Pop Quiz: What is a biography? Is it a) a true account of an exceptional person’s life? B) a memoir, perhaps, coined at the end of a fruitful and colourful life lived? Or is it c) an easy way to make money. Well, once upon a time, you’d be right to assume the first two, but these days things are very, very different.
Last week it was announced that the author Marco Shapiro has penned a book all about the singer, Adele. Okay, you may think, that doesn’t sound too bad, she’s an award-winning singer and she really does have a lovely voice. Well, let me tell you that the book is to be published without Adele’s blessing. That means she has played no part in it, has not contributed to any verification of facts or indeed unfacts, so to speak. So that blows answers A and B right out of the water.
What we are witnessing with the Adele book is what has been emerging now for some time in the publishing industry, namely the money-spinning potential of the biography. Now, look, I believe that, especially in today’s digital age, publishers need to make a profit, and biographies offer a seasonal route to do that – although in the UK sales of memoirs fell by 43%, according to The Bookseller in an article in The Telegraph. For a long time biographies have been published by the great and the good, from Tony Blair’s multi-million pound self-penned account of his time as Prime Minister, A Journey, and Barak Obama’s touching tale, Dreams of my Father, to Russell Brand’s, um, serious musings in My Booky Wooky. But what you have to remember is that these were autobiographies, penned by their authors, sanctioned, approved.
The thing is, when biographies are unofficial, unsanctioned, my point is this: they are like peeping at your neighbours through a hole in the fence – it’s just wrong. Last year’s biography book sale slump was put down to a limited niche offering, with not many titles appealing to women. But is this the way to improve sales, through sheer exploitation? Shapiro has stated that his book on Adele’s life will not contain any overt sensationalism, but then isn’t it simply a musing if it does not, and of course, who will read just some musings? But wait! For Shapiro has also let slip that the biography will reveal 21 secrets about the famous singer. Hang on a minute, forgive me, but doesn’t that seem, well, a bit sensationalist? Bare in mind that Marc Shapiro was the man who also brought you the unofficial biography of that pint-sized pop singer Justin Beiber. I rest my case.
It all boils down to the fact that unofficial biographies are the publishing equivalent of eavesdropping on a conversation, a phone-hacking version, if you will of the memoir world. And as a reader, what actual value do they have? It is hard to truly believe what is written when you know that the person they are discussing has not sanctioned anything that has been said. Of course, we do, in the UK, live in a country of free press, and celebrities cannot have control over everything that is written about them. But a whole book? Revealing intimate details about them? Any journalist going to journalist school knows that they have to trust a source, believe it, be able to justify it, stand by it. Any ‘friend’ of someone who speaks to the press or a writer and gives them intimate details for a tell-all, well, you have to question their motives. It all goes right back to biographies being money makers. But at what cost? Other than Simon Cowell seeming unfettered by his recent unofficial biography, I’d say most subjects would be mortified by such a tell-all book. And as for us readers? Well, I think we’ve got better things to spend our money on. So come on publishers! Give us some official biographies we can really enjoy, ponder on and laugh with, not some tabloid fodder that takes a mucky peek through someone’s net curtains. Now, anyone know if Adele’s got a new album out yet..?
What do you think of unofficial biographies? Justified or an intrusion on privacy?
**Look out for Wednesday Wafflings where I post my latest entry of my Diary of a Hopeful Author**