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MFA Cookie Cutters and Celebrity Pie

This week, I am grateful to frequent DGLM blog commenter Wanda B. Ontheshelves, who wondered if I might comment on Laura Miller’s essay in Salon on MFA programs and the debates they inspire.  As it happens, I’m all for MFA programs. Are they the only route toward publishing literary fiction? No. Are they useful? You bet. Like Miller, I’ll support anything that supports writers, and MFA programs surely do this. Not only do they allow aspiring writers time and space to work, the faculty positions keep many a published author financially afloat.

In any case, the alleged problem of “cookie cutter fiction” issuing forth from MFA programs strikes me as less lamentable than the ever-growing tide of celebrity books.  Last week I happened to catch WNYC’s Leonard Lopate interviewing actor Rob Lowe about his recently published memoir, Stories I Only Tell My Friends.  With apologies to fans of The West Wing and St. Elmo’s Fire, I was underwhelmed.  Maybe it was the traffic, but just for a moment, I wanted to beat my head–ever so gently–against the steering wheel. Not so much because Rob Lowe is so especially abhorrent. His tone was self-congratulatory, but affably so. And in fairness I must add that not only have I not read his book, the reviews I’ve seen have been positive, even glowing. All take pains to note that Lowe penned the book himself, without help. Indeed, the degree to which Lopate and assorted others have marveled at his not working with a ghost-writer was just a teensy bit insulting.

So what’s my problem? Celebrity authors are nothing new (here’s Lauren’s take, a few months back) and as far as publishing houses are concerned, finding an author who has a name is certainly easier and less of a gamble than making one, but I feel like the VIP Lounge here in bookworld grows increasingly and uncomfortably crowded. As all of you will have surely noted, the film and television stars of decades past have gone onto second careers as authors, and if there is something somewhat cookie cutter-ish about their stories of transgression/redemption, the price of fame and the struggle for authenticity, it’s not because they enrolled in MFA programs.

What do you think? Am I just being cranky? Or does it seem to you that the celebrity driven nonfiction is an ever-growing slice of the publishing pie?

I wonder if this is actually true. Perhaps this week I’ll try and find out and report back.

11 Responses to MFA Cookie Cutters and Celebrity Pie

  1. Joelle says:

    Well…I haven’t read a lot of books by celebrities. The only recent one I can think of is Steve Martin’s latest novel. I can’t really comment on the cookie cutterish aspect of what’s being published, but I do think that while celebrities can certainly use their popularity to bypass what the rest of us have to go through (query, find an agent, submissions, little or no publicity budget, etc.) I always try to give celebrity authors the benefit of the doubt. And here’s why.

    Acting and writing go hand in hand. I have a degree in theatre arts and additional training in improvisation. I even worked professionally for a while as an actor. When you read writer’s bios, this is very common. Many, many writers start out as actors and then switch to writing novels, screenplays, nonfiction humour, etc. Especially YA authors, for some reason.

    To be a celebrity, you don’t have to be a good actor, but if you are a good actor, it seems fairly reasonable to me that you might be a good writer. All the things I studied for my theater degree prepared me for writing. Analyzing story, creating character, dialogue, low pay :-)….

    Also, what people neglect to factor in, is that most, certainly not all, celebrities have paid “artistic dues” sometime along the way. It’s not any easier, and perhaps harder, to get an acting agent, land film roles, and work in that business. Maybe I’m a Pollyanna, but really, I try to keep that in mind when another actor slides in and gets a big book deal. They’ve put in their time. And just to be even more annoyingly positive, I also try to remember that when a celebrity sells a zillion books, the publisher is able to buy a few debuts from writers just starting out.

  2. Stephen says:

    I’ve never read a celebrity memoir, so perhaps I don’t have standing to opine on the matter. In fact, my only exposure to these titles came from my former agent, who dealt almost exclusively in the genre (a primary reason for our very amicable break up) and was quite good at it. Routinely, he’d secure six figure plus for selling one. So my assumption is, publishing houses believe them to be profitable, and money coming into a house means more risk for other genres and ‘smaller’ titles. I think. I’d love to see numbers on this.

    However, it does seem now that what qualifies as ‘celebrity’ has become an ever-expanding spectrum. Recently (2009), a memoir was published by an AMERICAN GLADIATOR pro. I’m sure it’s a great, redemptive read, but…really? I mean, that pro hadn’t been on TV since I was getting sent to my room for not eating my vegetables. But people ate it up. The book, that is. Not the vegetables.

  3. Catherine Whitney says:

    Yes, I think you’re just being cranky. Not every “celebrity” book is a great book. Indeed, not every novel or “serious” non-fiction book is great. But like all other books, celebrity tomes have the chance to touch a chord with a wide readership. The market ultimately decides. It’s not for us to judge who should or should not write a book.

  4. EEV says:

    Gosh. I agree with Stephen (and I also read Stephen King’s On Writing). Also, not being American, but reading a lot of American books, I don’t get what’s the big fuss around celebrities. If they don’t have anything instructive or entertaining, I won’t read their books. Period. How can they sell so much? I get that people want to read about dirty secrets, but everything goes on gossip websites and magazines nowadays. If I’d read a book about a Celebrity, it would have to be someone I look up to, someone who made some kind of change in the world, not a Snooky. They would have to at least make an effort, like Hillary Duff did.
    And by the way, I don’t understand what’s the big deal about ghost writers. It’s a job like any other.
    - EEV

  5. Maybe I’m just being cranky, but I think we need a third choice here: isn’t it possible to be sick of the MFA product in the marketplace and memoirs by moldy old celebrities? I used to read a lot of fiction by MFA graduates. The books were touted as important, real, authentic and a bunch of other fun words the reviewers pulled out of their, uh, thesauri—yeah, let’s go with that.

