Condemned by their own words: The ten worst autobiographies

As Wayne Rooney signs a £5m book deal to produce five books charting his life, Boyd Tonkin and Jonathan Brown trawl the world of celebrity titles and select the most unreadable
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Hillary Clinton LIVING HISTORY

Not so much a "mea culpa" as a "vote for me", Living History attracted one of the largest advances in publishing history - $8m (£4.6m). If publisher Simon & Schuster expected to recoup its outlay with further revelations about the hurt caused by the sexual gymnastics of Mrs Clinton's husband, they were disappointed.

The nearest the book came to heavy breathing was Mrs Clinton's description of the moment when Bill Clinton finally confirmed his affair with Monica Lewinsky: "I could hardly breathe. Gulping for air, I started crying and yelling at him."

Supporters insisted the book offered an insight into the liberal philosophy of a potential president. But, as one critic put it: "Of interest only to PhD students of 1990s American politics."

Verdict: If "it takes a village" to raise a child (as her next book claimed), then it took an office full of researchers to produce this rambling hulk of a memoir. Worse, it aimed not to spill the Hill's beans but to boost her prospects. Living History? More like Hedging Bets.

Paul Burrell A ROYAL DUTY

Written in the aftermath of his acquittal for stealing items from his employers in the House of Windsor, A Royal Duty was portrayed by many as the butler's revenge on the royal family. Critics also suggested it was his revenge on compelling memoirs.

Described as a "tremendous exercise in self-justification", Burrell spent 400 pages detailing the closeness of his relationship with Diana, Princess of Wales, along with the stunning revelation that when the Queen places a £5 note on the collection plate at Sandringham church, it has been ironed by a maid and folded in four.

The book provoked a row with Princes William and Harry, who accused Burrell of betrayal. But it did no harm to his bank balance - he is estimated to have made £3m.

Verdict: Saccharine prose and preening vanity exacerbated by his creepy worship at the shrine of Saint (sorry, Princess) Diana. The kind of hardcore Royal drool that can send even Di devotees into republican rehab.

Anthea Turner FOOLS RUSH IN

If the former Blue Peter presenter's latest TV offering, Perfect Housewife, was considered lightweight, the critics found her autobiography a truly gossamer experience. Ghost-written by romance writer Wendy Holden, it was billed as the "forthright, emotive and inspiring account of the life of a great survivor on planet fame".

What the reader got was a breathless trawl through the everyday life of a one-time "golden girl" with tragically little to say. All the laughs were unintentional. Momentous events such as her split from former Radio One DJ Peter Powell and the controversy which marred her second wedding to Grant Bovey, when the couple used the happy occasion to plug the new Cadbury's SnowFlake bar, are chronicled with solemnity. Among the revelations is the stunning disclosure that she is a fan of Michael Flatley or that her divorce from Mr Powell cost a mere £127.50.

Verdict: The numbers on the literary lottery never came up for the once-ubiquitous TV presenter, whose bitchy, score-settling tales of showbiz trauma famously sank like a stone. Fools Rush In? Sorry, none did.

Alan Shearer MY STORY SO FAR

As a television football pundit, the Newcastle captain is famously reserved. But it was only in his 1999 autobiography that Shearer revealed his wild side. The book revealed that when he won the English league championship with Blackburn, he celebrated by going home to creosote his garden fence.

The unkind would suggest that the anecdote is about as exciting as My Story So Far gets. The book reveals that while captain of his school team, a youthful Shearer insisted on all throw-ins, free kicks, penalties, corners and even goal kicks.

Supporters of the former England striker point out that the ghost-written memoir underlines its author's modesty. He wrote: "I've never had the skill of a David Ginola or George Best and I certainly won't ever have it."

Verdict: Sad but true: in the sporting memoirs competition, nice guys usually come last. Shearer's plodding and polite account of his rise to the top (well, OK, Newcastle) couldn't set an ashtray on fire, never mind a crowd.

Tom Maschler PUBLISHER

When the chairman of Jonathan Cape announced he was writing his memoirs, literary types began salivating at the stories that would emerge about overseeing such talents as Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis and Tom Wolfe. Unfortunately, Publisher was found by critics to be only mildly more engaging than a copy of the Jonathan Cape catalogue.

