Monday, March 29, 2010

Coming soon - Katie and Alex go Quantity Surveying

I like to think of this blog as something truly cosmopolitan. It is my personal belief that anyone is ripe for ridicule, vitriol or spoofery regardless of race, sex, colour, faith or taste in clothes. In the past four years, I’ve alienated creationists (We have the fossils – we win), football fans (It’s just a game of 22 spoilt brats kicking a bag of wind around a field) and Facebook users (No, I really do not want to throw a cocking sheep at you). I don’t set out to upset people but I do insist on using my right to free speech when I find a subject worthy of praise or condemnation. My blog, my rules. And today I am very possibly about to inadvertently upset the widest demographic I’ve ever attempted; the person who buys celebrity biographies.

This is not an overnight dose of ire. There have been rumblings in my bile ducts for some time now. The signal event that made me rush to the keyboard and start typing, however, was a visit to a bookshop and seeing … seeing … good grief, it actually hurts to type these words … seeing not one but two recently published books purporting to tell the ‘whole truth’ about the relationship between Katie Price and Alex Reid. The first was ‘Katie and Alex: The Inside Story’ by Alison Maloney and it sat next to ‘Katie and Alex: The Love Story’ by Emily Herbert. I couldn’t bear to pick these sorry tomes up in public so I didn’t read the back cover blurb. However, I have just visited Amazon to get the names of the authors and I see that ‘Inside Story’ asks, ‘What does the future hold for the pair when the honeymoon is over? Alison Maloney discusses the inside story past, present and future in this intimate and essential book.’ This ‘essential’ book was written by Alison Maloney, whose ‘many other books include the autobiography of Craig Revel Horwood, 'All Balls and Glitter', and the official 'Strictly Come Dancing' annuals in 2008, 2009 and 2010.’ Turning to the ‘Love Story’ book, we read that ‘Just hours after announcing their engagement in OK! magazine Katie Price and cage fighter Alex Reid tied the knot in a secret ceremony in Las Vegas' Wynn Hotel. Find out all about their whirlwind wedding as Emily Herbert takes a look at the couple's relationship.’ Emily Herbert has written many, many such books. Now it would be grossly unfair and unprofessional of me to lambaste either author (who are, after all, jobbing writers) because I haven’t read any of their work. But I do wonder how much insight either of them can possibly throw on to a celebrity relationship that had lasted just a few months? Two whole books? I assume a lot of filler must have come from the story of Katie’s previous relationships – particularly with Peter Andre – and Alex’s background. Or maybe not …

On the same shelf, there were also copies of ‘Katie and Peter: The Inside Story of their Divorce’ by Emily Herbert, which, one would assume, tells the story up to the point where Katie met Alex. And next to this book was ‘Katie and Peter: Too Much in Love – the Inside Story of their Break-up’ by Emily Herbert. So we now have a whole book about a break up, a whole book about a divorce, and a whole book about the wedding to a new partner. But there’s more. A quick hunt around the biography section revealed copies of ‘My world: In Pictures and Words’ and ‘All about us: My Story’ by Peter Andre and no less than three Katie Price biographies: ‘Being Jordan’, ‘Pushed to the limit’, and ‘A whole new world’ (There’s a fourth called ‘I’m still standing’ coming out soon, amazingly). And that’s alongside her style book ‘Standing out'. Has the world gone mad and no one told me?

Firstly, I want to say with absolute honesty that I have no personal grudge with Katie Price. I have my own opinions, naturally, but they are irrelevant to this blogpost. Everyone has the right to express themselves as they see fit (and as I am here). This post isn’t about her. She’s just a symptom of my growing malaise. No, I’m saving my splenetic spittle for the pathetically flaccid and non risk-taking publishing industry that felt it necessary to pump out more than 10 books about three people whose entangled lives happen to have been led in a spotlight of their own making. How many revelations can there possibly be in books like this that haven’t already been splashed across a zillion web-pages, trash newspapers and celeb-hungry glossy magazines? And it’s not just Katie Price is it? There are biographies on the shelves of people like Kerry Katona, Jade Goody, Cheryl Cole, Colleen Rooney, Jodie Marsh, Chantelle Houghton … while every person on this planet very possibly has an interesting story or two to tell, how can you justify an entire book about someone who is under 30 and for whom most of their life before fame and/or riches was probably no more interesting than yours or mine?

When I go to the biography section of a bookshop I want to read real-life, eye-witness accounts of extraordinary lives lived in extraordinary times. I want to read about what it actually felt like to live through the London blitz. Or how it felt to be shipwrecked on an island for a year. Or what it was like being a hostage held by terrorists and never knowing whether I’d live another day. I recently read Oliver Postgate’s autobiography ‘Seeing Things’ which is a charming and personal account of how he pieced together the money, knowledge and equipment to sit in an old cow shed and make some of the UK’s best-loved children’s programmes such as Bagpuss and Clangers. But the book also gives us a gloriously rich picture of growing up in a wealthy family in the early part of the 20th century and of Postgate’s misadventures during WW2 when he refused to fight and became that most hated of figures – the conscientious objector. Here’s a small paragraph from Page One of Chapter One in which he revisits his childhood home:

‘As I walked I tried to conjure up the people who used to be about. For a start there were two sorts of ice cream man; Walls and Eldorado. They would be coming along on their box-tricycles, pinging their bells. Errand boys on their heavy bikes would whistle as they passed. The dustman’s cart had two big horses. The rag-and-bone man had one very small horse which pulled a small cart loaded with strange articles. The ice-man had a noisy black lorry which dripped. He carried a huge, gleaming block of ice on a sacking pad on his shoulder, holding it with a set of fearsome black tongs – I was afraid of him. Hopeful people with suitcases were going from door-to-door selling things – brushes, laces, insurance, salvation – to the housewives in the houses’.

