Friday, December 30, 2011

Top of the Blog: 2011

And so 2011 is drawing to a close, and so too is my first year in the blogosphere. What has surprised me most is the breadth of readership and the distance a blog post can travel. Though one can see changes in academe, particularly with the rise of open-access publishing, the audience I can reach here far outstrips that enjoyed by work I’ve published more 'formally'.

Here I am able to explore tentative new ideas, those musings and wonderings that will form the basis of future research topics and projects. I am also able to explore new themes, new genres and new historical periods. In particular, I have enjoyed writing about popular culture and the contemporary moment, the worlds of film and television. And it is these posts that top my 2011 ‘hit parade’, my top three (well, top four, since I have a joint-third) ‘most read’ posts of the year:

1          Holy Flying Circus

Thanks for reading and thanks for commenting -- for turning the experience of blogging into a dialogue, a conversation. I look forward to writing more posts in 2012 (and look out for my next on celebrity mini-biopic, the third in a series on celebrity memoir at Christmas). I’ll also be writing a short article on blogging, Twitter and their impact/uses in the field of Victorian Studies, so please look out for posts and tweets asking for your thoughts and experiences!

Wishing you a very prosperous 2012.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Celebrity Memoir II: Dear Fatty

Last week I blogged about the Christmas trade in celebrity memoir, and by coincidence or serendipity, last Friday’s Guardian Books podcast contained a segment on the genre. In it, Claire Armitstead interviews John Harris, a Guardian writer whose recent article in the G2 pitted ‘sleb tome against ‘sleb tome, seeking (with tongue in cheek) the ultimate celebrity memoir. Harris is asked (in a somewhat leading fashion) whether the quality of these works is responsible for their falling sales; he replies in a familiar strain: “I would like to think, having now read close to twenty of these things, that […] the penny is starting to drop with the reading public and they’re realising, by and large, what an awful, awful thing these are and therefore stepping away.’

So much for the sympathetic stance of the Guardian described in my last post. But are they really ‘awful, awful’ things? And will reading them really drive you mad (as Harris claims earlier in the podcast)? I have already suggested that the press coverage ‘enjoyed’ by celebrity memoir, with its refusal to recognise the legitimacy of the form, is steeped in literary snobbishness. But might this stance be justified? To answer these questions, I’ve had to delve beneath the (celebrity memoir) covers…

This last week I’ve been casting an eye over Dawn French’s bestselling 2008 memoir, Dear Fatty. In terms of viewing celebrity memoir as a Christmas trade -- as a cynical, money-making collusion between ‘star’ and publisher -- this title seems to fit the bill and adhere to stereotypes. In April 2007, The Sunday Times reported that a bidding war had broken out, with publishers fighting over French’s then unwritten memoir. A week later, it reported that £2 million had been paid, with Century (part of Random House) winning the battle. Dear Fatty was also a popular success, selling more than 344, 857 copies by 6 December 2008 -- something sure to raise the hackles and suspicions of the literary establishment.

I freely confess to being surprised by Dear Fatty. First of all, it demonstrates a sophisticated awareness of genre, its limits and traditions. French resists the linear, Bildungsroman plot of much autobiography, and rejects this as a label for her work: “I have decided to think of this book as a memoir rather than an autobiography” (ix). Now, “memoir” is the term most commonly applied to celebrity works -- and it is also the description I have used, for the sake of clarity. However, one suspects that memoir is often applied in a derogatory sense, suggesting an inability to reach and attain the dizzy heights of autobiographical aesthetic unity and coherence. But French embraces the fragmentary, the disruptions to chronology, the biases associated with memoir. Rather than tell her story in a logical, ordered fashion, she will focus instead “on those memories that are especially important or vivid to me. The parts of my life I can still remember the taste and feel and smell of” (ix) [1].

These stand-out moments, encounters and events are narrated, not in flowing retrospective prose, but in a series of letters to various significant others: mother, dead father, brother, niece, daughter, old boyfriends, Jennifer Saunders, Lenny Henry, etc. Each letter assumes a different audience, and thus necessitates a different performance -- a different epistolary self (to borrow a phrase from life-writing theory). Letters to the absent father, who committed suicide when French was just nineteen, strike a plaintive, melancholic note without recourse to cloying sentiment or indulgent prose. Letters to ‘Fatty’ (French’s nickname for Saunders and a playful sleight of hand undermining reader’s expectations, the common assumption that ‘Fatty’ is French herself), by contrast, adopt an intimate and confessional tone, something akin to a (jocular) therapist’s couch. Interrupting this succession of relational selves, where each addressee shapes the autobiographical subject, is the occasional comic letter, including several to Madonna (who never agreed to appear io a French and Saunders show), fan-mail to David Cassidy and the Monkees, and an application form “to become a lifelong friend and loyal admirer of Liza Tarbuck” (205). As a reader, I felt these moments jarred; they seemed contrived, a forced attempt to reintroduce French’s public, comic persona. But again, they demonstrate a controlled playing with genre: the blurring of fact and fiction, injecting moments of levity and displacing the act of self-representation. These comic set pieces enable a pause for breath before the next letter, the next addressee and the next “important or vivid” moment.

