Candid Portraits or Ghostwritten Fluff: The History of the Celebrity Book

Stars—they’re just like us! So of course we would want to read a book written by our favorite celebrity if they decided to publish one, right?

Even with the ones that we’ve read with winces and grimaces, the ones that have been published to mixed reviews, telling actors or media personalities to stick to what they know—we can’t help it when that star we love comes out with a book. It could be a memoir, an essay collection, a cookbook, a book of poetry, or a self-help book—it doesn’t matter. If we love the person who wrote it, chances are the bookworm probably won’t be far away.

However, sometimes we get so distracted by the stars in our eyes that we fail to realize the moments when celebrity culture clashes with reality—a reality that sometimes takes away opportunities from working authors. But first, where did this whole idea of the “celebrity book” come from?

Persons of Interest: A Brief History of Memoirs, Autobiographies, and Celebrities

Memoirs by celebrities are a hugely bankable opportunity for publishers, but that’s nothing new. The memoir dates back to as early as 58 BCE, with the publication of Roman dictator Julius Caesar’s memoirs Commentarii de Bello Gallico and Commentarii de Bello Civili. The first widely recognized Western autobiography is Confessions, a series of 13 books written in Latin by Saint Augustine of Hippo, a Roman African theologian and philosopher, between 397 and 400 CE. It then served as an influential model of the form for Christian authors throughout the Middle Ages, who followed suit with their own autobiographies in the centuries to come.

At one point or another, you may have found yourself wondering…what exactly is the difference between a memoir and an autobiography? In a nutshell, the autobiography is seen as the story of a life, whereas the memoir is considered stories from a life. From the 15th through the 18th centuries, the most popular memoirs and autobiographies were written by politicians, many of whom found significant literary success.

Until the 20th century, the most popular memoirs and autobiographies were those written by people who were already well respected in their fields and professions, such as businessmen and military leaders. A notable exception to this rule was Henry David Thoreau, who was not particularly well known in any specific fields or professions prior to the publication of his 1854 memoir Walden, which reflects upon ideas of simple living in natural surroundings. In other words, Thoreau was probably the first non-celebrity or “everyday person” to achieve fame with a memoir.

With the invention and advent of the film industry in the early 20th century, more and more people started to be considered persons of interest: actors, directors, producers, singers, dancers, and everyone in between. By the mid-20th century, with the addition of television to the mix, memoirs and autobiographies by actors and media personalities who had found success in film, television, or other forms of popular culture started to become increasingly commonplace.

Since the 1990s, there has been an increased interest and a growing market for books written by celebrities, as that decade is generally regarded as the start of the “stars are just like us” era. Tabloid gossip programs like Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood were booming. The initial popularity of Friends forged the idea that the characters that actors play onscreen are just like them in real-life, which is compelling. Before we knew it, the 21st century had hit and with it came the advent of inexpensive digital book production, and the memoir genre was among those to explode. Memoirs by everyday people were seeing newfound popularity, but it was nothing in comparison to books written by celebrities. By the 2010s, if you were a person of interest and hadn’t written down your witty coming-of-age story to accompany your success, were you even famous?

As Vogue recently put it, “At their best, celebrity memoirs provide unusually candid portraits of the ‘real person’ behind the public persona—and don’t skimp on the dirty details. At worst, they can be ghostwritten fluff.” It goes without saying that just because you are a celebrity, it does not mean you are the next Charles Dickens: memoirs and autobiographies by celebrities are obviously commissioned with the idea of profit in mind, since books written by big names will clearly sell books. Celebrities can sell books, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are always able to write them.

Some decades ago, the term “ghostwriter” was considered a dirty word that no one should dare say out loud, but today, ghostwriters don’t tend to be as secretive. “Say 10 years ago, ghostwriting definitely had a sort of dirty name, the same way as online dating had a dirty name,” Madeleine Morel, a literary agent for ghostwriters, told NPR in 2014. “So if you were a ghostwriter you’d maybe tell your best friend on pain of death never to tell anyone else ‘cause there was a slightly ignominious feature to it.” But now, Morel says those days are long gone—authors and publishers tend to be more upfront about ghostwriting and less willing to hide it. “In fact, it has become a very significant subgenre in publishing,” she says. “I mean, publishing is absolutely dependent on ghostwriters. I’ve had some authors who basically never even read their books.”

Publishers today are indeed less secretive and more upfront about ghostwriting, and it’s even evident on shelves today. The cover of Falling With Wings: A Mother’s Story—the 2018 memoir by Demi Lovato’s mother, Dianna De Le Garza—has the name of the writer who helped create the book on its cover, Vicki McIntyre, albeit in noticeably smaller print. The same goes for Lorilee Craker, who helped create Through the Storm: A Real Story of Fame and Family in a Tabloid World, the 2008 memoir by Lynne Spears, mother of Britney. Their names might be smaller and the credit they receive is slim, but at least they’re getting some credit. Twenty years ago, they would have received nothing but a paycheck and sworn to secrecy.

Today, memoirs by our favorite celebrities can be some of the warmest and funniest books you will ever read. Titles like Tina Fey’s Bossypants, Amy Poehler’s Yes Please, Anna Kendrick’s Scrappy Little Nobody, Amy Schumer’s The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo, or Mindy Kaling’s Why Not Me? are some of the most beloved books of the last decade. Yes, sometimes the authors might need the help of a professional writer to help them say what they want to say, and yes, most celebrity memoirs are crafted with the primary goal of selling books. But often times these persons of interest do have a lot of wisdom and no-nonsense advice to share with the people who’ve helped them get to where they are, their fans, so once again—how can we resist?

