I read the following on the excellent Guardian Books site today:
Rupert Murdoch's biographer Michael Wolff has called on "literate people" to boycott books until publishers stop bringing out ghostwritten memoirs by the likes of Sarah Palin.' [See the rest of the article here.]
Whilst my liberal blood-pressure shoots up at the mere mention of two of the names mentioned, I think I'm going to have to take issue with the owner of the third. Boycott books? How's that going to help?
Leaving aside the fact that Mr Wolff's argument, as presented in this article, is rather confusing (is he suggesting that we boycott all books or simply all ghostwritten ones which remain misleadingly attributed) I don't actually agree with his central argument which appears to be:
People are reading these books under false pretences because they're not actually written by the people they pretend to written by.
Why don't I agree? Well, firstly, I'm not sure that most of the people who buy these books actually give a monkey's who writes them – I think they're just fascinated by the characters involved. Sarah Palin, whatever you think of her politics, is a larger than life character who never fails to elicit a reaction of one kind or another. People want to read about her either in an uncritical, adulatory fashion if her politics and image appeal or in a species of guiltily horrified wonder if she appears to be as entertainingly mad as a spoon. Granted, it would be more honest if the cover read 'ideas conveyed by Sarah Palin in conversation with A. Ghostwriter who then put them into a coherent and readable form' but I don't honestly think it would affect the likelihood of people wanting to read it.
Secondly, I wonder how many people actually believe that these books are written by the people whose photographs appear on the front cover? Maybe I'm crediting the celebrity-autobiog-reading public with too much insight but I would have thought most people realise that if you're famous for – as an example – playing football superlatively well or revealing your rather magnificent chest in newspapers, then you are unlikely also to be blessed with the necessary talent to write about your experiences in a cogent and literate manner.
But, whether we accept Mr Wolff's central argument about false pretences or not, do we agree that registering our displeasure by leaving off buying books would be a good idea?
I can only speak for me, so here's my answer. No. It's a stupid idea. Sleb-memoirs are, notoriously, Christmas- and gift-book fodder bought by people who buy few other books. But they buy these particular books in their hundreds of thousands for the reasons outlined above vis-a-vis La Palin. If people who generally fight shy of literary sleb-fests in favour of the Booker/Costa prize list (which is the group I understand Mr Wolff to be referring to when says 'literate people') stop buying Booker/Costa type books, the only books to suffer will be the latter which, generally, already fail to sell in their hundreds of thousands (unless they win said prize, obviously.) It would be a far better idea to buy more of these books, not fewer, as it might just make the difference next time an unusual but 'literate' book strays over a publisher's horizon.
Mr Wolff clearly thinks that, on many levels, these books are bad. Fair enough. If you think a book is bad, don't buy that book. But don't stop buying books en bloc as some kind of misguided protest.
That's my view, what do the rest of you think?