Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Decline and Fall of the Political Memoir

Yesterday I had several invitations from various broadcasters to talk about the three sets of political memoirs set to grace the nation's bookshelves. The only one I took up was Good Morning Wales as I was at a funeral the rest of the day. Quite why the media had got themselves into such a frenzy over the Prescott, Levy and Cherie books remains something of a mystery to me, as all three are unlikely to set the bestseller charts on fire.

The crucial test for books of this nature is whether the authors resonate with the book buying public. Are they liked? Are they respected? Do the public have a thirst for more knowledge about the author? Cherie scores a possible one out of three, while Levy and Prescott score zeros - in Prescott's case a bg fat one, largely because he didn't write the book himself - Hunter Davies did.

Political geeks and those who inhabit the Westminster village will of course devour all three. The book review pages will be full of reviews of each of the titles, way out of proportion to their actual appeal.

So who is to blame for this sorry state of affairs? In the end, you have to lay the blame fairly and squarely at the door of the respective publishers, who have allowed these books to appear without challenging their vacuousness. In the extracts from the three books we have so far learned that...

* Tony didn't like Gordon
* Gordon didn't like Tony
* Tony and Cherie did 'it' at Balmoral
* Lord Levy thinks he did nothing wrong

Well, tell us something we didn't know! We all know that a work of political autobraphy is a self-penned work of fiction, but surely the role of an editor is to challenge an author to tell the truth rather than spin. Prescott appears to skim over the Tracey Temple affair as if it were a minor episode in his life, rather than one which hastened the end of his career and almost wrecked his marriage. By not telling it as it was he has both cheated his publisher and everyone who was unwise enough to pay £18.99 for a book which he was seemingly incapable of writing himself.

Lord Levy falls into the same trap. He skates over key questions in the cash for peerages affair as if they were of no consequences. His ghost writer was Ned Temko of The Observer, a thoroughly professional journalist, but it's clear that in the world of political memoir ghost-writing, it's he who pays the piper that calls the tune.

At least Cherie wrote her book herself, but even here there's a problem. According to Lord Levy she let her husband vet (or censor?) the manuscript before it went to the publisher, removing several controversial and embarrassing passages. He then rang Levy asking for the same priviledge. To his credit, Levy told him to bugger off.

So again, with Cherie's book, the publisher and reader have a right to feel at least a little cheated.

Publishers need to stop paying huge advances for books like this, which will never wash their faces commercially and are entirely reliant on newspaper serialisations. The latter are dependant on one killer fact. In all three cases, these books failed to deliver, yet the newspapers devoted page after page to them based on very thin gruel indeed. So newspapers join the ranks of publishers and authors in the great political memoir cheating game.

But they continue to play the game because they know that if they don't, most of their rivals will. Just to show how ridiculous things have got, it is not unknown for one newspaper group to buy the serial rights to a memoir for a six figure sum and then never actually print a word. Why would they do this? Firstly because they can, but secondly to stop their rivals getting it.

It's a mad, mad world.

UPDATE: Julian Glover has written a superb article on political memoirs for The Guardian. Julian has form here, as he helped John Major with his bestsellin autobiography.

50 comments:

Anonymous said...

I will wait until next Christmas to buy them from the Remainder Bookshop for next to nothing as presents for friends that I don't like.

Anonymous said...

well said Iain. i cannot imagine anyone parting with 1 pound to buy any of these totally pointless books. levey comes across as a deeply dishonest spiv, cherie is obviously a nasty unlikeable person and prescott is a man who cannot even string a sentence together.

Anonymous said...

Any comments on this news story Iain?

http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2008/may/13/stemcells.medicalresearch

Anonymous said...

"Prescott ... didn't write the book himself - Hunter Davies did."

Who wrote Margaret Thatcher's memoirs then?

Unsworth said...

As always Iain, it's the story behind the story which is so much more interesting and revealing.

You've performed a valuable public service by providing a brief synopsis and overview. Now we can all get on with real life, rather than attempting to understand the fantasy world these people inhabit.

No doubt we can expect to see a snowstorm of these rewritings of history as NuLab apparatchiks realise (belatedly) that their chances of successful publishing are diminishing daily. Once they are thrown out (not very long now!) who is going to have the slightest interest in their self-absorbed prattling?

Radders said...

"By not telling it as it was he has both cheated his publisher and everyone who was unwise enough to pay £18.99 for a book which he was seemingly incapable of writing himself."

But still not as hypocritical as John Major's self justifying autobiography.He managed to keep his affair out of the book & mostly out of the press.

lettersfromatory said...

I suspect that the media coverage is more the result of editors wishing to 'stick it' to Gordon rather than being based on the merit of the book.

Vox Populli said...

If anyone is faintly interested in reading these "tomes" -do what I always do - wait until they appear in Bookends at around £1.99.