When Celebrity Culture and Reality Clash

As much as memoirs and autobiographies by celebrities are hugely bankable opportunities, so are cookbooks, self-help books, and literally any other kind of book that a celebrity feels like putting their name on. Depending on how large their platform is, celebrities are influential. So when a person who is followed by half the living world on Instagram decides to put out a book, it means people are going to buy it—even if what’s inside the book is questionable.

You’re telling me that you wouldn’t buy a cookbook with eye candy like this in it? You are LYING!

With a largely influential series like Queer Eye, for example, we might not even consider ourselves cooks or even be interested in becoming one, but when food and wine expert Antoni Porowski publishes a cookbook, we will probably stop and flip through it at the bookstore. Even if we have no intention of taking up cooking, Queer Eye’s empowering message that anyone can reinvent themselves sells the idea that maybe we will take up cooking—buying Antoni’s book might motivate us! It’s capitalism at its finest and we’re all guilty of it, myself included. I’d be telling a very big lie if I told you I bought Olympic diver Tom Daley’s two books of recipes and wellness tips (Tom’s Daily Plan and Tom’s Daily Goals) because I was interested in recipes and wellness tips. I bought them because I’m in love with Tom Daley and maybe some dreamy pictures of him will motivate me to start being interested in cooking and health.

Another key player in the rise of this phenomenon is Gwyneth Paltrow who, after founding her natural health company Goop in 2008, has published a series of cookbooks, all of which have been bestsellers. An Academy Award–winning actress and mother who suddenly started passing out recipes and health tips helped forge a whole new market for celebrity cookbooks and health manuals, despite the fact that they tend to be untrustworthy—an elimination diet promoted in one of Paltrow’s cookbooks was deemed wildly unsupported by medical evidence in 2015. That same year, health science expert Timothy Caulfield published the book Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?: When Celebrity Culture and Science Clash, which debunks a lot of health tips, diets, and beauty routines that celebrities claim are the answer to all of our problems when in fact a lot of them are unsupported or disproven—we just listened to them because it’s Gwyneth Paltrow.

Celebrities haven’t just dipped their toes into memoirs and cookbooks, either. Several well-known actors have tried their hands at writing full-blown novels of fiction and books of poetry over the years, such as Bob Dylan, Tom Hanks, Sean Penn, and James Franco. Some receive positive reviews—USA Today wrote that Tom Hanks’s short story collection Uncommon Type “packs a punch” and said that Hanks proves himself as a “serious scribe”—whereas books by James Franco or Sean Penn have tended to receive more mixed and critical reviews: The Washington Post called Penn’s novel of political satire Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff a “fever dream of a boomer who watches the news, cannot make sense of it, but cannot contain his fury at it anyhow,” and The Los Angeles Times wrote in their review of Franco’s Actors Anonymous that he “won’t be a good writer—or a great artist, if that’s his goal—until he learns how to edit, censor, politely decline and bite his tongue.” In conclusion, maybe we stop giving rich white men book deals just because they’re household names?

Someday Someday Maybe coverEven Lauren Graham, beloved star of Gilmore Girls and Parenthood, decided to show the world what she could do with words with her novel, Someday, Someday, Maybe, published in 2013. The Washington Post was more positive in their review, writing that Graham has “taken elements of the familiar and spun them into a novel that’s heartfelt, hilarious and, hopefully, just the first example of what she can do with the written word.” (She published a memoir three years later in 2016, Talking As Fast As I Can.) But, similar to the criticized works of white male actors who have attempted literary greatness, Someday, Someday, Maybe has a noticeably low average rating score on Goodreads—a 3.5—with the general consensus being that while most higher reviews come from diehard fans of Lauren Graham, lower reviews tend to state that Graham, like her peers who have also published fiction, should stick to what they know.

Do Celebrity Books Make It Harder for Other Books to Get Published?

Depending on who you ask, the answer is yes. British children’s book author and illustrator Chris Priestley told The Guardian in 2017 that it’s a “tricky time in publishing at the moment,” saying that he’s met a lot of writers who have had harder times getting book deals than they did a decade ago—and he thinks the popularity and dependability of celebrity books is partially to blame. “It seems as though if you’re a celebrity you can just express the idea you would like to do a book,” he said. “I still have to pitch my books.” As a children’s book author, he said it becomes an increasingly competitive market when celebrities have also published books for children, with everyone from Barack Obama to Kelly Clarkson, and publishers become less willing to invest in smaller names. CJ Daugherty, who writes thrillers for young adults, claims that celebrity books that are ghostwritten undermine readers’ trust and takes away from writers who put their blood, sweat, and tears into their work. “We can tell ourselves that readers must know a C-List celebrity, famous for opening makeup boxes on YouTube, isn’t capable of writing an 80,000-word novel,” she said. “But the whole system seems designed to fool people into thinking they are.”

As a result of the accelerated market for celebrity books over the last few decades, The Guardian found that the income of working authors has steadily declined. Some might say that these authors just have to work harder, but that’s far from the case when publishers are more interested in the celebrity’s name rather than what’s actually written. Maybe it just means that we as readers have to work harder at supporting lesser known authors who work tirelessly to get their work read and recognized, something that celebrities don’t always have to worry about. Celebrity books can be great—and they can be awful. So maybe we just have to be more mindful about which books we spend our money on so that all writers can flourish.

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