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Celebrity books: Portents of the end, or business as usual?

September 30, 2010

Snooki: What a writer looks like at the Jersey shore.

A creature known as “Snooki,” who, though bereft of beauty, talent or one iota of charisma is nonetheless a TV star, is reportedly writing a novel. This only a few months after she announced via Tweet that she was reading her first-ever book. Can you work up the energy to be shocked?

Neither can I. Sure, it chaps me to know that Snooki, apparently star of a scientific documentary series known as The Jersey Shore, which I’m told is an anthropological look at a tribe of evolutionary dead ends, has a contract with Simon & Schuster’s Gallery Press Imprint.

This will be a book created in the very heart of cynicism — not a book but a widget, with no reason for being other than the hope of cashing in on an ephemeral pop-culture phenomenon. Meanwhile, very good writers, devoted to their calling, can hardly find publishers at all.

Last night, for example, I had dinner with an old friend, Pat MacEnulty, visiting from Charlotte, N.C. on a self-financed mini-book tour.

Pat is the hard-working author of several excellent but under-published upper-middle-brow novels. By “upper-middle-brow” I mean novels that take the literary craft seriously but which are still accessible, entertaining and moving.

Pat writes about real-world stuff, too, with eyes wide open. Her debut, Sweet Fire, is a novel of crime, heroin addiction and prostitution, easily on par with Trainspotting, The Basketball Diaries or Drugstore Cowboy, and only a little below Junkie or Jesus’ Son.

...And in the rest of the world: Pat MacEnulty

Her second book, The Language of Sharks, collects precisely observed short stories on similar themes (misbegotten Southern childhood, the near impossibility of redemption). Her most recent, Picara, is a coming-of-age novel set amid the protest culture of the late ’60s — one part To Kill a Mockingbird, one part Steal This Book.

Despite the consistent excellence and readability of Pat’s work, she can’t get New York to give her the time of day. An agent recently judged Picara as “too slow.” I guess he’s not familiar with Mockingbird, or A Separate Peace, or Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, or most any coming-of-age novel worth the reading–very few of them are what you’d call fast-paced.

So instead of the big-time publication she deserves, Pat has been grateful for the attention of independents like Serpent’s Tale, the Livingston Press, or the small feminist press (called, er, The Feminist Press), that will bring out her memoir next Spring. By the way, if you’re in Miami Friday night, Pat will be reading at Books & Books in Coral Gables at 8 p.m., in case you want to judge for yourself whether I’m right or not.

And yet, none of this is Snooki’s fault. Nor the fault of such celebrity “writers” as Nicole Richie, Justin Beiber, Paris Hilton, Lauren Conrad, Sanjaya Malakar, or the Kardashian mutants–all of whom are nicely mocked in this HuffPo slide show.

On the contrary, celebrity books have always been part of the publishing economy.

A real book.

Two of the top-10 bestselling nonfiction books of 1960 were by Pat Boone and Jack Paar, a singer and a talk-show host. John Lennon scored a bestseller in 1964, Johnny Carson in 1965, Phyllis Diller in 1966, David Niven in 1975 — we could go backward or forward in time and find the same thing.

Yes, in some ways it’s deplorable that Snooki is “writing a novel” — but is it worse than Billy Dee Williams, or Gene Hackman, or Marlon Brando, Johnny Cash, Wes Craven, and the newly departed Tony Curtis? These are but a few of the show biz figures who “wrote” fiction.

It can’t be stopped, so I say: Sit back and enjoy it. And by enjoy it I mean under no circumstances read (or should that be “read”?) these celebrity books, but instead hope they’ll contribute so much to the big-time publishers’ bottom line that some money will be left over to bring out real books by real authors like my friend Pat.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. September 30, 2010 4:17 pm

    I am really hoping to pick up some tips from Snooki’s book. Thanks, Chauncey. xo

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 30, 2010 8:47 pm

      I think if tanning is your interest, it will be the book for you.

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        September 30, 2010 11:03 pm

        Besides, why let perfectly good dinner conversation go to waste when I can get a blog out of it?!?

  2. rachel permalink
    October 1, 2010 11:40 am

    I wouldn’t call “Picara” slow at all. Even having read MacEnulty and enjoyed the work, I was hesitant to read “Picara.” This is mainly because I am judgmental and judged the book by the cover, and for some reason I just really don’t like that cover. I do not like the photo and I do not like the font. I also said to myself, “Picara? Really, what kind of title is that?” And then of course, I finally read it. And really, really, really liked it. I still don’t like the cover. I don’t like the picture, the girl isn’t right at all. And I still don’t like the font. But I did come to an “ah-ha!” moment with the title that made it work for me.

    MacEnulty and other writers like her definitely deserve more attention from both publishers and readers. I’ll be at Booksandbooks tonight to do my part. And I’m looking forward to it!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 1, 2010 1:35 pm

      I don’t love the cover, either, though I was always fine with the title — which, once you know what it means is perfect. But the cover photo shows a sad-sack contemporary looking teenager, whereas the story is about a feisty, angry, grieving girl of the late ’60s, early ’70s. But as you found, the story is so good the misguided cover ceases to matter.

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