December 5, 2011

Steve Coogan, “harbinger of doom” to the celebrity memoir


Steve Coogan as Alan Partridge, "harbinger of doom"

Celebrity memoirs have long been one of the driving factors in a successful holiday season for British booksellers. Also known as the “arts autobiography” (the closest Nielsen Bookscan category), a Guardian report by Richard Lea notes that it’s a genre with a surprisingly long history:

For Weidenfeld and Nicholson’s Alan Samson, who has published memoirs from stars such as Julie Walters, Helen Mirren and Keith Richards, the phenomenon goes back to the breathless reporting from the trials of Highwaymen in the 18th century.

“We’ve always had celebrity biography,” he says, “but what we haven’t had is this deluge”. He traces the modern rise of the genre back to 1999 and Geri Halliwell‘s “extremely well put together” memoir, If Only, and reckons the boom was fuelled by the sheer number of celebrities created since the launch of Channel 4 in 1982 and the proliferation of media outlets that followed. “When I was a young editor starting out, there weren’t 50 celebrities in the country,” he says.

Meanwhile, this year’s crop is as large as ever, including books from or about British singers, comedians, movie and TV stars such as Joanna Lumley, Miranda Hart, James Corden Jane Lynch, Dannii Minogue and Sue Johnston. 

However sales are plunging from previous years, down by an estimated 60 percent from last year, which was down considerably from the year before that … leading some, such as bookseller Jonathan Ruppin of Foyles, to say the form is “a fad which is fading fast,” and to observe that the “the significant celebrity book this year” — the form’s “harbinger of doom” — is a spoof of the form, Steve Coogan‘s I, Partridge: We Need to Talk About Alan.

The critics seem to agree. In a Guardian review, after running through the roster of celebrity bios out this year, Edmund Gordon turns to I, Partridge, saying, “It is a great relief to turn from these pages to the memoir of a fictional celebrity, whose shallowness and egotism are all part of the joke. I, Partridge ... delightedly skewers the conventions of the form. Here are the difficult beginnings, the steady rise towards showbiz success and the whistle-stop tour of career highlights, complete with sentimentality (‘we stood at the window, me and my son … I looked up at the starry night’), score-settling (‘Phil Wiley … In all honesty? I don’t give the guy a second thought’), clumsy attempts to appear plugged-in (‘I’m a firm friend of Dale Winton … one of the gayest men in Europe’) and cut-price wisdom (‘Wikipedia has made university education all but pointless’).”

To add a meta level to all this, and for Americans unfamiliar with Coogan’s alter-ego, here’s a clip of Alan Partridge guesting on a radio show talking about an earlier memoir he’d written:

It should also be noted that celebrity memoir is not the only form of publishing bloviation Coogan has gone after recently. Check out his appearance on the BBC’s great news show Newsnight, in which he goes after one of Rubert Murdoch‘s News of the World henchmen:

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.