Thursday, May 20, 2010

Renaissance or Ridiculous: When Celebs Write Fiction

Remember that scene in the movie Boogie Nights when Dirk and Reed think that because they've been successful porn stars, they should have no trouble recording hit pop songs as well? The result, of course, is disastrously hilarious: "Feel, feel, feel, feel my heat."

A similar delusion of grandeur seems to have overtaken (or been planted in) a small but growing contingent of real-life celebrities. Because a person can act, host a reality show, or generally make a fool of oneself on television, apparently writing fiction is the next logical step? And publishers are disgorging these celebrity-penned novels to the shelves faster than Tiger Woods can issue insincere apologies. The reason why publishers see these novels as good investments is simple: They sell well. And the reasons they sell well are also simple. One: People buy things when there is a famous name attached, whether novels or nose hair clippers. Two: People are obsessed with celebrity, and many of these novels are thinly veiled memoirs.

So here are a few recent examples of novels by celebrities: Model and professional crazy lady Tyra Banks announced this week that she'd be publishing a novel titled Modelland (pronounced "Model Land," as Tyra helpfully explains) that will "touch the dreamer in all of us." Uh huh. Lauren Conrad of TV's Laguna Beach and The Hills fame has published not one, but two novels, titled L.A. Candy and Sweet Little Lies. Great titles. Brooding actor Ethan Hawke, famous for playing a spectacular wuss in just about every role he's ever taken, published a novel several years ago titled Ash Wednesday. Reviews were mixed. Singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett and cornerstone-of-the-right Newt Gingrich have also published fiction. Hell, even Pamela Anderson of sex tape and Barb Wire fame, has unleashed two novels on the world! Frightening, isn't it?

How these novels actually get published is probably more of an interesting story than the stories in the novels themselves. Does a grubby agent whisper in a celeb's ear about a new money-making "scheme"?  Does a publisher give a book deal to a celeb whose name is hot, secure a ghost writer, and then publish the novel without the celeb so much as glancing at the manuscript? (Does anyone really think Pam Anderson wrote two books?) Or does the celeb sincerely believe s/he has a story to tell that the world can't live without and dutifully pounds it out between takes or rehab stints?

Perhaps I'm being too cynical. Publishers argue that profits and sure sales from these puff pieces allow them to take chances on other less-marketable, much-more-literary books. But is that really the case? From where I'm sitting, firmly in the camp of "literary snob," it's hard to see any redeeming value whatsoever to these novels. I realize I'm not exactly going out on an idealistic limb here, and even though I understand the allure for some folks, trading on celebrity to publish crappy fiction will always boil my blood.

But, hey, let's close on a high note, because for every rule, there is an exception. And so I give you actor James Franco. Franco, who has made a career out of being exceptional, choosing widely varying roles in everything from blockbusters (Spider-Man) to little-know indies (Sonny), is publishing a book of short stories in the fall titled Palo Alto. But here's the twist: Franco has an English degree from UCLA, an MFA in creative writing from Columbia University, and was recently accepted into an English Ph.D program at Yale. And here's the further twist: He's actually good! Check out this story he recently published in Esquire. It's a bit messy, but I liked it! 

So, what do you think about the rash of celebrities posing as novelists? Have you read a celebrity novel that's any good?


  1. Honestly, I haven't read any. There's one on an MMA fighter that I keep thinking of picking up and then don't. Maybe I will one day.
    I guess it's like anyone else, we all have the right to write a book. However, the question is, will it actually be good? Do they have a clue about literature? Will they have all the post work done to it? Or will someone simply publish it to cash in on a big name?
    And I'm with you, I doubt most of them every actually really write their own. Does WWE's Batista seriously have time to take pen to paper to make a 300 page book? Pam Anderson, I highly doubt she wrote hers, but on the other hand, I definitely don't think I look like the book nerd I really am. ;) So, I would think it's also easy enough to be wrong on guess who really put effort into their own books and who didn't.

    Anyway, have a great day :)

  2. What kills me is the hopefully soon to be gone trend of celebs doing children's picture books,many of which are comedians reworking old stand-up routines(Jerry Seinfeld and Ray Romano)or instant ties-in to their adult career(a lot of sports stars). The worst ones of all were that series by Madonna,that I seriously doubt she had any major input in other than cashing her check.

    There are exceptions to this rule,of course(Jamie Lee Curtis and John Lithgow are great examples)but a lot of them are just cutesy cookie cutter odes to their egos.