One further surprise was the understated revelation of Dear Fatty. Where press coverage of celebrity memoir had led me to expect a voyeuristic reading experience -- replete with showbiz gossip, family secrets and ‘kiss and tell’ -- I found instead a tempered reticence. As one might suspect, letters to French’s father are raw and emotive, frequently returning to the subject of his early death and long absence. But they do not dwell or revel in the details of his suicide. When French tackles the subject, about half way through the book, her account breaks down; it fractures into questions, thus rescuing her from the task of narrating the act. But while attention is diverted onto the impact and aftermath, frightening glimpses remain: “Did you weep? Did we cross your mind? […] Did you pray that someone would knock on the car window at the very last moment and drag you out?” (216). As such, the memoir exercises a restrained exposure, a delicate balancing act between private hurts, intimate experience, and the public narration of a public persona. It follows that readers hoping for a behind-closed-doors exposé of French’s marriage to Lenny Henry and his rumoured infidelities will be disappointed. She begins her letter to “Len” with a reassuring guarantee -- “Obviously there are things I can’t and won’t write about in these pages” (303) – and continues to describe, with no exact details, the time their relationship was “buffeted by a tornado” (309). The villain of the piece is the British press, those who “dump their buckets of sleaze and schadenfreude” (309), and not “Len”. No exposé, no retribution, no ‘cheat and tell’.

Contra John Harris and the G2, reading Dear Fatty did not drive me mad. I enjoyed its jumps in chronology, its collage of vivid memories and adoption of multiple voices. While it would be naïve to claim Dear Fatty as  representative of celebrity memoir as a whole, it certainly suggests the diverse range of textual practice lurking behind that now-derogatory label. And is celebrity memoir truly on the wane? While sales this year are undeniably down, I suspect they’ll be hitting our shelves with undiminished vigour next year. While there is potential to play, to challenge and experiment – evidenced by Dear Fatty, and I, Partridge in my last post – there is potential for more celebrity memoir.

[1] Dawn French [2008], Dear Fatty (London: Arrow, 2009). All further references are to this edition.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Celebrity Memoirs I: A Tale of Literary Snobbishness?

Certain news stories recur with amusing frequency, and Christmas is a ripe time for Lazarus-like reappearances. Worried by spectres of debt, each year we are warned of the dangers of overusing our credit cards. And yet, at the same time, we hear of the high street’s woes, the waning foot-fall and revenues, and the inevitable early start of the ‘January’ sales. Life-writing too has its annual cycle, and at Christmas the book-charts are seemingly overrun by celebrity memoirs.

Much-loved yet much-maligned, ‘sleb’ tomes appear on the shelves in September and October each year, eyes (and marketing campaigns) set firmly on their hoped-for destinations: in our Christmas stockings, under our Christmas trees. And yet, ever since the economic downturn hit in 2008 -- since the credit well and truly began to crunch -- news reports have announced (and celebrated) the death of celebrity life-writing. Let’s take The Times as our example…

In 2008, the paper reported that “cash-strapped consumers [were] tiring of reading about celebrity lifestyles” -- indeed, “celebrity autobiographies” were at “the weakest end” of a struggling market. A year later, and in gleeful tone, The Times confidently remarked that “the decline of celebrity memoir comes as no great surprise.” In 2010 there was a new spin on this favourite story: the runaway success of Aleksandr Orlov’s A Simples Life (yes, that’s right, the meerkat from the adverts) was the cause of much hilarity, not least because it beat new memoirs by Stephen Fry and Paul O’Grady to the top of The Sunday Times non-fiction bestseller list. But what about this year? In yesterday’s Biteback column, Richard Brooks declared that celebrity memoirs were “staying stubbornly on the bookshop shelves.” He suggested we might finally be bored with celebrity culture, bored with “reading about the banal and the bleeding obvious.”

