Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Celebrity Author Thing

It's been a while since I've had anything to say about celebrity authors. Six years, in fact. And more. I have an outsider's attitude toward the subject, meaning that I don't have the same attitude as some of my blogging buddies. I really can't rouse a lot of ire on the subject.

I'm only thinking about this at all today because Ms. Yingling brought it up in relation to My Teacher and Me by Al Yankovic. Ms. Y. notes some of the on-line feeling "against celebrity authors," but, she says, "this is WEIRD AL. I liked When I Grow Up, and am really, really looking forward to reading this new book."

I'm not on Ms. Yingling's level as far as Yankovic love goes, but I have enjoyed and appreciated his work from time to time over the years. I recognize that he has worked and has maintained a career over a long period of time. Isn't that what he's known for? His work? And should he be punished for all that work by having new work rejected because he's known for the first work he did?

I think a big factor in the celebrity author issue is the actual meaning of the word celebrity. And, sure enough, an argument can be made that the definition has evolved.

In Toward a New Definition of Celebrity, Neal Gabler says that cultural historian Daniel Boorstin described a celebrity as a "person who is known for his well-knownness," someone who has no "substantiality." This was back in the '60s, and it's a definition of celebrity I am familiar with. It's a big part of the reason that I don't see people like Madonna or Jamie Lee Curtis or Henry Winkler as celebrity authors. Whatever the quality of their writing may be, these are people who have worked and achieved a level of success in a particular field. That  is why they are known. They are not simply known for their well-knowness, famous for being famous.

Gabler feels that Boorstin's definition doesn't work, though, because so many of the people we think of as celebrities actually have become famous for having achieved something. (Like Madonna, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Henry Winkler.) They are known for having done something. I would argue that the word is just being used incorrectly, but maybe this is a case of the cow is out of the barn, forget about closing the door. People have been applying the word celebrity  to describe people who have become famous for the high quality of their work and now that's what it has come to mean 

But if that's the case, how can celebrities be condemned for trying to pursue a new line of work (as in writing a children's book) because they've been successful in their original line of work?

A question unrelated to celebrity authors--if the word "celebrity" is used to describe those who are famous for what they have done, what do we use to describe the Kardasians and Kate Gosselins of the world, people who truly are famous merely for being famous?


Ms. Yingling said...

On the car ride to Cincinnati, I thought about this some more, too. Mr. Yankovic's books are rather extensns of the work he does- rhymes and goofiness. His books are therefore an extension of what he has done for 30 years. Interesting to think about, though. Absolutely not the same as someone who is famous for being famous writing a book.

Alex said...

I don't have much thought on celebrities who also write books. The fact is that some are good and some aren't. It is for the interested reader to decide. But to answer your question, they should not be condemned to pursueing another line of work. Sales will determine if they real have the talent to continue to write.

And sadly, I suspect we are in for a future Kardasian kids book, just because she is famous and had a baby. How would I describe the Kardasians and Kate Gosselins of the world? Not as celebrities, but as people-we-pay-too-much-attention-to-and-give-too-much-credibility-to.

Gail Gauthier said...

I think there's a feeling that people who are known for some reason have an easier time getting a publishing contract than people who aren't, and that creates the resentment we hear about. However, many people get a hand up in publishing, whether they're known or not. Sometimes they know an agent or editor who puts in a word for them. Sometimes they have a family connection. This kind of thing happens in every field. Do we get upset because a young plumber inherits her father's business?

As Alex says, in publishing sales will determine whether or not celebrity authors continue to publish, and sales usually are connected to the quality of the work. The door opened for them, but they can't go through it without providing quality, or at least something readers want.