Juliet Dunlop: No end to misery in memoirs marketing

SEX sells. Or at least it used to, along with success. Together they made a dazzling couple, capable of shifting huge quantities of almost anything, particularly books of the “My Story” variety.

They could transform the ordinary into something compelling and catapult it straight to the top of the best seller list. But then things changed, somewhere around the time Geri Halliwell brought out her first autobiography.

Suddenly it was less about the success and the fun things fame provided and more about coping and surviving, mediocrity and eating disorders. It opened the floodgates for a slew of misery memoirs. Now everyone has “written” a cookie-cutter tear-filled autobiography, whether they’ve lived the life to merit one or not.

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The fact is, you’re nobody unless you have a troubled back-catalogue of struggle and regret. A past is good, a skeleton-filled closet better, and demons to exorcise, best of all. Put simply, you must aim for the diamond standard – the four ‘Ds’ of death, despair, depression and drugs. The celebrity book world demands nothing less. Misery and pain guarantee publicity, serialisation, a display in WH Smith, and sometimes, even sales. Take some of the latest offerings from publishers hoping to pull a pre-Christmas cracker from the groaning pile. Almost all the edited highlights have been deeply gloomy and uncomfortably personal.

This week chef Antonio Carluccio revealed how years of drink, gambling and grief drove him to the edge. For good measure, the wealthy restaurateur divulged that he’d tried to kill himself six times. His book is being serialised in a Sunday newspaper.

Politicians are at it too. The former home and foreign secretary Jack Straw, has spoken of his “mental crisis” brought on by the breakdown of his parents’ marriage, the onset of deafness and the death of his daughter more than 30 years ago. Last man Standing: Memoirs of a Political Survivor is, yes you guessed it, being serialised. Some of the best bits, including his claim that Tony Blair urged him to stand for the Labour leadership, have been overshadowed by the chapters dealing with the anguish.

Even the relatively unknown X-Factor judge and singer Tulisa Contostavlos, has penned a glum autobiography entitled Honest, My Story So Far, in which she admits to dabbling in drugs and crime aged 14. Now she’s 25 and would presumably, like to shift some albums.

However, the biggest surprise of all has been JK Rowling, who isn’t even selling her life story. The enormously successful Harry Potter author guards her privacy and has no real need for publicity but even she has been driven to reveal more about her life and herself in the battle to conjure up sales. Her first novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy, was published yesterday and is already a best-seller. Yet Rowling, an articulate, intelligent woman with nothing to prove, has been forced to dissect her success in slightly awkward interviews. She’s had to revisit her well-documented past as an impoverished single mother and has openly discussed her mental health.

Rowling, who has sold more than 450 million books since publishing her first Potter book 15 years ago, revealed this week how she’d struggled with her success and undergone years of therapy. Her honesty and frankness are commendable but why wait until there’s something to sell? Perhaps it’s part of the book deal and is written into the contract: “Personal moments of crisis must be discussed at all book signings, time allowing.”

Maybe it’s all the fault of television and the book world is simply catching up with the increasingly confessional nature of the interview. Have you ever seen an episode of Piers Morgan Tonight where the guest hasn’t cried? We almost demand tears – forget the awards and the glamour – we 
want raw emotion and we want you to share everything.

Like the best PR people will tell you, failure is a great leveller. It’s a peg where success can hang lightly without rubbing it in your face.

The rich and famous are different from you and me but what if all they really want is to be liked? Perhaps that explains all the baring of souls. That, and the quest for sales.