In a world where literary icon Toni Morrison cancels plans to write a highly anticipated memoir because, "there's a point at which your life is not interesting" - one has to wonder why so many others press on. Most pointedly – celebrities – who from inside their coddled, pampered, Hollywood bubble often mistakenly think they've invented concepts like parenting, overcoming addiction, and weight loss and that they should share their superior knowledge with the world in the form of an intimate memoir.
Unfortunately all too often they could have summed up what was unique about their experience in a work more similar in scale to a flight safety manual than a hard cover book. Cases in point; Jessica Alba’s The Honest Life will be released soon (it includes her daughter's “favourite meatball recipe"). Earlier this year Jennifer Hudson’s brought us I Got This: How I Changed My Ways and Lost What Weighed Me Down and tomorrow Vanessa Williams will share her “dark past” with the world in You Have No Idea. Which begs the question, if you don’t have something interesting say – should you really publish a book about it?
For a long time the answer from publishers, celebrities and readers has been a resounding “yes”. And so, each year a cavalcade of stars poise themselves at the keyboard, mentally rake over the few intimate details of their personal lives they’ve managed to keep under wraps and then fire off an email to a publisher asking someone else to shape it into something that can be printed, bound and sold for $29.95 just before Christmas.
It's an easy grab for cash that generally occurs at one of two points in a celebrity's "fame cycle". There's the memoir that's written to bookend, if you will, a career as a star slowly fades in to old age/obscurity. These tomes rely on two critical factors to succeed: a reader's sense of nostalgia and a deeply personal and press-worthy revelation that will get them booked on morning TV shows. Last year Keith “Mick has a tiny todger” Richards, Rob “let me tell you about that sex tape” Lowe and Barbara “my son was a drug addict” Eden gave us their best shot and won on both counts.
The second is for a star who is at the peak of their fame cycle but who clearly doesn’t have the talent to sustain a long career. These profile-prolonging, hastily written tomes are the most insidious and over the next few months you can expect to see them from How I Met Your Mother’s Josh Radner, The Rachel Zoe Projects’ Brad Gorecki, singer Cee Lo Green and Lüc Carl (that’s Lady Gaga’s ex - his book is called… The Drunk Diet.)
Also very good.
Of course a newly realised conundrum for publishers is how to wring a memoir out of a reality TV star when there simply isn’t a mundane detail we don’t already know about them. Generally they're forced down the fiction path – lately that's resulted in works by Jersey Shore’s Snooki and The Hills’ Lauren Conrad. Conrad's fiction series LA Candy – is currently giving new meaning to the genre of “fiction” on the New York Times best-seller list. If you're surprised to hear of its success, join the club. Conrad recently told an interviewer, “We were doing the inside cover of the beauty book I’m working on, and under ‘also by’ it listed all my other books. I was like, ‘When did this happen?’” Indeed Lauren. Indeed.
Regardless of what point in a celebrities career these tomes reach us, there has always been a ferocious appetite for them. And the genres saving grace is that for every Sliding in to Home by Kendra Wilkinson and All That is Bitter and Sweet by Ashley Judd there’s works of genius that make our hearts soar like Tina Fey’s Bossypants, Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman, Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me, Things the Grandchildren Should Know by Mark Oliver Everett and Patti Smith’s Just Kids.
Of course the publishing industry is undergoing a huge transformation right now and some genres are being hit harder than others – celebrity memoirs is one such group. Earlier this year The Independant and Salon ran pieces eulogising the Celebmoir after a series of flops in the UK and Us last year. They blamed an over-saturation of titles and the fact that now even “notional celebrities land publishing deals”.
Over at Daily Beast, Michael Korda, the storied former editor in chief of Simon & Schuster got to the core of why the genre is so flawed (and produces so much more trash than treasure) when he said, “Years of standing in the limelight portraying other people for large amounts of money does not usually lead to a high degree of self-examination, let alone self-criticism.” ie celebrities are, and always have been, the absolute worst people to tell their own stories.
So has the down turn delivered a sleeker more selective line up in 2012? Well to counter Jessica Alba, Jennifer Hudson and Vanessa Williams there are some bright lights on the horizon in the form of; Mary Quant, Carrie Brownstein (Portlandia) and Rachel Dratch (Saturday Night Live).
And if the trend of letting just about anyone who calls themselves a celebrity write a book really is about to disappear – one has to wonder where the “notional celebrities” will turn when they feel they need the kind of cash injection and ego boost that only seeing their own byline can produce. They could migrate online to create sites in the likeness of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, Jay-Z’s Life and Times and Zooey Deschanel’s Hello Giggles - though without the potential (yet) to make bucket-loads of money and publicity from those kinds of endeavors -- perhaps like a ghost (writer) – they will simply disappear.