Friday, 10 December 2021

Celebrity Authors


Another week, another stooshie about celebrities stealing the publishing limelight. I don’t know if it cuts more deeply because we’re close to Christmas and by gum, us lesser mortals could do with some sales, but cut it does. The outrage on social media is as sincere as it is predictable, but it doesn’t look any more likely to shake the industry this time round than it has the previous 500 times. It got me wondering whether there might be a way to reframe the celebrity author phenomenon so that it becomes, if not actually good, then at least not apoplexy-inducingly awful.


Full disclaimer – had the celebrity in question this time round not been Paul McCartney, one of my heroes, I’d probably quietly settle into my bitterness as usual. But I’d just spent an absolutely joyous nine hours procrastinating in the Beatles’ company thanks to the Get Back documentary and felt moved to leap to the defence that he so patently does not require from me.


Before begrudging Sir Paul a new chunk of product it’s worth considering this: McCartney embodies that artistic dichotomy of being compelled to create, which is joyful and liberating, and obliged to sell, which is stultifying and miserable. This has shown up in some of his more dubious musical output and may well be at the root of his foray into the world of books. Of course he’s not an author – he’s not even (and I say this with sincere regard for the man) a terribly good lyricist, bar the odd flash of genius – but he’s a person of genuine achievement and I’d be interested to read what he has to say. Is it wildly charitable to extend the same interest to notable youtubers, comedians and athletes?


I’ve come to know the new media through the eyes of successive classes of 8-12 year olds, and I’ve seen their aspirations change from footballer, gymnast, scientist, hairdresser, to youtuber, tik-toker, twitcher (not the ornithological kind, more’s the pity) and just-generally-famous-person. I naturally have my own thoughts about the relative values of the lifestyles aspired to, but I recognise the value of aspiration in general: having heroes is important and goal-setting is a key life skill.


The desire to be famous has troubled me for a long time (not least my own guilty case of it), mainly because the trappings of fame are so often frighteningly shallow – material wealth, the adulation of strangers, big cars and so on. But it now seems that one of the trappings of the celebrity lifestyle is the chance to write a book. This does become irksome when the noted personage in question eschews the chance to write about their realm of expertise and decides, instead, to write a children’s book (McCartney’s done this too, of course, with the much-harder-to-defend ‘GranDude’), but still, it’s hard not to conclude that being an author is suddenly desirable and cool. That can only be helpful when you’re trying to cajole a class of youngsters into putting pencil to paper, and it might even fractionally improve our standing in the wider world.


I can absolutely bemoan the ubiquity of these celebrity outpourings and I recognise the fact that vastly better proponents of the craft are overlooked when noisier, wealthier content providers shoulder onto the stage – but to be brutally honest, people who buy their books in Tesco are probably not my target audience. There’s also the argument that ‘anything which gets them reading’ is a good thing. I’ve usually objected to this, thinking it as helpful as suggesting that malnutrition is fine because it’s slightly less awful than starvation, but pandemic life has brutally demonstrated the extent to which reading is a habit, and one that it’s all too easy to fall out of (I blame background anxiety and Netflix, among other things). That means it’s a habit that kids need to get into. There is the tiniest chance that a ghostwritten fairytale cliché with a celebrity chef’s name on the front might just help them do that.

This is for each individual to react to in their own way, of course, but for myself I think that rather than feeling the veins in my temples throb next time I pass the supermarket bookshelf, I might dine out on the fact that I have the same job as Meghan Markle, Cat Deeley, Lenny Henry and, what the heck, my esteemed brother in the printed word, Sir Paul McCartney himself.

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