Pointless protest

Spare us the snooty superiority of “real” writers affronted by celebrity novels

Books Columns

This article is taken from the December 2020 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

The television presenter Richard Osman — he of Pointless fame — must have wished that he had never gone anywhere near social media in the weeks following publication of his much-hyped debut novel. A similarly situated Graham Norton was lucky to get away with a flesh wound. Such was the volley of brickbats flung at The Thursday Murder Club (not bad, apparently, if a little cosy) that a shamefaced Mr Osman (below) was reduced to tweeting that the last thing the world wanted right now was another book by a TV personality.

The complaints about Richard Osman divided into three main categories. On the one hand, he had clearly been paid far too much money (seven figures, according to industry scuttlebutt) for a book that was never going to earn out its advance. On the other, he was taking up valuable review space in the weekend arts supplements that could have gone to promising non-celebs. Third, he was arrogantly presuming — along with every other celebrity novelist in the business — that his expertise in one professional field was instantly transferable to another, like a footballer suddenly demanding employment as a chartered accountant.

It was an entertaining spat, as these things nearly always are, characterised by snootiness, an assumption of cultural superiority and a determination to ignore historical precedent. There have always been celebrity novelists: Thackeray was making jokes about aristocratic triflers avid for a career in light literature in the 1840s. They turn up in Trollope. 

Then, as now, the critiques of them ventured by “professional” writers hinged on caste solidarity. Writing is hard, the argument goes. We had to struggle to get where we are, and now here comes some non-union member who imagines that he (or she) can join the club merely by picking up a pen.

At the same time, high-minded protests about film actor X who signs a contract to write a roman-à-clef about Hollywood generally skate over the fact that there are many different kinds of celebrity writer. 

Thackeray was making jokes about aristocratic triflers avid for a literary career in the 1840s

There are celebrities of the kind who would probably not know what a book was if it fell out of the sky at their feet, for whom ghost writers set diligently to work — although this genre seems to be in decline. There are diffident celebrities so nervous of trouble that they have their agents submit the proposal anonymously — the prime example being Hugh Laurie, whose The Gun Seller was bought by a publisher before he knew who the author was. There are celebrities whose literary ambitions clearly come as a surprise to their business managers but are, naturally, indulged in the way that any other of their whims would be (“Rocky writes a novel” as a startled publicist put it when Sylvester Stallone ventured this way).

Then there are the celebrities who assume, rightly or wrongly, that writing a novel is, like going on Celebrity Bake Off or a TV quiz show, just something the star does, once, after which they tend to move on to easier pursuits. 

Finally, there are the people who, plainly, have always wanted to write books and for whom success in the chosen field offers a welcome springboard for achievement in another — the late Carrie Fisher, for instance, or Jane Asher who, back in the 1990s, wrote a series of dark, psychological novels that may have confounded the expectations of most of the people who bought them. Rather than sticking to cake-making or backstage scandal, Ms Asher had written about subjects she was deeply interested in.

All of which takes us back to The Thursday Murder Club and its roasting by substantial numbers of grievously affronted Twitterati. But why shouldn’t Richard Osman, who is clearly a bright bloke and can hold a pen, write a novel? And why shouldn’t Viking Penguin pay him a large sum of money for it? And why, when it emerged onto the bookshop shelves, shouldn’t the nation’s literary editors ensure that it was reviewed in their publications and the nation’s feature editors run profiles of its proud author?

Why shouldn’t Richard Osman, who is clearly a bright bloke and can hold a pen, write a novel?

Of all the complaints about Mr Osman’s debut, it was the one about the book taking up valuable review space that could otherwise have been devoted to deserving independent presses which seemed — if you will excuse the pun — pointless. 

The vast majority of people who pick up newspaper review sections do so in a spirit of mild curiosity. They are far more likely to read a review of a book by someone they have heard of and, should they do so, are then far more likely to turn to the interesting left-field stuff that sits on the final page. This is not a case of a books editor failing in his, or her, cultural duty but simply the way that journalism works.

Meanwhile, Mr Osman has nothing to apologise for. He has written quite a decent novel and sent a great deal of money sluicing around the book trade, which is more than can be said for this year’s Booker Prize.

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