We've reached peak celebrity memoir
If we're all the main character and anyone can be famous, maybe we need to decide whose stories are worth telling.
“It was going to be a memoir at first,” revealed actress Julia Fox on the Vanity Fair Oscars party red carpet, “but now it’s just like, my first book.” It has become routine practice for any celebrity enjoying their moment in the sun to announce a book about their life. Whether it be a memoir, a how-to guide or simply a ‘first book’, it’s never been easier for celebrities to market their life experiences as a series of interwoven yarns worthy of the world’s attention – but if anyone can be famous, whose stories are actually worth telling?
A memoir is traditionally a book of personal memories and experiences written by someone who has had (in most cases) an extraordinary life. Tara Westover’s Educated, for example, documents her escape from a survivalist Mormon upbringing; Selma Blair’s upcoming memoir Mean Baby tackles her experiences of alcoholism and multiple sclerosis. Memoirs written by famous or fascinating people have always existed, but the form has been stretched to capacity to make space for a new wave of arguably less laudable subjects. Beyond having achieved viral or fleeting success, this new onslaught of memoirists is harder to describe as extraordinary. TikTok star Avani Gregg’s My Backstory and Love Island 2017’s Chris Hughes’, You Bantering Me? offer just a few examples of this shift. As Emma Chamberlain puts it in her podcast Anything Goes, predicting a change in what it means to be a celebrity, “if there’s too much of anything the power gets diluted”.
Memoir culture – the pervasive ‘minor success to book deal’ pipeline that has the publishing industry in a chokehold by dominating non-fiction sales – encourages every famous person to think that their life story is worthy of publication. This has come to include people who are not that different from the rest of us – their success is often accidental, its longevity questionable, and the insight they offer as a result, arguably limited. Everyone has 15 minutes of fame in them, but most of us don’t have enough material for a life-themed limerick let alone an entire book.
Celebrity memoirs are everywhere we turn, many of them hidden in the sub-genre of ‘self-help’, where Real Housewives offer their ‘entrepreneurial manifestos’, TV presenters teach us the art of gratitude and ex-Footballers like Peter Crouch lift the lid on why ‘a load of millionaires never have any shower gel’. Meanwhile, 23-year-old Molly-Mae Hague has borrowed her book’s title from Michelle Obama to bring us Becoming Molly-Mae. The enterprising Love Island finalist and PrettyLittleThing creative director breaks down how she ‘held down a job at Boots’ during fashion school, for just £18 – so at least it promises sharp commentary on class mobility.
Many of these books clutch at straws to justify 200+ pages in print. I’ve seen countless ‘teasers’ on celebrities’ Instagram stories where a great deal of the pages are filled with giant motivational quotes in various fonts, family photo albums, or better still, are left blank for the reader to fill in. In part, it’s our fault. Our collective interest in famous lives will always grant them power over us – nosiness prevails after all. But you no longer need to read OK! when you’re getting your roots done to find out which couples are on the rocks – you can do so by checking their followers. As we access famous lives in a different way, their Instagram stories shuffled in with our own, they begin to feel increasingly like people we already know and less like people we need to buy books from.
While they can count on our intrigue, celebrities and their publishers are increasingly overestimating its depth. Not only that, but it’s never been easier to work the algorithm with a Euphoria make-up tutorial or a little dance to a Louis Theroux soundbite, and automatically enter the fold as a new wave celebrity. Their job is then to convince the rest of us that they’ve earnt their stripes; that they are better looking and harder working than we are, and that their advice is more refined. But a memoir is not a rite of passage – it’s not like learning to ride a bike or getting cystitis. Louis Wise examined this subject for The Guardian, writing that ‘there are so many stars […] that the celebrity universe really does look like a large black blanket of sky, filled with thousands of similarly sized flickering dots’. Now imagine that every one of those dots has a book deal; suddenly we’re living under a sky of infinite boring stories – enough to put anyone to sleep.
It’s plausible to chalk the ubiquity of memoirs up to the success of the genre heavyweights. Dolly Alderton’s Everything I Know About Love is an example of a memoir written by someone who was not particularly well-known when it was published, which went on to achieve international success, with a BBC TV adaptation out this month. It marries humour and relatability in ways few have been able to emulate, but this book is the exception not the rule. Not everyone can use getting rejected from Bristol University as fuel for a chapter on an untapped inferiority complex.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, mainstream celebrities who used to represent mystery and allure are now desperate to appear relatable. It feels as though with every new social media platform, there are fewer and fewer elusive celebrities. If they’re not giving house tours and exposing their hands-off parenting styles themselves, a younger relative is likely doing it for them. Besides defiant royal family members and former world leaders, it feels like there is little to discover in a memoir that can’t be done from the convenience of a 30-minute Wikipedia rabbit hole.
Elizabeth A. Harries explains in The New York Times that ‘an author’s following has become a standard part of the equation when publishers are deciding whether to acquire a book’. But even global superstars do not automatically double as gifted or insightful memoirists (or at least their ghostwriters don’t). Most of us aren’t gasping to read about Justin Timberlake’s ‘early love of music’ or Billie Eilish’s musings on her childhood, given that she is still too young to drink. The sales of both these books were surprisingly disappointing and prove first-hand that we can’t continue to use fame as a metric for being a great storyteller.
Whether you are a musician, actor, comedian, TV presenter, YouTuber, a victim of viral success, or one of the wittier cast members of Gogglebox – a book deal has become part and parcel of a famous life. But when the doors into these lives are largely left open, we no longer need drawn-out first-person insights into what happens behind them. As the nature of celebrity and the way we engage with it changes, so too does the relevancy of their memoirs. If regular people leading regular lives continue to saturate the market, it will lose its appeal altogether.