    It's extra peeving to me,since there are good picture book authors out there who couldn't get a break in the business but some celeb thought it would be "easy" to do a kid's book,so they get the nod from the publishers instead-so not cool:(

  3. I have not read any celebrity fiction, but I am still shocked at the psuedo-celebrities getting book deals. Yeseterday, they announced Bristol Palin would be writing a book about the campaign in '08 and underage pregnancy. Needless to say, I pre-ordered it. She will have so much insight into the political process! I can't wait to see how she juxtaposes watching her mom debate Joe Biden with watching those birthing videos women watch in preparing for the big day...Election Day...errr...birthday!?

  4. LOVE this post! yeah, it is an insane and growing trend out here for 'celebrities' to write and -- just like many memoirs and self-help books -- I know first-hand that many of these 'novels' are ghost written often with little creative input from the stars.

    I do appreciate that you included the story of James Franco who indeed is a solid writer -- and one who actually works on the craft, trying to get better. And unlike Lauren Conrad or Tyra Banks, I don't expect Franco to go on every morning show and talk show to shill his book. For him, it truly seems to be a labor of love and not another way to squeeze his fans for cash. I will be checking Palo Alto out...

  5. @Mystee - Oh, I know I shouldn't judge a "writer" by her looks, but Pam's been around enough on TV and whatnot to make me fairly confident that she would have trouble addressing a postcard, much less writing a novel.

    @ladyT - Ah, good point about the children's book. I think I laughed for about two days straight when I learned that Terrell Owens was publishing one - what a joke!

    @Leah - Ha! My sarcasm detector is reading off the charts! Hopefully Bristol will tell us how she feels about her dude appearing in Playgirl.

    @JB - Good point about the publicity machine behind some of these "novels." Yeah, I think you're right that Franco will want to be treated like any other fiction writer - and therefore NEVER appear on a morning show. Those appearances are a sure sign the celebs are just in it for the cash.

  6. Oh, don't forget Barbara Boxer's "steamy" political thrillers! Just what we need -- sex scenes written by a sitting Senator!

    Great post. Glad I found your blog. I'm hopping around finding new blogs, visiting old favorites, and spreading the word that I am giving away A Small Fortune on Rose City Reader. It's my first-ever give away, so I am excited about it.

    I'll go look around more now.

  7. Fanny Flagg is the only celeb turned author I can think of. Green Fried Tomatoes was a great novel.I am sure there may be more. Carrie Fisher tried her hand a few times, but I did not find her that compelling as a author.
    I think ego gets in the way of common sense with a lot of these people. They are told they can do anything and everything, so soon they believe it!

  8. I haven't read Hawke's Ash Wednesday, but I read and loved his first book, The Hottest State, when I was in high school. I don't know how I would feel about it now, but it was one of my favorites when I was 15.

  9. Greg, once again you've posted about a topic that was percolating on my back burner. The Tyra announcement got my attention. As to whether you are being too cynical--I don't think that's possible! I like the story of Franco entering the PhD program--how cool! But I presume most other celeb books are ghost written. I LOVE The Real Housewives of NYC, and one of my favorite episodes shows "the Countess" "working on her book." That is to say, viewers are treated to the sight of a frumpy (sorry, bohemian?) ghostwriter (she's "helping" the Countess) taking notes and arduously trying not to roll her eyes excessively. Speaking of excessive, forgive the verbose comment!

  10. @Rose City - I vaguely remember hearing about Ms. Boxer's books - but I think I mentally blocked that out. Yeah, I don't have any great desire to read Senator-penned sex scenes either!

    @SariJ - Ego getting in the way of common sense is, indeed, the issue, I think. Well put! (And that carries over into way more things that just celebs thinking they can write fiction!)

    @Bookshelf - Oh, I didn't even realize Hawke had published two books. The Hottest State sounds semi-autobiographical, as well.

    @bibliophiliac - Great comment! That scene you describe about the ghost writer helping the "writer" (who can barely speak English effectively, much less write it) is the exact image I have in my mind of how those things go. Arduously trying not to roll her eyes excessively - ha!

  11. I finished reading the James Franco manuscript two weeks ago and it was awful! It was truly the worst book that I have read in quite a while. I was very disappointed because I was looking forward to it as soon it was announced. When I got my hands on it, I really thought it would be good but alas, not quite good at all.