Duchess of platitudes
The true tragedy of Meghan’s book will be the better writers left on the bench
Obtaining a review copy of a new title is usually a simple enough business. An email is sent to the relevant publicist, saying what book you wish to write about and where you expect the review to run, and usually the volume in question is dispatched over the next few days. Occasionally, for a high-profile release, there are embargo dates and forms that resemble the Official Secrets Act to be filled in; a necessary part of the writing life these days, although sometimes publicists get above themselves in the ostensible newsworthiness of their authors’ ideas.
In the case of Meghan Markle’s debut book, it proved a different kettle of fish altogether. Despite entreaties via email and telephone, the usually estimable publishers at Puffin simply refused to acknowledge that we would be reviewing Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex’s publication, which necessitated a visit to my excellent local Blackwell’s to purchase a copy. Something similar happens occasionally in the film industry, when a picture is deemed to be so bad that it is not screened for critics in the hope that cinemas will have a couple of days’ worth of takings from the curious before the full awfulness dawns on the unsuspecting punters. But the idea of The Bench appearing as if by stealth in the nation’s bookshops is an unusual, even unprecedented, idea for a title that has attracted its level of publicity and interest.
The reason why, of course, is that the world remains fixated on its author. Although she has been in the public eye now for at least a decade, it has been the past eighteen months that have launched her into the stratosphere, thanks to numerous eye-catching, even jaw-dropping coups de grâce that have vied with the coronavirus pandemic for the media’s attention. It would take too long to outline all of the outrageous and provocative actions that she has been responsible for, with or without her husband’s involvement, but the past week alone has seen the birth of a daughter, which attracted front page news for the defiantly flag-planting name “Lillibet Diana Mountbatten-Windsor,” and, of course, the publication of The Bench.
Events that would define a lifetime for many take place on a virtually monthly basis for the Duchess of Sussex. She seems addicted to the cheap adrenaline-rush of newspaper headlines, frothing commentary pieces and social media buzz. There are few people who find themselves in the law courts, on prime-time television and in the children’s sections of bookshops within the space of a few months, but she has managed it with assurance. Love her or loathe her — and there are many in both camps who would take up partisan positions with pleasure — there is no denying that her dominance of the news cycle remains near-total.
And so we come to her book. It would be wonderful to report that it is either an entirely charming and beautifully written children’s story that should transcend its author’s reputation and be taken on its own merits, or alternatively to denounce it as the worst example of its type in years. Unfortunately, it is my solemn duty to tell you that The Bench is neither. It is bad, of course, but it is not so bad that writers will be able to roll up their sleeves and prepare for the hatchet job to end all hatchet jobs, although some have undoubtedly tried.
A series of mundane observations will be pored over as if they are holy writ
Yet it is too inconsequential and ephemeral to merit the vitriol of a proper disemboweling. Instead, it should be regarded as a curiosity, taking its rightful place alongside such royal publications as The Old Man of Lochnagar and Budgie The Little Helicopter.
This is, blessedly, not a long book. There is no narrative to speak of, merely a series of vignettes in which the relationship between a father and son is sketched out in a series of banalities and badly constructed rhymes. Some of the rhymes are dire (“He’ll feel happiness, sorrow/One day be heartbroken/You’ll tell him ‘I love you’/Those words always spoken”), but, generally speaking, the brief, insipid platitudes that fill the pages are too inconsequential to be especially exercised about.
The illustrations, by Christian Robinson, are pleasant and accomplished, and the ginger haired father in them bears a strong and obvious resemblance to Prince Harry, just as the Duchess herself makes a Hitchcockian cameo towards the end, accompanied by the verse “Looking out at My Love/And our beautiful boy/And here in the window/I’ll have tears of great joy.” I assumed prior to publication that a ghostwriter’s services would have been employed, but I now believe that this is indeed the work of Meghan, if only because I cannot believe a professional writer would have come up with something so entirely inessential.
The only time that I felt irritated while I was reading the book was when I remembered the Ben Folds song “Still Fighting It”, which deals with a similar subject, namely the pain and difficulty of growing older. I was struck how Folds can make lines like “You’ll try and try and one day you’ll fly away from me” seem heartbreaking and affecting. There is nothing to compare to such simplicity here, simply a series of mundane observations that will be pored over as if they are holy writ because of the author, and her fame.
Somewhere, a writer with infinitely more literary talent will receive yet another pro forma rejection letter
There remains a more serious point to the very existence of The Bench. As I have lamented time and time again, the children’s book industry has become saturated by celebrity authors, who are increasingly crowding out writers of real talent who did not have the foresight to become famous by another means. While once the success of JK Rowling and Harry Potter had the trickle-down effect of ensuring that the vast income that her books brought her publisher led to previously unknown authors being given a shot, the enormity of the advances that these writers, and their rapacious agents, demand — to say nothing of their annexation of publicity and marketing budgets — means that there is very little left for considerably more able writers.
No doubt The Bench will be a bestseller, and we can expect a similarly saccharine book about a mother and daughter relationship in a year or two, which will again sell in vast quantities. But somewhere, a writer of Markle’s age, of infinitely more literary talent who cannot get herself or himself on the front pages, will receive yet another pro forma rejection letter from a publisher, possibly Puffin, that blandly informs the disappointed author that “While we enjoyed reading your book, we regret that we do not have room for it on our lists…” And that, rather than insipid little rhymes, is the true tragedy of this book’s existence.
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