We’ve all seen them, a side effect of the current demand for memoirs. We see them in bookstores, at airports, online. They’re ubiquitous–the celebrity memoir. I can’t look down my nose at all celebrity memoirs, because I own a couple and have really enjoyed them. I read Tina Fey’s Bossypants and laughed in an unladylike manner on a flight to LaGuardia. I recently received Miranda Hart’s Is It Just Me? for Christmas (for those of you who aren’t big fans of BBC sitcoms, Miranda Hart is a British comedienne famous for her wildly popular show Miranda), and I’m loving the quirky British humor. So no, I’m not immune to the allure of the celebrity memoir, but Miranda Hart and Tina Fey are truly talented actors with basic writing abilities, unlike some of the other ghostwritten memoirs currently clogging bookshelves.
The Lena Dunham Effect
I wasn’t planning on writing a post about the popularity of the celebrity memoir (from here on out, I’m calling it the CM because I’m tired of typing that out over and over), but I came across this article on my PW Daily e-mail about Lena Dunham being upset over Gawker publishing and mocking her book proposal, which was purchased by Random House for upwards of $3.5 million dollars. Although I didn’t have a chance to read the whole proposal because Gawker had taken down most of the proposal apart from choice excerpts by the time I read it, I did skim through the comments section and found the usual mixture of admiration and anger. Quick disclaimer: I have no feelings one way or the other about Lena Dunham. I saw her on The Colbert Report, but I’ve never watched her show, so I have no idea if she really is the voice of my generation. From what snippets I read completely out of context, I was unimpressed with her writing, but I have no room to judge considering that I don’t have my own TV show on HBO. If I were workshopping those snippets, I’d pretty much tell her that it’s been done, and her writing sounds more like what I wrote during my angsty phase at eighteen than anything I’d expect from a mature, experienced writer. The book is intended to be advice for girls, but her upbringing was so vastly different from my own–my parents are definitely not NYC artists and I didn’t go to a tiny liberal arts school–that I don’t think I’d glean anything useful or relevant. I’m getting off topic, my apologies. I suppose people will assume, “Haters gonna hate” and that I’m jealous. I’m really not. I have no desire to be famous; mostly I just want to be able to pay my bills with a little left over for savings and shoes.
The Surprising Bristol Palin Pull
The visceral reaction from many readers on the comments section got me wondering not about our fascination with celebrity (yawn) but instead about why Bristol Palin actually got a memoir as did Justin Bieber. Bristol Palin is famous because of her mother, and Justin Bieber is a talentless tween heartthrob, but hey, they sold. And that’s what I wanted to tell those enraged commenters: Lena Dunham got her millions from Random House because the publisher expects good sales from such a well-known figure. I’ve already written about how the marketability of an author is one of the biggest factors in the acquisitions process, and I have to reiterate that lesson here. Although a writer might be the next Ernest Hemingway, unless a publisher anticipates strong sales because of that writer’s brand recognition, that writer will have a hard time getting a deal. He or she must demonstrably prove that this book is different from/better than other books in the same market and that he or she already has a strong media presence. I want to ask these books, “Why should I care what you have to say?” But I already know the answer. Perhaps I don’t care personally, but we as a society care about what celebrities have to say. The proof is easy to find: celebrity gossip blogs and magazines, blockbuster movies, etc.
All About the Money
So yes, I understand cognitively Lena Dunham’s deal, even if I’m not a fan of her show. I get why celebrities get book deals while other writers are left to desiccate quietly in a desert of lameness. But what bothers me more is the fact that we as an audience and a public are willing to buy these books. The writing often isn’t engaging or well done; the subject matter is often self-indulgent and navel-gazing; and the intellectual rigor of reading such books is minimal. It’s the literary equivalent of eating candy or watching Say Yes to the Dress. My grandmother’s house used to have this vintage 1970s wallpaper (original) that had all sorts of old-school jokes written on it. One that comes to mind is, “Western civilization? It’s a good idea.” I’d like to say that the biggest symbols of our cultural demise are reality TV, beauty as self-esteem, and Congress’ complete inability to act, but really I think one of the greatest signs of our cultural downfall is the lack of great writing in the marketplace. Yes, there are still some literary giants out there, but the real moneymakers are books like the 50 Shades of Grey series (ew) and Twilight (do not even get me started).
So yes, I’d very much like to smack down any publisher who gives an exorbitant amount of money to an author for a CM deal, but they’re just giving the public what we want: an easy read with a recognizable name. We read what we know and can depend on. We like the familiar–a well-known name, an established author, a familiar topic. I’ll be honest, I’d rather spend an afternoon curled up with a book by Tim Gunn than wading through The Sound and the Fury, so perhaps I have no room to argue with the state of pop books. The dichotomy and discussion of high brow/low brow literature is an old one, and in truth, I’m more interested in how long this publishing trend will last.
I’m fairly certain I’ve already discussed the popularity of the CM, but here I’m wanting to address that it’s not about the writing; it’s not about the book. It’s about what appeals to the lowest common denominator, what will yield the biggest profit. None of us can argue with the bottom line.