A Week In Books: Celebrity memoirs, the high price of fame

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The Independent Culture

Imagine, if you dare, the tackiest, trashiest night of chat-shows and celebrity "specials" ever to surge, simpering and chortling, out of TV hell.

Imagine, if you dare, the tackiest, trashiest night of chat-shows and celebrity "specials" ever to surge, simpering and chortling, out of TV hell. We begin, naturally enough, with pukka young Jamie Oliver and twinkly old Rolf Harris (for that fake-nostalgia buzz). Pretty soon we'll get to meet George Best (so sad!) and Victoria Beckham (even sadder!), with a little cameo from Julie Burchill (outrageous!) about her own views of Posh'n'Becks. Then carry on sniggering with Frank Skinner and Vinnie Jones, to please the beery lads (Oi!), with Clement Freud and Terence Conran on tap to tickle those bon vivant oldsters.

The fun's not over yet: here's the ferocious Anne Robinson (hiss!) and the flaky Chris Eubank (hith!). A big round for Robbie Williams and Ali G, idols of da yoof, and welcome back Larry "JR" Hagman, idol of da yoof's mum. Aunt Betty Boothroyd is on hand to dish out a taste of her order, order. And did I forget to mention the ever-fragrant Mr Davidson? Never fear; Jim is here.

Please stop gibbering. This naff nightmare is the face of British non-fiction publishing for autumn 2001. Books written by (or at least ghosted for) all of the above will head the lists of corporate publishers between now and Christmas. You will spot their authors (or perhaps "authors"), grinning dementedly at the size of their cheques, on every masthead, billboard, hoarding and TV trailer within reach.

Celebs, of course, have issued volumes bearing their names ever since the grizzled generals and statesmen of the 18th century dictated maxims and reflections to well-born young gofers. What's new, and utterly dispiriting, is the seamless integration of every major publisher into a cross-media carnival that stretches from pop and sport and movies to tabloids and TV and the gossipy glossies. We need a fresh term for these cynical, machine-tooled products: not a book so much as a "bo OK!".

For giant publishers today, the celebrity blockbuster is no vulgar sideshow. It makes or breaks careers and companies. Get it right as an editor or marketeer, and you can take the express lift to the top of the firm. Get it wrong (anyone for a remaindered copy of Anthea Turner?), and the ridicule lives with you for years.

The oddest facet to this whole spangly charade is the way that the super-hyped star vehicle can "succeed" without anyone much enjoying it. Flog the serial rights to a cash-rich newspaper (as Penguin has just done with the Life of Posh); arrange the TV tie-in appearances; flood the star-struck bookselling chains with copies; shoehorn the title into every Christmas catalogue: the book's profile will skyrocket, even if it bores most readers and the star concerned is falling fast. (To the average Hear'Say fan, the Spice Girls must mean about as much as Doris Day and Peggy Lee.)

With their elephantine period of gestation, celebrity books have always lagged way behind the front line of popular taste. Hence the fact that publishers, in finest funky-uncle style, will proudly tout new tomes from figures whose fame peaked a year or two ago ( viz Ali G). Now, however, this built-in tardiness can serve the wider media economy. In effect, British corporate publishing has transformed itself into a generous life-support system for fading celebs. And it's pretty routine to pay £500,000 or more for that dubious privilege.

Meanwhile, all these speculative top-dollar deals have helped drive the "midlist" of intelligent non-fiction books to the very brink of extinction. It used to be argued that the froth paid for the cream; now, the froth (at trendy cappuccino prices) replaces the cream.

So where are this season's definitive biographies, enduring autobiographies, path-breaking histories, ground-shaking science books? With a few honourable exceptions (Granta, Murray, Verso, Profile among the independents; Allen Lane, Weidenfeld, Fourth Estate, Chatto among the corporate "niche" imprints), they've been ditched to pay for Jim Davidson and his pals. Did anyone ask the loyal readers of proper non-fiction if they wanted it abolished to suit the agenda of the chief scheduler at the ITV Network Centre? I suspect not.

By the way, another small company to cherish is Reaktion Books. Soon, they'll publish Chris Rojek's analysis of Celebrity today. Now there, at last, is a necessary book.

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