Forget celebrity books, it's their pets' tales that are flying off the shelves
Sales of the stars' real memoirs may be plummeting, but animal autobiographies and canine kiss-and-tells are storming the literary charts. And they're often better written, too. Arifa Akbar reports
Saturday 10 April 2010
If its critics are right and the bloated, badly written "celebrity memoir" has had its day, an exotic offshoot of the genre is taking its place.
The spoof memoir – be it written from the point of view of a celebrity's dog or their cute-yet-complex pet chimpanzee, or a fake autobiography of a politician with leadership ambitions – is now stirring the imagination of the publishing industry. It still has its marketable celebrity element, yet no ghost writers are required, nor is there any need to check facts.
Ever since James Lever earned a Booker Prize nomination for the spoof life story Me Cheeta, which was written from the perspective of an ageing silver-screen chimpanzee who starred in Hollywood's Tarzan films, a spate of fake confessionals has followed. They each simultaneously look askance at celebrity culture, while benefiting from the public's appetite for it.
Lever's novel has sold more than 50,000 copies since its publication last year. Shortly after it came another spoof memoir. Bubbles: My Secret Diary, From Swaziland to Neverland is a variation on Lever's theme, and is based on the eventful life story of Michael Jackson's pet chimpanzee, organised as a collection of "very personal and honest entries from Bubbles' diary".
The book sparked a bidding war in America and Australia, and its publisher John Blake suggested its contents would shine a light on a troubled mind – Bubbles' that is, not Jackson's.
"Behind his seemingly perfect life of glamorous friends, gold-plated tyre swings and personal chefs, there is a dark history of medical experiments, addiction and loss," he said. Nicholas Pearson, publishing director at Fourth Estate, who conceived the idea for Me Cheeta after reading a news story reporting the real-life chimpanzee's 65th birthday celebrations in America, said he was reacting against the glut of celebrity memoirs published in recent years. "They were making me feel slightly sick," he said.
While the celebrity memoir is often criticised for being poorly written and containing pedestrian C-list subjects, Lever's spoof was praised for being sharp, witty and brilliantly imagined. But a year on, with more spoofs on the shelves, Mr Pearson suggested "there is only room for a certain number of animal autobiographies in the world".
Yet the writer Andrew O'Hagan, who will see his The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of his friend Marilyn Monroe published in May, said this genre precedes Lever's book by centuries.
The satirical or wise anthropomorphic narrative has long been a literary trope, perfected in Aesop's Fables, and adopted by Jonathan Swift and George Orwell. "It is part of a joyful tradition of satirical animals who somehow say something about society," O'Hagan said. He added that he had had an extraordinary amount of interest in his book, with filmmakers discussing an adaptation and publishers showing interest across Europe and the world.
"It connected with our interest in personalising the experience of celebrity.... It is a documentation of our times, our love of celebrity and our obsession with public tragedy," he said.
He suggested the genre's popularity may also reflect our recession-ridden times. "There's something in the air at the moment: we need a cultural moment of comedy," he argued. "We have lived through some dark times, and perhaps a degree of the unreal and the miraculous has crept into our lives."
His book was conceived in 1999, when during an auction of Monroe's personal possessions by Christie's, he came across the story of her dog, Maf, who was given to her as a present in 1960 by Frank Sinatra .
"Maf had an incredibly colourful life, being part of the litter brought up by the housekeeper of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, who were leading lights in the Bloomsbury Group," O'Hagan explained . "It's wonderfully absurd to think of the idea of a white Maltese witnessing events and being connected to so much of 20th century culture."
Bill Coles, who last year brought out a fake autobiography of Lord Lucan, has now written his second spoof, this time assuming the voice of the Conservative Party leader David Cameron called Dave Cameron's Schooldays. The book was this week picked by Waterstone's as its "book of the month".
Mr Coles said such memories intended to weave fact with fiction seamlessly and often contained a sting.
"I'm not saying that he is ridiculous (in the book) but he has his weaknesses – his predilection for promoting his Bullingdon Club friends and surrounding himself with Old Etonians," he said. "At Eton, we learned that one of the lessons of survival was to 'deny, deny, deny'. I'm saying that lesson stood Cameron in good stead as a politician."
A spokesman for Waterstone's said the trend was in keeping with Britain's tendency towards satire.
"The British have always loved to poke fun at those they feel may need taking down a peg or two, and the spoof memoir is a classic example of the satirist's art. Politicians obviously lend themselves well to this form of lampooning, hence the success recently of Going Rouge [about Sarah Palin] and currently Dave Cameron's Schooldays."
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