But what story do sales figures tell? 2006 was a bumper year for celebrity memoir, in large part due to the runaway success of Peter Kay’s The Sound of Laughter (582, 446 copies sold by Christmas, and continuing to sell well in 2007). Sales peaked in 2008 when the triumvirate of Dawn French, Paul O’Grady and Julie Walters dominated the charts. Since then, sales have declined but there has been no dramatic slump comparable to the tenacious rhetoric employed by the Times. (Forecast figures in the Guardian, however, suggest there will indeed be a noticeable drop in 2011 sales).

In a recent piece for the Guardian, Richard Lea considers why celebrity memoirs might be “[losing] star power at the tills” (yes, that’s right, this recurring story is not a Times exclusive, but the Guardian takes a different tack -- more on this anon). Lea interviews Jonathan Ruppin (of Foyles Bookshop) and his comments are singularly telling. Ruppin views current bestseller I, Partridge: We Need to Talk About Alan (Steve Coogan’s fictional mock-autobiography of his best-known character, and spoof of the celebrity genre), as a death-knell, a sign that “[c]elebrity memoir is fading fast.” He also blames falling sales on “buyer-fatigue”: “There’s a limit to how many Christmasses in a row you can buy someone a celebrity autobiography without looking like you’re not really putting much effort in.”

“It’s the best book I’ve ever written and one of the best books I’ve ever read. It’s not Hilary Mantel, it’s not Simon Schama, it’s not Andrew McNab. It’s all of those, yet it’s none of them...yet all of them.” -- Alan Partridge on I, Partridge


There are two points I’d like to address: 1) I, Partridge (and mock life-writing in general) as outrider of the apocalypse for celebrity memoir, and 2) the lavish overtone of literary snobbishness that tends to colour news reporting on celebrity memoir.

Smith College Libraries
I, Partridge follows in a long and esteemed line of mock life-writing. Virginia Woolf, for example, lampooned literary traditions of biography (particularly the ‘two fat volumes’ of Victorian biography, to borrow Lytton Strachey’s phrase) in Orlando (1928), before moving on to write the life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s pet cocker spaniel in Flush (1933). Elsewhere and earlier, George and Weedon Grossmith lampooned middle-class pomposity and self-importance (‘Pooterish-ness’) in their mock-autobiographical Diary of a Nobody (serialised in Punch between 1888-9). These texts are all subversive; they play with our expectations of genre and they expose or challenge social behaviours and norms. Coogan’s text is no different, and his ‘Pooterish’ Partridge fits neatly in the tradition of the Grossmith brothers. Coogan’s text also tells us something about the formulaic structures and plotting of much celebrity memoir, just as Woolf exposed the pruderies and omissions of Victorian biographical practice. And yet, a healthy dose of satire has never killed off a genre. Rather, it reinvigorates and reinvents.

Pooter paints the bath
Diary of a Nobody 
Orlando, Flush, and Diary of a Nobody. All three enjoy canonical status; they are welcomed with open arms by literary and academic audiences and they are blessed with scholarly editions on publishers’ lists. But I, Partridge, though enjoying popular success, has been met with critical suspicion. This treatment is representative of general trends, in which celebrity memoirs -- in an age too close to enjoy the benefits of hindsight -- are widely ridiculed and derided. What lies behind Richard Brooks’ conflation of celebrity memoir with the “banal and bleeding obvious” (above)? What sentiment informs Erica Wagner’s belief that a “silver lining” of the recession has been the declining sales of “volumes [and yes, he is talking about celebrity memoirs] that some would barely classify as ‘books’.” And why, might we ask, is the apparent decline in “serious biography” blamed on the rise of “vapid celebrity memoirs […] flooding the market”? These reports, reviews and headlines (and again, these examples have been taken from The Times and Sunday Times) are awash with snobbery.

Celebrity memoirs are bad; they are not literature. This has become a critical truism. But more sensitive portrayals do exist. In his piece for the Guardian, Richard Lea balances the view of Jonathan Ruppin with soundbites taken from an interview with Alan Samson (from Weidenfield & Nicolson publishers). Rather than duplicate the dominant rhetoric of a race to the bottom in terms of gossip and vulgar revelation, Samson argues that increasing numbers of celebrity memoirs have produced a comparable rise in quality: “A really good celebrity book today is much better than it used to be -- better written, better structured and much more honest. Showbiz memoirs used to be just a bunch of anecdotes strung together which gave nothing away, but now they really tell the story of a life.” In a saturated market, it seems, your book has to be good to stand out. Mark Lawson has also been sympathetic in his view of the genre. Again, writing in the Guardian, he applauds the rise in “gently confessional”, self-penned celebrity memoirs. These too have produced a rise in quality: they “[contain] more essence of the person than the soulless airline-magazine tones that ghostwriters tend to apply to the tapes they transcribe.”