    The Emperor’s Children finally did it for me. I bought the book based on the reviews and when I tried reading it, I wanted to stab my eyes out. I couldn’t believe I’d paid fourteen bucks for drivel about a bunch of overeducated spoiled brats who can’t find happiness or meaning in anything. Only someone who had spent way too much time in graduate school could concoct something like that and think it was interesting. ::Gag::

  6. Kurt Hartwig says:

    Recently, Anne Allen blogged about e-books as “the new query letter.”

    http://annerallen.blogspot.com/2011/05/is-e-book-new-query.html

    And I look at the author and aspiring-published-writer blogs and see the number of followers they have, the amount of comments they regularly generate, and I think that publishers must look at this, to greater and lesser degrees. Agents will still read the book – is this good? can I sell this? But the publisher will ask, will people buy this?

    Celebrities have a built-in audience to some degree. A lot of people like Rob Lowe and he’s got great name recognition. More people will buy his book than will read it (that’s probably true of every book?), but the publisher probably doesn’t care _too_ much if the book is read or not, just so’s it’s been purchased.

    Amanda Hocking was turned down time and again by agents until she became a self-made success. I don’t think it’s terribly different with celebrities. There’s a reason why it’s the publishing _industry_, right?

  7. Lisa Marie says:

    My writers’ meeting is held at a local bookstore, so I make it a point to peruse the new releases. I’m astounded at the sheer volume of celebrity memoirs available. I don’t want to name names, but a lot of these were written by celebs who were popular yonks ago — as in, I had to Google them on my iPhone. As others have mentioned, I can only assume there’s a built-in audience for these books. I personally don’t read them. ☺

    I have mixed feelings about MFA programs, having had some experience with this. These programs are a poor match for any writer who aspires to write genre fiction, and I figured that out very soon. I appreciate the opportunity to study with such wonderful authors. But I also cultivated some bad habits that are glaringly inappropriate when translated into genre fiction, namely weak plotting. Attending workshops held by RWA authors has set me on the right path.

  8. Teri Carter says:

    I’m so overwhelmed by all the celebrity memoirs. I keep thinking, “who cares?” But then, of course, they must be selling because they’re coming out of all corners. I also thought it was funny that reviewers went on and on that Rob Lowe didn’t use a ghost writer, that he wrote his memoir All By Himself. Just crazy.

    I would like to know who’s buying these celeb memoirs … in hardback, no less.

  9. I hate draggling in here at (what feels like) the last possible moment…oh well…

    Re: Whole passage ending in “…it’s not because they enrolled in MFA programs.” So funny, so true.

    Re: “Cranky” lit agents and celebrity authors – I picture swarms of cranky fashion designers, jewelers, perfumers, restaurateurs, nut-ateurs (Roseanne Barr as macadamia nut farmer) – all with the same complaint – celebrity driven [fill in the blank] is an ever-growing slice of [fill in the blank] pie.

    And the commonality is, whenever a celebrity gets a hold of something, it stops being whatever it is (a book, a jewelry line), and turns into something else, something wonderfully desirably amorphous – more platform. They say fame is addicting, perhaps “platform” is addicting too.

    Or to put it another way – I’ve got this can of stuff. It’s labeled: “GREAT STUFF #1 Selling Foam Sealant in the World.” I can imagine a similar product – call it PlatFoam – and whatever you spray with it, it turns into platform! Of course, the only people who can afford this career-enhancing foam-in-a-can are celebrities – Steven Tyler, Rob Lowe, J.Lo, etc.

    Perhaps such humor is no consolation to those watching their chosen field of endeavor getting PlatFoamed – or those of use who can only afford GREAT STUFF from the hardware store. Still, it can be fun to wonder what’s next: Robert Redford Solar Panels? Sarah Palin Organic Salmon (I picture presidential un-contender Palin buying up PlatFoam by the case).

    Re: MFA programs…still so sorry and sad about David Foster Wallace’s tragic end…I mean, he was the star-child of Pomona College – that’s the ridiculous phrase that pops into mind – I can’t help wondering if maybe he needed to be someplace else, other than academia – and that someplace else might have saved his life…I have a hard time reconciling the romantic (?) image of expatriates in Parisian cafes…and then, now, how hard it can be for writers to make a community that doesn’t center on “the workshop” – I mean, how do you talk about writing/reading/creativity, separate from “critiquing” each other’s work? Without a nerve center of people teaching, and getting those steady paychecks and benefits and the TIAA-CREF retirement thing-y (obviously I don’t have it!) Just seems like the path of least resistance is to pay to attend a workshop, than it is to meet for free, creativity within friendship…truly weird…maybe it’s a Detroit thing…

  10. ChemicalLove says:

    great stuff but you missed a couple (minor) spellin mistakes near the end lol and my comment from earlier hasn’t shown but hey…..

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