The Counter Celebrity Kerfuffle

Jen’s wrong!

That’s right, it’s argument week!

After some unkind words were thrown, escalating our fake feuding to real feuding (it’s on ­­– or is it? How enigmatic of us!) I’ve decided to dedicate my – no, our – Friday to rebutting Jen’s blog on Monday. Leave the celebrities alone, Jen. They’re people too.

While I broadly agree that celebrity books can be gold-plated nothings, to say so is the highest of browlifts. To ask us to agree with that sentiment is dishing out the literary equivalent of a “do you even lift bro?” It’s not the characterisation of the vapidity of these books that has so inspired me to write this, and I’m sure many of you enjoy reading celebrity books, but the notion that their presence is removing opportunities for the little books.

As we know, I love the little books. I’m not stomping on them, but I refuse to blame their struggles on the books that provide the padding of the bottom line. The problem is not that too many celebrity or overtly-commercial books are being published. The problem is that the margins of the book business are too tight, and part of that is caused by public expectations of the price of books being incredibly tapered by certain profiteers of the trade.

The existence and success of these gold-plated nothings is not undermining the book, or the literary book. The simple fact is, from a highest-of-brows perspective, these books do not hold a place in the literary world. They are commercial objects that sit below, that pad the baseline and make the business of publishing objects which hold meaning just lucrative enough.

Amy Schumer’s advance was ridiculously over the top. As was Aziz Ansari’s, as was Hillary Clinton’s. It’s an endemic symptom of a Winner-Takes-All attitude pervading the big book businesses. That’s not to say that these books should not be published, but more that the advances being laid down are growing more and more preposterous.

In the sense that big companies are laying down advances that are far too big, perhaps there is scope that these funds could be dedicated to other, more literary titles. But often, these publishing operations are divided into different imprints with commercial titles published under several sub-companies (imprints) and literary under others. So the literary imprint is only going to have a certain budget, regardless of the celebrity titles. These budgets are dictated by commercial needs and rules, but as always the argument is that without the commercial drive, there wouldn’t be an incentive for money to be invested in publishing. This money then flows to the less commercial literary titles.

Not all publishing is about good books, or brilliant stories. Sometimes it’s just about the dollar, because it’s the dollar that carries us all.

I broadly agree with Jen’s sentiments about the literary value of slapping a celebrity’s name on a ghostwritten work, but I also think there can be value to celebrity books. Examples like Tina Fey’s Bossy Pants, Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl etc, have something to tell us, and can teach us about the experiences, particularly of women, working in industries known for their influence on popular culture. While not everyone will agree, it’s important to understand the mechanisms of Hollywood because it has a tremendous effect on us. To be oblivious to how this kind of cultural power works is to be wilfully disenfranchised.

I do hold sentimentality with the demand for a greater focus on literary works, but I think it’s a catch-22 when it is the commercial which supports the publication of literary titles. And largely, I don’t think the spate of celebrity books is the cause of the literary world’s problems, but a symptom of the times.

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