As far as literary value goes, celebrity memoirs rank somewhere between romance novels and airport thrillers--they're generally trash. And that's a tragedy considering that celebrities, love them or hate them, have bizarre and varied lives that should be perfect memoir-fodder.
During my research for pop culture trivia on Trivia Happy, I try to find secret moments in history that we haven't heard about before. I've pored through a lot of celeb tomes looking for nuggets of interest. In the process, I think I know what makes most famous memoirs so dull, stilted, and unrevealing. That's because, along the way, I've found a few celebrity memoirs that buck the trend and manage to be amazing.
1. Stop Ghost Busting. Let The Writers Free!
It's easy to bash on celebrities hiring ghostwriters, but let's be honest--you wouldn't know your way around a movie set, football field, or Congressional chamber. So why should a celebrity know their way around Microsoft Word? A good ghostwriter can give voice to a celebrity's feelings in a format they haven't perfected.
However, these ghostwriters are usually neutered. The celebrity's distinctive voice is lost and the writer fails to capture their character in words. In a way, it's the worst of both worlds, because the celebrity's magnetic personality goes unexpressed and the writer looks like a monosyllabic clod.
It doesn't have to be that way--Andre Agassi's Open is proof. Who would have thought that a tennis star's memoir would be stunningly eloquent, frequently lyrical, and intensely melancholy? At the end of the book, Agassi reveals why. After reading J.R. Moehringer's The Tender Bar, he wanted Moehringer to help him with his book. The result is fantastically adventurous for the most conventional of genres. No other celebrity memoir would start with "I open my eyes and don't know where I am or who I am."
Celebrities, let your ghost writers write! Moehringer's poetic voice gives Agassi the thoughtful and challenging memoir he deserves instead of pablum about how he played. When you finish Open, you know Andre better, and that's thanks in part to J.R. Moehringer. But don't short Agassi. He was brave enough--and wise enough--to know that a writer could find the literary sweet spot better than a tennis player. It's a lesson that other celebs should learn too.
2. Focus The Time
Barack Obama and George W. Bush have something in common--they've both penned better memoirs than Bill Clinton. Before you get out your political pitchforks, please remember that this is a literary evaluation and, quite simply, Obama and Bush both gave their memoirs a plot instead of a sprawl.
The early chapters of Clinton's My Life are honest and evocative, but then you realize that it's a 1,000 page book with a lot of chapters to go. What starts off as a homespun tale becomes a laundry list. It's not the same with Obama's Dreams of My Father or Bush's Decision Points. It would be too partisan to compare these memoirs' quality, but they both focus on specific time periods. Other memoirs would benefit from the same structure, since most lives have a rambling structure that doesn't make for a good story.
3. Look Next To The Famous Person
Let's say you want to score the next big celebrity memoir. Instead of going for the person in the center of the paparazzi picture, try going for the one next to the celeb. They know just as much dirt and, unlike the celebrity, they'll share it.
Recent books like the Robert Gates memoir show how you can get a more interesting read about a subject by focusing on someone next to the star (in this case, President Obama). I found Andrew Young's book about John Edwards, The Politician, to be incredibly candid and a true page-turner. The same goes for non-political books, too. The official Ben & Jerry's book is dull and corporate, but the memoir by CEO Fred "Chico" Lager is filled with amazing gossip and details.
Sometimes these memoirs are biased, of course. They have an agenda, like all books do, and in many cases the central figure is unfairly portrayed or denied a fair chance at rebuttal. But at least with these books you get something exciting. That makes them worth the cover price.
4. Find Someone Who Has Something To Say (And A Lot To Lose)
Derek Jeter is starting a publishing imprint. Obviously, the deal is based on star-power rather than talent (though who knows, maybe Jeter has a secret passion for Robert Caro). While the imprint may get books on shelves, what exactly does Derek Jeter have to say? He hasn't been cheated, fleeced, or wronged in his golden-boy career. While that's a great sign of his hard work and character, it doesn't make for the tension necessary in a good story.
Jeter epitomizes a celebrity memoir problem: Some celebs have nothing to say and nothing to lose. Wouldn't a Jose Canseco publishing imprint be more interesting? When he wrote Juiced, he had a mission (take control of the steroid conversation) and a lot to lose (future income and prestige). The result of that big bet is a book that--agree with the morals or not--actually makes a sports memoir vivid. Most celebrity books would benefit if they carried the same pressure.
Will celebrity memoirs follow these rules? Probably not. But consider them when making your next purchase and perhaps, eventually, the market will start producing more memoirs worth reading.
Do you have any rules to consider before spending 20 bucks on a memoir? What are they?