And here’s Page one of Chapter One of ‘Being Jordan’:

‘My family are the most important people in my life. I love them all to bits. Through the bad times and the good times they have always been there for me, especially my mum. It is something the press has managed to twist over the years. The way some journalists have described my background, you would think I had the most miserable and unstable childhood, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, my real dad finally walked out on the family when I was three, but I had hardly seen him anyway so he was no loss to me.’

It’s the difference between Wuthering Heights and a Mills and Boon novel, it really is. While Katie Price’s sentiments are no doubt honest and heartfelt, it’s just one hackneyed, cliché phrase after another and there isn’t a single thing to lift it above and beyond the diary scribblings of a million adolescent girls other than the fact that she’s a bit famous. I realise that Oliver Postgate was famous – if not a celebrity – but his book is well-written, inspiring and truly fascinating. Isn’t that what all biographies and autobiographies should be?
All of which nicely brings me to the point in this post where I might upset people. Because, dear reader, the reason why there are so many of these celebrity memoirs on the shelves is that some of you buy them. Yes, I know … I’m sorry but it’s true. People are buying this stuff and, sadly, sales dictate the way that publishers make decisions about taking on contracts. I have never tried to submit an autobiography to a publisher because I know that it would get bounced. Despite having led what I think of as a moderately interesting life, peppered with historic events in which I played some small part, I know that no publisher would risk taking it. And I wouldn’t bother trying … because I’m not famous. I know some amazing people; I know the man who sculpted Jabba the Hutt, the couple who put Rage against the Machine at the Christmas Number One slot in 2009, a man who has developed make-up systems to help the victims of war to hide their scars … but none of them will ever have their stories told because they’re not famous. The cult of celebrity has all but killed the biography writing industry. Fame has replaced Fascination. These days, it is more commercially viable to write a book about a mundane childhood as long as there’s fame in the last couple of chapters, than to write a book about an extraordinary life with no fame at the end. It saddens me, it really does. I just don’t understand the fascination people have with these people’s lives when there are so many more interesting stories to be told.

As a final note, the last couple of London Book Fair were very sad affairs. As I reported here, if it wasn’t a celebrity biography then your book wasn’t going to get any publicity that year. I suffered a little because of this in that the decision was made not to promote my first book despite the fact my publisher had paid me an exceptional advance for a first book. They believed in it but they couldn’t get it past the advertising people because I wasn’t a famous face. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not bitter and the book sold well despite this. But it did highlight the fact that there are some brilliant books out there – so much better than mine - that don’t get any publicity because the budget has been spent on the celebs. Even celebrity authors get the preferential treatment; the posters and TV ads for Dan Brown’s ‘The Lost Symbol’ were everywhere … but why? Surely every Dan Brown fan already knew? Wasn’t it already the most eagerly awaited and pre-ordered sequel in history? Surely those sales were in the bag … so why not spend the money on a lesser-known but possibly better book and maybe generate some extra sales?

I guess what I’m saying is, it’s up to us to change things. The readers drive the book market. Just as viewing figures dictate what gets commissioned and broadcast on the telly, our book-buying and library borrows dictate what books the publishers buy. If we eschew the lurid sensationalist celebrity biography and go instead for the genuinely interesting and insightful biography – celebrity or not – it will lead to a better world. I’m not exaggerating here; the books currently dominating the shelves in the biography and autobiography sections are of society’s role models. Our kids deserve better. I once heard Ricky Gervais say during one of his podcasts that, in the case of art, we should all be fascists. Art, he said, should never be democratic because if it was, then all we’d have on the walls of our galleries is the stuff that got the most votes. There would be no innovation, no risk-taking. There would never have been a Dali, a Rembrandt, a Turner or a Monet. The same applies to the art of biography.

Sod the proles, Mr Publisher. Forget the popular vote. Publish books that challenge and inform and entertain and which put history in focus. Give our kids better role models and give us all a better read.


The Factory said...

Best of luck with that but I think it's a losing battle. People buy this stuff in droves, and it pays the mortgage of all concerned. TV, Movies, Books and Music are now all about the bottom line, which is why they are often such utter shit. Perhaps web publishing is the way, cut out the middle man ?

chris hale said...

Hear hear! Is it coincidental that the writer of so many of these books is called 'Herbert'?

Another genre that seems depressingly popular is misery porn. The book usually has a title like Daddy, please don't, or Don't tell mummy our little secret. They seem to appeal to the worst kind of voyeurism, but they sell by the million. Sick, aint it?