I should think that around July time all of them will be on the shelves. Ideal for those that want an hilarious read during their Summer Hols.

lloyd said...

Strange that all these books are being rushed out, some much prior to the originally planed publication date, could it be that the media publication fees would be much lower if dear Gordon was no longer in No 10.?

Alex said...

Iain, you know far more about publishing than I could ever claim to know, but it seems to me that you bang on the money when you say that these books are only published for the newspaper serialisation.

They are not of any great historical or political value, but are published with a big spalsh to sell more newspaper copy/ advertising. Political commebntators should ignore them and leave their discussion to the gossip columnists.

Weygand said...

What we have learned from Cherie Blair is that her husband lied, even to Alastair Campbell, about the Peter Foster Affair and that he did so knowing that those lies would be passed to the media.

What was confirmed was what a vain, shallow and grasping pair both she and her husband are.

We are supposed to sob for the turmoil of poor Tony over the death of Dr Kelly (forget about Kelly and his family and that the cynical way he was outed may well have contributed to his death).

If this was the case for the Defence, the Prosecution would not need to address the jury.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree. Since the nineties the trend has been for lightweight biogs to be rushed out rather than a decent book giving a proper overview of the subjects career.

Adrian Yalland said...

I doubt there is anything of real 'political' substance in any of the books - just a bunch of discredited and disagreeable individuals trying to justify themselves to us.

At least Levy did something useful commercially. Pisspot and the toothy one are simply parasites on the tax payer!

Anonymous said...

Good article, Iain. The cinema industry is already having to draw its horns in as it discovers the multi million dollar advances to big stars don't guarantee commercial success.

There was an excellent article in the First Post about how the new Indiana Jones film doesn't pay Harrison Ford and Steven Spielberg until after it has grossed $400 million [!] so that it 'washes its face' commercially as you put it.

Of course, it should be a success, but as some dodgy reviews come out it could be 'squeaky bum' time for Spielberg, and it is unlikely that Tom Cruise is going to be taking home any more ginormous paychecks.

Not that he'll be too worried..

p.s. If you haven't seen Levy being buttonholed by Michael Crick at his book launch, check out last night's Newsnight while you still can !

strapworld said...

Iain,

May I recommend Craig Brown in the Telegraph to. His column is hilarious!

I think this is the real Prescott Book!

mutleythedog said...

You are absolutely right - none of them are exactly the Crossman Diaries are they?

Paul Linford said...

I hope for his sake that Anonymous 8.58's feelings towards his so-called "friends" are not reciprocated.

judith said...

The Levy book was rushed out in such a hurry that the publishers (who?) didn't even bother to check the accuracy of the front cover, which has as its first words:

Lord Michael Levy

Wrong, wrong, wrong - you ain't a 'Lord First Name' unless you are a younger scion of the upper peerage, certainly not a Life Peer.

And my word, the airbrusher who worked on the photo of the front of Cherie's codswallop must have earned a fortune!

Jack of Kent said...

I wish some of these posts had been ghosted. The spelling and typing are awful.

Dr Spyn said...

C4 noticed that Caroline Flint had her briefing notes on the Housing Market in a transparent folder - housing market to fall at best by 5-10% year on year. Flagged up a few other little points on highlighted lines of ‘we are on the side of the people.’

Sir Humphrey would not be amused, unless he was determined to stich her up. Bet Gordon isn't amused, and I doubt Flint will like the follow up phone call.

Blackacre said...

Seems to me that this attitude infects the entire publishing industry and not just political memoirs. Like another commenter, I claim no especial knowledge of publishing, but I am sure I read somewhere that we publish more books in the UK than they do in the USA. Most of these must surely be straight to the remainder bin. I would love to know how the economics of publishing actually works as it does not seem to from where I sit.

Chris Paul said...

It's not because they're not Tories is it Iain? And thank goodness for Hunter Davies.

norman said...

The best reponse from the public is to ignore these books which will force the publishers to limit the advance they pay to these greedy human beings. Tony, Cheri, Prescott all are in the game of squeezing the last penny out of their poliitical career or association in the case of Cherie. The sanitised versions that these printed verbages represent are not worth emptying the wallet for them. The best biography I have read in recent years is Alan Clerke's diary. His inimitable style and iconoclastic approach to life. Whenever I pass through Hotel Amigo I cannot suppress a smile remebering a line or two what Alan Clarke wrote about his visits to Brussels and hisstay in this hotel.

verity said...

Iain, that was one of your most incisive, articulate and interesting pieces ever. There is the ring of truth that these books were written only for newspaper serialisation - especially as they were all rushed out in a panic now that Gordon could be gone any day.

Unsworth - No. These three don't "inhabit a fantasy world". That is what makes them so dangerous.

9:20 a.m. Who wrote your post for you, then?

dirty european socialist said...

