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11 December 2000

Don’t give up the day job, Britney

Once, writing was a vocation. Now it is just something that multi-talented celebrities fit into thei

By Philip Kerr

Writing a novel is an act of egotistical self-assertion. When I was 18, I remember thinking that writing one might make me seem more interesting, appear more clever, and that a girl might recognise this and want to sleep with me. It was never about money. Still isn’t. A novel should be something that irritates you and won’t let go until you’ve written it.

When Samuel Johnson wrote that “no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money”, he meant only that money was a writer’s proper reward, not that money should be a writer’s principal motivation. So I wonder what Johnson might have said upon hearing the news that Random House in New York has paid an 18-year-old girl $1m to write two novels, despite her never having written a novel before. Probably something along the lines of what he said about a woman preaching, when he compared it to a dog walking on its hind legs: “It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

All the same, who is to say that Random House is wrong? I wrote a novel when I was 18. It was rubbish – as were a good many others after that. But here, the 18-year-old in question just happens to be the pop idol Britney Spears, who has already sold 27 million albums across the world (including at least one to Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister’s press secretary) and, along the way, amassed a $15m fortune.

With a little help from her mother, Lynne (or so we are told), Britney has even found time to write her autobiography. On her smart-as-paint website, the book, entitled Heart to Heart ($17.95), appears under the general heading of “paper goods and collectables”; in it, Britney and Lynne talk about life, love, fame and the importance of following your dreams. I especially liked the bit where Britney asked her mom if there are any cows in New York – it’s the kind of insight that should serve her well when she stops playing with her belly button and sits still long enough to write the novel.

But here is how one of Britney’s fans describes Heart to Heart on Amazon’s website. This five-star review is worth quoting at length, if only to understand the mentality of today’s younger readers: “Heart to Heart will touch the titular red beating thing in just about everyone’s chest who reads this book. Britney and her mom have really put together a fantastic book. (They really love each other!) Sure, it’s no Death on the Installment Plan, but it’s still probably the best book I’ve read in the past ten years. It’s all about Britney’s tough road to stardom, her days with the new Mickey Mouse Club, her family, growing up Britney, and . . . well, just about everything . . . Heart to Heart has just about everything a true Britney Spears fan would ever want to read. Read this book, put on Britney’s music, and don’t read anything else for a long time. (Trust me, you won’t want to ruin a great reading experience like this one by reading anything else. At least not for a while.)”

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The best book in the past ten years? Surely they can’t have read the latest David Beckham. And then there is that last, horrific exhortation. “Don’t read anything else for a long time.”

I confess that I have read that quote again and again, because I believe it gives me an insight into the brave new world of modern publishing – and a terrible premonition that we’ll have many more books like Heart to Heart and the great American novel that Miss Spears has yet to write.

No doubt Random House is hoping that the “red beating things” of all the people who enjoyed Heart to Heart – 150,000 copies were sold in the US alone – will also be touched by this latest celebrity novel. Because Britney, who attributes her “wonderful success to her family and her faith in God”, joins a growing list of other celebrities writing and, more importantly, publishing novels.

A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed the comedy actor Steve Martin’s stillborn contribution to American literature, which followed hot on the heels of novels from Sean Hughes, David Baddiel, Michael Palin, Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, Jenny Eclair, Alan Titchmarsh and, we must not forget, Naomi Campbell, who achieved a certain oxymoronic distinction in not even reading the novel wot she wrote. And I’ve just learnt that Tracey Emin is to give up erecting tents and leaving her bed unmade to become a writer. So I fear that, before long, we may have novels from Geri Halliwell, Charlotte Church, Charlie Dimmock and Jarvis Cocker.

But what is a writer? Johnson would doubtless have been able to define one more elegantly than I do when I say that a writer is someone whose primary vocation is writing – and nothing else. Writers write because they feel compelled to, not because their business agents suggest it. True, T S Eliot worked in a bank, but I doubt that even Eddie George would describe banking as a vocation. Writers are defined by writing, which is something they do pretty much all the time.

But these days, the novelist whose hand you shake at the Hay-on-Wye festival of literature is more likely to be a resting actor, a clapped-out comedian or a pop star filling in time at the Priory Clinic. Novels are just something else that these multi- talented, busy people do when they are not really working.

The truth is that publishers, always in search of an easy life, are becoming less interested in publishing books by unknown authors – and rather more interested in climbing aboard the neon-lit bandwagon of someone’s famous name. At the risk of sounding like Gordon Brown, I think that publishers can be accused of short-termism. The idea of nurturing new writing talent seems to have gone out of publishers’ shiny new windows. Soon the only people “writing” books may be those already famous for doing something else. Most frightening of all is the thought that novels by Britney Spears and autobiographies by David Beckham may soon be the only kinds of book that people actually want to buy.

In her recent book Stet, Diana Athill, a former editor with Andre Deutsch, wrote that in this commercial day and age “a friendship between a publisher and a writer is . . . well, not impossible, but rare”.

I think it is rather more serious than that. Unless things change for the better, real writers may soon be reduced to writing the books of Britney, Becks and other new celebrity writers.