Inspired by these glimmers of hope, I determined to go out in search of celebrity memoirs, to read them for myself and to judge them for myself. The fact I have never read any in the past suggests my complicity with the snobbishness on display in the newspaper articles above. And yes, when faced with the rows of memoirs in an Oxfam bookshop, there were certain titles I could not bring myself to buy -- these included books by Chris Moyles and Katie Price. But I managed to choose three titles: Stephen Fry’s The Fry Chronicles, Dawn French’s Dear Fatty and Rupert Everett’s Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins.

Of the three, Dear Fatty has caught my attention and interest. But will my reaction be derision (in the style of The Times), sympathy (in the style of the Guardian) or (gasp!) could it be praise? Dear reader, you’ll just have to wait and see (until my next blog post that is...).

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Objects and Material Things II: Souvenirs and Collecting

Last week I blogged about two very different life-narratives emerging from two very similar items: Victorian decoupage screens -- one created by a man, Charles Dickens, and the other created by a woman, Jane Welsh Carlyle.

In turn, this was cited by Charlotte Mathieson, an early-career researcher at the University of Warwick, in a post exploring literary tourism in the run up to Dickens’s bicentenary in 2012. Mathieson argues for a similar process of storytelling at work in human interactions with place/space. In the case of Dickensian tourism, “[London] is experienced like a material object”: its streets and buildings seem to offer “a physical manifestation” of Dickens’s life and work. Thus, in engaging with the city, the Dickensian tourist seeks an “authentic connection” to author and text. Mathieson is rightly sceptical and she warns against simplistic readings that conflate “real and represented places/spaces”.

Nonetheless, the phenomenon is intriguing and Mathieson’s discussion of tourism puts me in mind of one further category of material object: the souvenir.

The author at Haworth, complete with souvenir tea-towel
Source: Photograph author's own
Souvenirs often depend on life-narratives for their resonance and meaning(s). In turn, their collection and arrangement can produce life-narratives of their own (a form of self-curation on the part of the collector). The rather embarrassing Brontë tea-towel I am clutching in this photo, complete with Haworth parsonage in the background (with modern extension cut out of shot), will serve as an example.

Why did I buy that tea-towel? Putting aside any claims I might make to ironic purchasing -- to a self-conscious seeking out of tacky/kitsch items -- my selection of the tea-towel was first and foremost the result of my interest in the life and works of the Brontë sisters. But you’ll not be surprised to hear that little can be gleaned on either count from the tea-towel itself -- I was already aware of the sisters’ names and the places they inhabited, and the tea-towel told me nothing at all of their works! But I purchased it anyway, and it seems to me the only reason I did so was to take a piece of Haworth away with me: a physical reminder; proof (if proof were ever needed) of my visit and of my own presence in the spaces previously inhabited/experienced by the Brontës.

It is particularly apt, in the light of Mathieson’s post on Dickensian tourism, that the tea-towel is primarily concerned with place. And one can safely assume that the manufacturer is targeting an audience who has visited these places (on some form of Brontë pilgrimage). As souvenir, therefore, it seeks to preserve that interaction with place/space described by Matheison; it becomes the material trace or remnant of that hoped-for “authentic connection” with text and author.

Some souvenirs from the author's collection
Source: Photograph author's own
But surely the tea-towel also says something about me? (And I would ask you to be kind…) Again, you’ll not be surprised to hear that I own several other items of a ‘literary-touristical’ persuasion. I have a mug from Sissinghurst Castle, home of Vita Sackville-West; I have pencils and pens from several writers’ homes now in the possession of the National Trust; I even have a Virginia Woolf fridge magnet.

It’s quite a collection, and one that continues to swell. In their accumulation and combination these objects cease to tell stories about their subject alone, and begin to tell stories about me. In her work on collecting, Susan Pearce views souvenirs as part of “our attempt to make sense of our personal histories”: their collection is thus representative of our efforts “to create an essential personal and social self” [1]. Souvenirs, therefore, are aids to self-fashioning. Tea-towel, mug, pencil, pens and fridge magnet all serve to ‘narrate’ my interest in nineteenth and twentieth-century literature; they help to construct and reinforce my sense of self as a literary critic and book lover.

But, to end with a question, is the self of my souvenir collection any more or less authentic than the engagement with author and text promised by literary tourism, by walking the streets of modern-day London in the footsteps of Dickens and his characters?

[1] Susan M. Pearce, ‘Collecting reconsidered’, in Interpreting Objects and Collections, ed. by Susan M. Pearce (London: Routledge, 1994), pp. 193-204 (p. 196).