not idea how it was written, but seeing as he has Tourette’s i would have thought this could have been a fascinating read and a real meaty story. Time wil tell as to whether the lighter end of this genre is simply a passing fancy. I suspect it will be, with the internet and gossip magazines we are already informed of the chaos in these people’s lives as it is happening – it is increasingly hard for them to keep back anything tantalizing for an autobiography.

    Sam 1

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This entry was posted on June 19, 2008 by in Fiction: women's, Thursday Soapbox and tagged , , .

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