Shaping the Narrative

 
 

Mary Sheenan analyses the popular genre of “Tell-All” books and the scandal that surrounds them.

 

Celebrity culture is rampant and invasive. We now want to probe even further into the lives of people we idolise, hate, or feel somewhere in between about. There are the obvious reality TV stars, such as the Kardashians, who supposedly allow us to delve deep into their lives. Tell-all books differ from television in that they require a certain amount of effort and dedication. By diving into a tell-all book, the reader might even feel a sense of superiority in which they now have premium access to their favorite famous person’s life.

“By diving into a tell-all book, the reader might even feel a sense of superiority in which they now have premium access to their favorite famous person’s life.”

Ultimately, the difference between turning on E! and reading a tell-all book lies in the level in which a person wants to be distracted, and how much effort they’re willing to put in to this distraction. By picking up a book written by a celebrity about themselves, readers are putting time in their own lives aside to dive into the struggles and successes of someone else. These books do not sell because of the quality of writing, or even because of their interesting narratives and stories. Rather, we as consumers devour these books in order to be distracted from the own mundanity of our lives or from our own perceived failures of not acheiving our 15 minutes in the spotlight. If we can read a celebrity tell-all book in which the person of interest overcomes adversity in a situation which is worse than our current one, or even told in a funny way, don’t we immediately feel better about ourselves?

Different from newspapers and tabloids, a tell-all book (whether written by the celebrity themselves or a ghost writer) makes us as readers feel a somewhat privileged sense of knowledge about this person. We as consumers often view this type of literature almost as a diary, as if we are privy to some parts of this person that we wouldn’t be otherwise. A newspaper article or interview has a barrier between the celebrity and the reader: the journalist. A tell-all book is a peek into what they want to present as their inner self.

A primary example of this is Amy Poehler’s tell-all Yes Please. From watching Poehler in various comedy roles, we know as a population that she is funny. However, her book allows access to her poignant thoughts such as, “the only way we will survive is by being kind” in contrast to her narratives regarding her prior drug usage. Many readers who look to celebrity tell-all books are looking to hear that people they idolise have been able to overcome similar challenges in life.

Tell-all books, while seemingly revealing and open, are very carefully edited and filtered. Celebrities use this platform to sell the best version of themselves, yet we as consumers are consistently buying into it. In the case of celebrity tell-all books, the general population enjoys them as a means to dip our toes into a world that is not our own.

“By projecting insecurities on celebrities, we take the heat off ourselves as individuals.”

As a society, we tend to fixate on the lives of famous people simply because it’s easier to praise or criticise someone else over ourselves. We’ve certainly all watched a “who wore it better” segment on TV or in a magazine only because it’s easier to judge someone else than to look inwardly. By projecting insecurities on celebrities, we take the heat off ourselves as individuals. By reading celebrity tell-all books, we dive into a world outside our own for a little while.

As a society, I’d like to think we care more about facts than scandal. In reality, scandal sells more. Tell-all books regarding the past lives of former Playboy models or of outlandish actors or comedians will gather a larger viewership than a memoir reflecting the quiet life of an unknown individual. The recent release about the Trump presidency in the USA has proved extremely successful. Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff, offers insight into an undisputably fascinating and troubling time in American history. Fire and Fury makes bold claims against Trump’s mental health, his intellect, and general stability as a leader. This book is selling in record numbers due to its revelations of scandal in the White House, including Trump’s possible collusion with Russia during the 2016 election. If this book were a passive collection of anecdotes regarding Trump’s successes as a leader, readers would not give the book a second glance. Instead, as readers and as people, we are fascinated by the outrageous. We would rather read something revealing about a stranger than something benign and uninteresting.

“We would rather read something revealing about a stranger than something benign and uninteresting.”

 

While we turn to tell-all books as a source of fascination and of distraction, they remain a crucial element to celebrity culture. However, celebrity “tell-all” books fail to stand up to their name, revealing only PR approved material that could boost someone’s career. The rampant consumption of this type of nonfiction reflects a great deal more about ourselves and the world we live in.

 

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