Last week I posted a blog about “McFiction” and the increasing prevalence of “celebrity authors” like Tom Fletcher, Frank Lampard and David Walliams in our nation’s larger bookstores… and how I didn’t like it because of the way these stores and book publishers were favouring these “authors” over more experienced writers, more talented writers and even the up-and-coming writers looking for a big break. It seemed to go down very well with those that read it.
However, a quick browse of my own book shelves brought up a possible (and disturbing!) contradiction within my own anti-celeb position. Those of you who know me well, or follow me on Twitter, will know that I am a HUGE Star Trek fan, and of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in particular (which I still regard as the greatest TV series ever made). Now, as with many popular sci-fi or fantasy TV shows, Star Trek has spawned an enormous amount of books to supplement the stories and, without wishing to get too cynical, to target the pockets of that pre-built audience. Lots of non-fiction books but, in the case of Star Trek, a wealth of original fiction titles. As a man still in love with Star Trek: Deep Space Nine I have bought many of the paperbacks that continue the stories of the characters after the TV series ended. The vast majority of these are written by experienced authors who’ve done similar work in the past and are respected and wanted by publishers. In military parlance, they’ve earned their stripes. However, I do own a few Deep Space Nine novels that were written by.…. actors!!
These aren’t just any actors though. These aren’t random celebs chosen by publishers to front a new initiative because their faces are on telly all time. These are basically actors who weren’t quite ready to say goodbye to the characters they had spent years refining and portraying on screen and wanted to say farewell in a very particular and personal way, a way which gave them more creative control than they had previously.
Now, I’m not so naïve as to think that the potential for a nice little earner wasn’t a consideration for Andrew J. Robinson (who played the charming, mysterious and enigmatic former Cardassian spy Garak, if you’re interested) and J.G. Hertzler (Klingon General Martok) but I think this whole situation is wildly different from what we see going on today in the children’s book publishing.
“Celeb authors” (and their publisher paymasters) are targeting the children’s fiction market more than any other market (with the possible exceptions of cheerful cookbooks and half-finished autobiographies). Whether that’s a positive addition to the metaphorical toolbox that parents, teachers and librarians can use when trying to engage youngsters with reading for pleasure, or whether it is purely exploitative and insidious, is open to debate. What is certain is that it is a calculated career move for these celebs and some are more successful at it than others. Whether this is down to excessive marketing, the pre-existing level of fame, or good ol’ fashioned writing talent is, again, open to debate.
However, I would argue that there is a big difference between these guys and Star Trek actors like Robinson and Hertzler. These guys aren’t Hollywood stars looking to diversify their creative output or to start a new side-line to subsidise their earnings when the acting work dries up a little (as it frequently does for those who bravely choose to ‘tread the boards’ for a living). These are people who categorise themselves as artists (in the broader sense of the word) and wanted to spread their wings artistically with characters they’d been playing for several years (unusual for actors more accustomed to theatre work). The novels these guys wrote went down very well at the time (over 20 years ago now) but it was never the start of something new for them. They only wrote three novels between them and left it at that. It was an artistic endeavour, with profit being a secondary consideration (although they did do signing tours, which is why my own copy of A Stitch in Time has a lovely autograph inside it).
This brings up some new and important questions. Is this an important distinction? Is a novel (an artistic endeavour in itself) made more valid according to who writes it? Does it need to be an artist and do we class “celebs” as artists? Clearly David Walliams is an actor and comedy writer (although I respectfully doubt he’ll ever win a BAFTA for doing either) but isn’t he better known as a “judge” on a talent show these days? Clearly Tom Fletcher has worked as a musician but he’s no Eric Clapton (he’s not even a Francis Rossi). Dermot O’Leary is a TV presenter and radio DJ – is that a creative background? Frank Lampard is clearly an ex-footballer and little else.
Here’s another angle. These days James Bond novels are written by loads of different writers. It’s not just Ian Fleming anymore. So, what if 007 himself, Daniel Craig, wrote a new James Bond novel? Would we all buy it? Would it be a creative endeavour or a cash-in? Would it be any good? Is anyone else currently better qualified to write a James Bond novel? Is there anyone understands the character better? I imagine if he did write a Bond novel it would be backed by the sort of generous marketing budget that would bankrupt the fictional MI6 and leave M having to have an uncomfortable discussion with Q about voluntary redundancy.
I suppose all this just manages to show that there are always shades of grey between the blacks and the whites. There are more questions than answers. Speaking personally, I still feel that the likes of Tom Fletcher and David Walliams have no business writing children’s books, but that if they are going to, then the book industry should treat them the same as they treat any new authors and refrain from putting them on a pedestal that threatens to put short-term sales ahead of the long-term interests of the industry itself, and of those of us who work on the periphery, focusing on the truly important things like children’s literacy levels and reading for pleasure.
And let’s just forget all about the many William Shatner-penned Captain Kirk novels I own. And his musical albums too. That’s different. Obviously. He’s a genius. And I love him. So there. End of.