Is it curtains for the celebrity memoir?
They fill many a Christmas stocking, but new sales figures show we’re falling out of love with the life stories of celebrities.
Of all the distortions of the simple message of Christmas – office parties, pantomimes, Father Christmas, adverts – perhaps the least welcome is that it has become the season for A-to-Z-list celebrities to push the latest instalment of their lives on the book-buying public.
Between 2001 and 2008 sales in this genre trebled. Katie Price, Peter Kay, Paul O’Grady, Russell Brand – slap them (if only) between hard covers one Christmas, bring out the paperback the following year and you have two fairly guaranteed bestsellers on your hands. Publishers might have been late to the celebrity party hosted by fawning television and media but, like a drunk old uncle invited only for Boxing Day, they certainly made up for it once they got there.
Since 2008, however, the genre has been looking a little hungover. By 2010, “arts autobiography” – the Nielsen BookScan category that most closely reflects celebrity memoirs – had fallen by 16 per cent from its 2008 peak of £51.5 million. After three years of steady decline, celebrity memoirs are now selling 60 per cent fewer copies than in 2010 – down £11 million compared with a similar period last year.
While publishers are crossing their fingers that sales will pick up in time for Christmas, I spent an exhausting week wading through a dozen of this year’s hopefuls to see if they deserve to. From Lee Evans to Stephen Fry (again) to Jonny Wilkinson to Alan Sugar to James Corden to Joanna Lumley to Bear Grylls – I skimmed their deathless prose so that you don’t have to.
“Skimmed” is very much the operative word. It would take a masochist to get through more than a few pages of Michael McIntyre’s Life and Laughing, which has something of an imbalance in favour of the former. He takes, for example, four pages to describe the computer, the desk and the room where he’s writing. I’m still trying to get his incessantly chirpy voice out of my head. And yet almost 178,648 people this year appear to find this sort of thing fascinating; his is currently the bestselling paperback celebrity memoir.
Paul Scholes (50,832 copies), Jonny Wilkinson (19,608) and Stephen Fry (167,023 in paperback this year, making him second only to McIntyre) also write exactly how they speak, with varied results. “If a thing can be said in 10 words, I may be relied upon to take a hundred to say it,” says Fry. “I was always football daft,” states a more taciturn Scholes – with some help from a ghost writer.
In fact the only surprise in the prose stakes comes from Bear Grylls, whose gripping memoir Mud, Sweat and Tears has sold 85,375 copies – almost as many as a collection of depressingly banal anecdotes from One Direction, a manufactured boy band. Grylls has the advantage over, say, James Corden (108,756 copies) of having done something interesting with his life (climbed Everest at 23, passed SAS selection, broke his back, Chief Scout etc.) and is not afraid of injecting a bit of drama into the narration.
Indeed, many of Grylls’s most dramatic sentences – even some of his paragraphs – are no more than a few words long. “Old frostnip injuries never let you forget,” he starts, as if it were a Dan Brown novel. “I blame Everest for that.”
Despite 110 short chapters, there sometimes isn’t even space for a verb. And on one occasion – “Rogue balls from left field can often be the making of us” – he appears to think he’s an American, not a cricket-playing Old Etonian. The effect is all a bit Tony Blair meets Hemingway, but it was still the only memoir I couldn’t tear myself away from.
Most of the others are best treated as picture books (although there is a disconcerting snap of a half-naked Ryan Giggs in Scholes’s book that I’d rather forget). Joanna Lumley provides the perfect tonic with a picture of her wearing hotpants. While one of the few joys of Wilkinson’s relentlessly introspective book is picking him out in schoolboy rugby pictures – and charting the growth of his father’s gigantic moustache.
The comedians, too, are at their best in their photo captions. “My mum,” writes McIntyre, alongside a picture of a blonde woman in a swimsuit. “A teenage pregnancy waiting to happen.”
Corden raises a rare smile when he points out that Tom Daley, the toned teenage diver, is the “one on the left” in a picture of the two. While Rob Brydon writes under a local newspaper report of his school play: “Press intrusion. Why won’t they leave me alone?”
Where pictures fail, the indexes often come to the rescue. You can tell a lot about a book from its index. Grylls’s has entries such as: “MI5, asks for job at”; “Chipper (Eton friend)”; and “Borneo snake bite”. Brydon, who writes amusingly about starting life at the bottom of the acting pit, has a large number devoted to his unfortunate acne. While Fry, never shy of introspection, has entries such as: “Fry, physical limitations”.
The more populist tomes, however, don’t bother with indexes at all, meaning that you actually have to knuckle down and read the lot. It’s a laborious process, occasionally rewarded by a good anecdote.
Lee Evans, the comedian and actor whose well-written memoir of his early life is this year’s hardback bestseller, had an unpredictable father who once tried to shove an air rifle up a neighbour’s bottom. Alan Sugar, whose paperback memoirs are still outselling both Corden and One Direction, proposed to his wife while driving over the Stratford flyover in a minivan. While Gazza shares a compelling memory – or lack of memory – of winning Man of the Match in 2002 despite being under the influence of a treble brandy and a sleeping tablet.
Keith Richards, one of the few genuine A-listers to have published memoirs recently, is also well worth a read – although he is languishing in 11th place to One Direction’s 10th. His pre-breakfast routine of barbiturate, Tuinal, Mandrax, Quaalude and a cup of tea deserves to elbow out his wholesome rivals.
Overall, however, one is left with the rather weary impression of bandwagon hopping by people without an awful lot to say – and an awful lot of pages in which to say it. While I think McIntyre is an amusing stand-up comic, I have little interest in the fathers’ race at his sports day. I’m a big fan of Gavin and Stacey, but I’m even less interested in how two of its actors, Corden and Brydon, did in their GCSEs and O levels.
It is perhaps telling that one of this year’s bestselling celebrity memoirs is an amusing spoof of the genre by Alan Partridge. “Very thorough,” boasts The Norwich Enquirer on the jacket leaf.
Still, perhaps I’m in a minority. Well over a million people have already bought genuine celebrity memoirs this year – and that’s before the real Christmas rush when desperate men run around Waterstone’s on December 24 wondering what Auntie Ethel would least dislike in her stocking. The genre might be waning, but it’s far from dead yet.
As for me, I’m going to do my best to hasten its demise by auctioning my collection on eBay – and buying some good novels instead. Especially ones not ghost-written for Katie Price.