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26 October 2023

The faux-intellectualism of celebrity memoir

Publishers may have attempted to turn this once trashy genre into something more serious, but gossip prevails.

By Sarah Manavis

Few things have been as synonymous with trash as the celebrity memoir. For decades, such books have been seen as a guilty pleasure, full of hammy language, melodramatic storytelling and outrageous gossip – much of which, it was commonly accepted, was fabricated for the sake of sales. They were seen as lowest form of literature: shameless marketing tools (ghost-)written for the sole purpose of staying in the headlines, and addictive for the reader. Writing about the genre for Brooklyn Magazine in 2016, the journalist Karen Corday said of reading such books: “You’ll feel a little gross later, but you’ll sleep it off and be back for more, every time.”

But in the past few years this narrative has shifted, and the celebrity memoir has experienced a cultural renaissance. Now, rather than unequivocally being branded trash, these books are increasingly appraised as thoughtful and considered: brave in their honesty and insightful about life under the spotlight. In the past month releases have included Jada Pinkett Smith’s Worthy, Kerry Washington’s Thicker Than Water, Julia Fox’s Down the Drain and most notably Britney Spears’ The Woman in Me – all of which have been widely praised for their candid clear-sightedness about the realities of fame. Such memoirs aren’t just seen as good examples of a bad genre: instead, they are part of a revolution in celebrity memoir writing, able to carry fresh and significant intellectual weight.

This shift may in some part be down to an increase in quality. But it is also a result of pop-feminism, under which, in response to past misogyny, pop-culture personalities are treated with renewed and often blind respect. Now, memoirs with a message of empowerment are just as commercially viable, if not more so, as those that focus on gossip. (This doesn’t just apply to female celebrities either: the same effect can be observed in the response to memoirs such as Prince Harry’s Spare.)

But despite this rebrand, has the celebrity memoir truly changed? Recent releases have created an avalanche of gossip, undoubtedly boosting sales for both the books and the tabloids. And coverage has focused on the same details that would have been popular had these memoirs been published 20 years ago: primarily, anecdotes about female celebrities’ interactions with men – such as Pinkett Smith’s revelations about her marriage to Will Smith and her relationship with the rapper Tupac Shakur, and Spears’ troubling experiences with her ex-boyfriend Justin Timberlake. In between passages about emotional challenges and hard lessons learned remain the glimpses into viral moments and infamous gossip that reliably generate sales.

We should question, too, who this rebrand serves, and why such pervasive messages of empowerment are being pushed by publishing houses. With some exceptions, modern celebrity memoirs take the cushy lives of people with an abundance of wealth and resources, and spin them into sympathetic, self-flattering stories of perseverance and hardship, with tone-deaf taglines or narrative arcs. A memoir from the millionaire heiress Paris Hilton, Paris, published in March, bore the subtitle: “A true story of resilience in the face of trauma and rising above it all to success.” In a review of Pinkett Smith’s memoir headline “In, Worthy, Jada Pinkett Smith Centers Herself”, the critic Fran Hoefpner notes how every chapter is punctuated with self-aggrandisement, concluding: “Pinkett Smith ends the book hoping every reader will ‘find the golden threads to weave the inner kingdom that supports the making of your chosen life’ – a nice thought, maybe, from someone trapped inside an inner kingdom of their own.” This message of resilience is swallowed by the masses, who buy into it without thinking critically about the source.

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The rebrand has had a trickle-down effect on micro-celebrities and influencers, increasingly aware of how writing a memoir marketed as both confessional and intellectual can, regardless of quality, heighten their brand. Caroline Calloway’s Scammer, Madison Beer’s The Half of It and Emily Ratajkowski’s My Body are all recent examples of how minor internet celebrities have attempted to adjust their image into something more serious.

The benefits aren’t limited to improving the reputations (and bank balances) of the rich and famous: readers gain from this faux-intellectualism, too. While reading a memoir that may in truth be just as trashy as its Noughties predecessors –entertaining for its salacious details – readers can tell themselves they are participating in high-brow cultural moments, consuming something enlightening rather than simply gratuitous.

There are clear financial incentives for a celebrity to publish a memoir, but there is also a cost that is masked by the rehabilitation of such books. Many of these celebrities have already experienced sustained exploitation throughout their careers, and rehashing their trauma for millions of readers and a rabid press must surely take a toll. Take Spears’ The Woman in Me – widely heralded for giving Spears a voice “for the first time” – in which she criticises not only her treatment by the media in the Nineties and Noughties, but also the supposedly pro-Britney media of the past three years (such as the documentaries Framing Britney Spears and Controlling Britney Spears). Some critics have noted the limitations of a book to free her from the industry that trapped her in the first place. “The Woman in Me will be a lucrative publishing event. Yet again it will be at Spears’ expense,” wrote Esther Watson for New Statesman. “She went through unspeakable horrors twice. First, she lived them. Now they are fuel for this memoir.”

There’s nothing wrong with reading books that aren’t intellectually challenging; nor is every celebrity memoir bereft of value. But we should be wary of placing undue weight on any work created to make someone exceedingly wealthy and powerful even more so. Doing so only feeds a publishing industry in which hype and unrealistic expectations drive readers towards books whose value is grossly inflated. We can move on from the dated belief that the genre is inherently trashy without forgetting its perennial fundamental incentives.

[See also: Did celebrity ruin David Beckham?]

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