Boyd Tonkin: Biography once revealed the secret self. Now, what you see is what you get
The Week In Books
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Saturday 05 May 2012
Martin Amis, please come back – we need you. In fact, the self-exiled novelist hardly has to stir from his new Brooklyn home to see the bizarre celebrity scenarios foreshodowed in his dystopian fiction of the 1980s take shape on every screen.
If a literary Rip van Winkle, in oblivion since c.1987, awoke to read Tom Bower's biography of Simon Cowell, what conclusion might our big-haired slumberer reach? Quite possibly, that Amis had written a sequel to Money that satirised the pursuit of wealth and power through media fame with such overweening silliness that it discarded every last shred of plausibility.
Simply look at the names of the showbiz wannabes, big cheeses and hangers-on. Whereas Money made do with Caduta Massi, Butch Beausoleil, Fielding Goodney and Lorne Guyland, Bower's Sweet Revenge: the intimate life of Simon Cowell (Faber) regales us with Denniz Pop, Cécile Frot-Coutaz, Claudia Rosencrantz (a far from minor courtier at ITV), Mel Medalie and Roxana Reyna - not forgetting Zeta Graff, "a hilarious Greek divorcee".
Bower brings all his meticulous sleuthing and narrative verve to bear on Cowell's ascent from music-biz also-ran to the camp pantomime villain who has parlayed his smirking persona on Pop Idol, Britain's Got Talent and The X Factor into a TV franchise empire of mind-boggling reach. Indeed, the phrase "too much information" may spring to the flagging reader's lips. Deals are done, stars are born (and implode), entertainment moguls spar, and billionaires' yachts nuzzle one another in tropical coves like epicurean porpoises. But someone had to do the job, and no one in this game outclasses Bower. In a coda, the biographer, whose demolition of plutocratic idols has resulted in rigorous ives of (inter alia) Conrad Black, Robert Maxwell, Bernie Ecclestone and Mohamed Fayed, writes that "after a 43-year career chasing criminals, cheats and con men, I don't think Cowell fits into any of those categories". We have no reason to doubt him.
Yet Cowell's rise may well make biographers quake. Put simply, modern biography has feasted on a banquet of secrets: on unruly desires, hidden traumas, buried impulses. Concealed motives drive the illustrious life, and the skilled biographer dives into the chasm between secret self and public role. As WH Auden's poem "Who's Who" has it, "A shilling life will give you all the facts:/ How Father beat him, how he ran away/ What were the struggles of his youth... Some of the last researchers even write/ Love made him weep his pints like you and me."
Bower gives us lavish helpings of youthful struggles in showbiz, and plenty on the girlfriends (if not "love") – even if reading about Cowell's affairs and ambitions can feel a bit like observing the mating habits of geckos or the territorial skirmishes of jellyfish. But, for the most part, this archetypal post-Freudian celeb incarnates the computer mantra of WYSIWYG: what you see is what you get.
Behind the Botox mask ("no more unusual than toothpaste" for Cowell) may lurk not a striving hero, nor a scheming villain – but the abyss. Given Bower's copious evidence, his model of a belittled outsider driven by revenge – an urge to compensate for early humiliations – looks unduly schematic. It feeds our nostalgia for traditional motivation, with Cowell a Coriolanus of the TV studios, hacking down every detested rival. On this showing, cool calculation rather than bitter hurt have sealed many deals.
Will the future of fame resemble Cowell, with every Facebook-nurtured talent or tycoon as transparent - even as vacant - as he can seem? If so, then biographers will need to devise new formats to suit the post-secrecy self. Philip Larkin once wrote a poem called "Posterity". In it, he imagined his own biographer passing judgment on the poet: "one of those old-type natural fouled-up guys". Bower's Cowell is far from that. Should we worry?
Dandy dialogue from a highly literary operator
For earnest cinema buffs, to call a film "literary" is a term of deadly abuse. Civilians need not share their hang-ups – nor literate directors. Whit Stillman's offbeat campus comedy Damsels in Distress is the most "literary" mainstream movie I've seen in years - witty, stylised and studded with fabulously mannered dialogue, delivered by a wonderful cast. It even acknowledges its own debt to "the dandy tradition in literature", alluding to the fiction of Thomas Love Peacock and Ronald Firbank. Fans of formal comedy might spot some other affinities. I never thought that a Hollywood movie would remind me of the novels of Ivy Compton-Burnett, but this one – deliciously - did.
Authors pay for the e-book boom
With inflation at almost 4.5 per cent last year, ought we to celebrate the keen value of a market in which the average price of goods fell by 1.3 per cent? I'm not sure that I can raise even one cheer, to be frank. Books got cheaper during 2011, as the Publishers' Association's digest of statistics shows. The reasons clearly connect with the headline grabbing news that e-books now account for 8 per cent of all titles sold in the UK: the value of the digital sector soared by 366 per cent.
This electronic-reading boom ensured that, deep in recession, overall book sales edged down by only 2 per cent (to £3.2bn): a fairly robust performance if you consider the raw figures. But behind them lies the relentless downward pressure on prices exercised in the digital domain by Amazon above all: a trend that inhibits publishers from raising the price of their print editions. Good news for readers, surely? Up to a point, if they don't care about the ability of future talents to earn even a scanty living from their works. So, as e-book prices drop, authors should collect higher royalties: 50 per cent sounds fair.
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