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Against literary celebriphilia

We need interesting authors, not “big names”

Not so long ago, I attended a round-table discussion, organised by a scholarly society, about history trade publishing. In the audience: scores of academic historians, each eager to secure a contract for a book that would make its way to the tables at Waterstones and Daunt’s. On the platform: a literary agent, several editors, and a couple of academics who had “made it”. 

In that room were countless accomplished writers, experts in their fields, who had spent years, decades even, digging around in archives, unearthing fascinating stories that were ripe for the telling. But the message from the platform was a largely pessimistic one: it can be extremely difficult to secure an agent, your trade proposal will almost certainly receive multiple rejections, and your style isn’t half as accessible as you think it is. One editor from a well-known press became quite gleeful when regaling us with an anecdote about his boss, who thinks a good day at the office is when he’s rejected every last proposal on his desk.

Then, a question from the floor. What did the panel think about the trend for celebrity historians? Here, the audience members, now somewhat dispirited, hoped to be given a small glimmer of hope. Perhaps these specialist history editors would empathise with their frustration at the fact that celebrities can acquire contracts without credentials or apparent effort. Maybe those massive advances aren’t always being recouped? But no: the same editor’s eyes lit up as he declared that celebrity historians are just brilliant and long may the trend continue. Talk about failing to read the room.

Everyone’s mind at that event probably turned to the recently released Unruly, by the comedian David Mitchell, no doubt an entertaining book by a clever man. But the historians could be forgiven for feeling slightly frustrated at his fast-track route to the bestseller lists. It didn’t help matters that the Cambridge-educated Mitchell had taken the opportunity to take potshots at “professional historians”, dismissing them, to quote a reviewer in The TLS, as “dull, pretentious and obsessed by petty feuds with their peers”.

Household names can now be found in all areas of publishing: everyone from Marcus Rashford to Sarah Ferguson is at the writing game. The world of children’s book publishing is particularly dominated by celebrities, many of whom will mean nothing to the under-tens. Made your name as a TV presenter? Then there is almost certainly a novel in you, as Fern Britton, Carol Kirkwood, Mel Giedroyc, Graham Norton, Rob Rinder, Alan Titchmarsh, Anton Du Beke, Lorraine Kelly, Judy Finnegan and many others have shown. Perhaps some of these presenters are genuinely talented writers; perhaps others are in need of what we might politely refer to as heavy editorial intervention. Frankly, it’s all getting a bit annoying.

It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that I object to celebrity books per se. Many famous names write superbly about their own lives. I gulped down Gyles Brandreth’s sparkling, mischievous autobiography Odd Boy Out. Michael Palin is as affable in print as on screen. Grace Dent’s Hungry was heartwarming, Sheila Hancock’s Old Rage wise. But every year in the lead-up to Christmas, ghostwritten celebrity autobiographies hog places on the bookshop tables, and there they tend to remain, piled high in the Boxing-Day sale.

An invitation to a literary festival is for most authors, the ultimate dream

Celebrities also queue-jump when it comes to the literary-festival circuit, and often hop blithely from one event to the next. An invitation to a literary festival is for most authors, the ultimate dream, and particularly when it comes to Hay, the vast über-festival that looms above all others when it comes to exposure, contacts and sales. Recently, we learnt that the comedian Nish Kumar and the singer-turned-campaigner Charlotte Church were withdrawing from this year’s Hay Festival, having joined a boycott by a group called Fossil Free Books against the Festival’s sponsor, Baillie Gifford. It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the politics behind the boycott itself, which ultimately achieved its objective, leading both Hay and subsequently the Edinburgh Book Festival to part ways with the sponsor, the latter clearly under duress. Were Kumar and Church wholly ignorant of the Festival’s association with Baillie Gifford, or was there a certain desire to maximise the social media splash?

An Amazon search for any books that Kumar and Church might be promoting at the festival drew a blank. (Church’s name appears on two autobiographies, but neither is recent.) The Hay programme, as regulars will know, features numerous events that are not strictly literary, including recordings of live BBC broadcasts, yoga and wild swimming sessions, pizza-making workshops, and an array of ‘conversations’ with politicians, media personalities and actors who are there to promote themselves rather than a book. Nevertheless, the point stands that countless authors would give their eye-teeth to speak there, and here were two wealthy celebrities, with no convincing literary credentials, pulling out at a point when it was too late for their coveted slots to be given to bona fide authors whose careers and livelihoods genuinely depend upon the exposure.

So let us hope festival organisers might be encouraged by this episode to pause for thought and do things a little differently next year. The assumption must be that people will only go to book festivals if celebrities are on the bill, but it is hard to believe that bookish people require that incentive. There are many brilliant literary festivals in this country, large and small, and Hay certainly offers an amazing array of events to serve all tastes. But if “big names” are going to start performatively cancelling at the last minute, festivals might be better off returning to a more purely literary focus, showcasing not only the most heavily hyped new releases and the “hottest young stars”, but also talented authors of all ages who are emerging, or overlooked, or deserving of a break. No fads, no fashions, no media “personalities”. Just people who have interesting things to say about books.

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