One critic wrote: Maschler's book should have been the literary event of the decade, providing intimate insight into the shaping spirits of contemporary literature. Instead, it is an embarrassment. He keeps telling us what scintillating talkers his authors were, yet he records virtually nothing of what they said."

Verdict: A legend in his own lunchtime, Maschler dined and signed Gabriel García Márquez, Joseph Heller, Roald Dahl, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan etc. So how, after decades hanging out with the world's finest writers, does their publisher end up sounding like a sedated speak-your-weight machine? Give it the Booker for boredom.


According to one wag, Ministers Decide is the book that publishers always cite when they explain why they prefer to avoid the genre of political memoir.

Sir Norman, a stalwart who attracts praise along the lines of "a safe pair of hands", stepped down from Margaret Thatcher's government in 1990 saying he wanted to "spend more time with my family" - and write his memoirs. Sales indicated that he should have concentrated on achieving domestic bliss. Ministers Decide, published in 1991, sold just 3,500 copies in hardback - barely enough to recoup the printing bill.

One of a rash of autobiographies by senior Tories, one critic congratulated Sir Norman for managing to stay awake while writing it.

Verdict: The dullest memoir by the dullest of Tory Cabinet hacks duly died a death. At least Fowler's turkey helped finish off an entire tree-wasting genre.


As a celebrated playwright and political activist Lillian Hellman was admired by many. When made to appear before the Un-American Activities Committee in 1952 to name suspected Communists, she said: "To hurt innocent people whom I knew many year ago in order to save myself is, to me, inhuman and indecent and dishonourable." When Hellman turned to writing memoirs, she earned the ire of writer Mary McCarthy. On a TV chat show in 1977, she said of Hellman: "Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'." Hellman promptly issued a $2.5m writ for libel but died shortly afterwards.

Verdict: Years of hard knocks and hard liquor had addled the memory and judgement of the radical writer. Even a forgiving biographer ended up unsure if Hellman's endless whoppers "were delusions or lies".


The only problem withA Million Little Pieces, a shockingly self-abnegating memoir about Frey's battle with alcohol and drugs, was that it was not entirely true. Large chunks of the book, which sold two million copies in the US after it was recommended by Oprah Winfrey, have turned out to be fabricated.

Such as his claim to have readWar and Peace during a three-month jail term - implausible since he only spent a few hours in prison at most. Or his account of a train crash in which a classmate was killed - of which he was forced to confess: "While I was not, in real life, directly involved in the accident, I was profoundly affected by it."

A note from Frey will be included in future editions: "I embellished many details about my past experiences, and altered others in order to serve what I felt was the great purpose of the book."

Verdict: His rehab drama has shown up as prime pork, and his literary reputation is in pieces, Frey could be forgiven for falling off the wagon.


While many have been criticised for selective editing of their life stories when penning an autobiography, few can lay such a reprimand at the door of Jane Fonda.

Indeed, some critics expressed a wish that the actress and activist had reined in her desire for disclosure. Her revelations about group sex with her first of three husbands, Roger Vadim, earned predictable headlines after she wrote: "Sometimes there were three of us, sometimes more. Sometimes it was even I who did the soliciting."

From frank confessions about her famous father's chilliness towards his children to her regrets over the notorious "Hanoi Jane" photograph, Fonda poured out her soul.

Verdict: She's 68 going on 18, and everything that has ever happened to this revered, world-famous, wealthy icon is someone else's fault. Fonda could whinge for America as a procession of Very Nasty Men (presidents, husbands, studio bosses etc) exercise her self-pity and the reader's patience.

Adolf Hitler MEIN KAMPF

Hitler's prose style was as subtle as his politics and nowhere better is the monster's emerging rampant egotism and nascent megalomania better illustrated than in his unreadable autobiography. Dictated by the future Fuhrer during his incarceration in Landsberg in 1924-25, he had wanted to entitle the book "Four and a Half Years against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice". His Nazi publisher convinced him to settle for the snappier title of My Struggle. Casting himself as the Superman, Hitler rehearses his anti-Semitic theories that were to reach their vile conclusions in the gas chambers of the final solution. Today the book is banned in much of the world, although copies can be bought over the internet.

Verdict: When the right-wing judge in the Munich Putsch trail gifted a nutty corporal with a light sentence in a cushy jail, he helped create the world's worst book. That it's absurdly incoherent, demented, pompous, illiterate, etc... doesn't make it any less vile.