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 That’s not to say that these books should not be published, but more that the advances being laid down are growing more and more preposterous.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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Gold-Plated Nothings: Celebrity Books in the Literary World

After a dose of political intrigue, international news and the unsolicited opinions of numerous journalists, my surreptitious lurking in the entertainment section revealed an interesting piece of news. Comedian Amy Shumer has landed a book deal, with an advance suspected to be around $8 million dollars. I almost fell off my chair. As a young editor working for a small press, that kind of money around an advance is still awe-inspiring. But as I thought about it more, it increasingly began to disturb me.

Before we go any further though, I want to make it clear that this is not a rant about Amy. I’m a huge fan of her work, and she can make me laugh harder than I thought possible. But her work is as a comedian, in stand-up, television, and film. What she isn’t, is an author.

We can be pedantic all we want about what the term author means. If whether all you have to do to be an author is write something, or if all it takes to be considered one is to be published. But the increasing rise of celebrity ‘authors’ bodes ill for the rest of the literary industry, as they take away from those who wish to write more than just a recap of their lives and their endearing, charming, hilarious or heartbreaking thoughts.

Books published by celebrities usually constitute autobiography, memoir, or collection of thoughts and essays. There’s the occasional cookbook of lifestyle guide, and British celebrity Katie Price, also known as Jordan, has written a novel. For the most part, these books fail to add much to the literary landscape, and rely on our cultural fascination with the lives of celebrities. The quality of the writing varies greatly, the story is often much the same – young aspiring star walks the hard road to achieve their dreams, and examines the struggle with being rich, famous and adored.

By all means, worship a star if you want to. Go see their movies, hang off their television interviews, and buy the products they endorse with that winning smile. But what do their books really add to that? More of the same things you see in their films, their stand-up, their interviews. They may be entertaining reads for those obsessed with their favourite celebrity, but as books, they often fail the test of time, and become one time reads to collect dust on your bookshelves.

And these books are doing a significant amount of dust collecting. In The New York Times bestseller list from this week alone, almost half of the top twenty are written by some celebrity, whether they be from the comedic, film or political persuasion.

With such solid represent in the bestseller lists, we can see why publishers are so keen to embrace these books, and why Amy has been given such a huge advance. No doubt her book will make it a number of times over. But it displays a worrying trend of pursuing financial gain to the detriment of literary quality.

In an increasingly risk-averse market, the booming celebrity book industry produces numerous carbon copy memoirs that make bank for their publishers, and their authors. But this takes the time and energy away from less well known authors, as they work to produce original and painstakingly crafted works, only to have them rejected because they won’t sell the same way the glittering, celebrity endorsed hardbacks will.

When the bestseller lists indicate a particular trend, naturally publishers are going to jump on as quickly as possible, ever thinking about that bottom line. The only solution for those who wish to patron higher quality literature is to of course, stop buying celebrity books. But in a society obsessed with the minute movements of celebrities, I don’t see that happening any time soon. The cost is, and will always be, the smaller authors, those who haven’t yet got the money, the influence or the fame behind them to push a book like a celebrity can.