I like the Norman Lamont Book In office. It does not bother with his early life or his later life or his private life it just talks about politics and why he believes in his own views.

PaulW said...

Radders

But if John Major had written about his affair with the slag Currie, he would have rightly been criticised.

Similarly with Roy Jenkins. I do think the less of him for apparently having been a serial adulterer but I don't think any the less of him for not mentioning it in his superb autobiography.

verity said...

I went to The Daily Mail and saw the excerpt from Cherie Blair's book and it was so boring I didn't get further down than the first photo.

Who cares how angry Alastair Campbell was so long ago that a topless photo of Carole Kaplan had been published? I mean, did it cause a world war? Did it cause a tiny skirmish somewhere in Africa? Did it wreck a trade deal?

So dry. So stale. So dusty.

Since Blair left office, despite the almost inconceivable damage that he did to our country while he was PM, he is diminished to his true size: midget. A greedy shadow roaming the world in search of money, which, despite having no distinguishing talent, he is being offered. We'll see how soon it dries up once the people funding him realise he is talent-free.

His tragic premiership of our country was nothing more than a stepping stone to becoming a multiple property owner. Why would anyone be interested in his wife's book? Or his book, if it ever comes out, which it won't?

killemallletgodsortemout said...

Why can't NuLab voters see that they, and the rest of the country, have been taken for a ride by their party and by the likes of the Bliars, Pisspot and that greasy Levy bloke.

The Bliars are absolutely coining it in without a book being published, and so many Labourites are in it for the gravy train, and very little else. Their voters don't come into the equation.

Not a particularly incisive question, I know, but are Labour supporters thick, or what?

Richard Nabavi said...

Hey, lighten up folks! There's much amusement to be had from this trio and the newspaper coverage of their 'books'. My favourite is this gem on the Prescott-Tracey affair, from the Times:

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article3909299.ece

'Pauline fusses over me and the Sunday Times photographer, seemingly at peace with the wretched subject, though she admits that she will “never forget” the day her husband came home, ashen-faced, to tell her about the affair and its imminent disclosure in the press, and warn her that he would probably have to resign.

“When I finished choking him,” she says carefully, “I started to think . . . I read every article in every paper. John told me I was crucifying myself but I just had to read it to see what everybody else was reading so I knew how to deal with it.

“I was about to have a lovely loo put in my hall . . . ” ... Pauline continues: “John said I’d have to cancel all that, but I didn’t.”

The installation of her swish, trad-style WC was not only a focus and distraction but her salvation: its builders became her temporary protectors and its successful completion was a bright spot to look forward to in the general gloom.'

Anonymous said...

Stephen Pollard in the Guardian notes that only two of D Blunkett's quotes were removed by DB from Pollard's 2004 biog, these though were "far, far worse" than anything left in. Wonder what these were ?

Springheel said...

Frankly, the thing I will never be able to forgive Cherie Blair for is that I was lured into reading about her revelations this morning in an article on the Mail website which, without warning, ended with a sizeable colour photograph of Carole Chaplin wearing only an azure chiffon top and tights. That is a vision that will haunt me for some time - I have not yet recovered from the shock.

verity said...

2:13 PM "I was about to have a lovely loo put in my hall . . . " ...

... "The installation of her swish, trad-style WC was not only a focus and distraction but" meant that John didn't have to lumber up the stairs to vomit.

Steve_Roberts said...

I really wouldn't worry too much about this stuff, Iain. Dead trees are sooo 20th century, this tawdry trade will soon be closed. The only bad side is that genuinely interesting and worthwhile books don't get published because the publishing companies are busy squandering their resources pandering to political celebrities.

haddock said...

"it is not unknown for one newspaper group to buy the serial rights to a memoir for a six figure sum and then never actually print a word."....... Is there a problem with that ?, a valuable public service I would say.

Anonymous said...

killemallletgodsortemout said...

"Not a particularly incisive question, I know, but are Labour supporters thick, or what?"

No. They remember what life was like under the Tories.

Anonymous said...

PaulW said...
"But if John Major had written about his affair with the slag Currie, he would have rightly been criticised."

The difference is that the story of Major's affair had not been made public at the time he wrote his autobiography.

Anonymous said...

Lady Thatcher's memoirs were written by a team of ghost writers under the direction of Charles Moore.

Iain Dale said...

Complete and utter rubbish. Charles Moore had no input into her memoirs at all. He is her official biographer. Robin Harris was her main assistant on both volumes of her memoirs.

Paul Linford said...

Good piece by Glover. It always amazed me that Fowler, Nick Ridley, Peter Walker, Lord Young et al were able to get publishers. He is right to say that their modern-day equivalents would struggle!

Anonymous said...

Not often that the adjective "superb" is
jusitified. It is certainly merited here. Hat tip Ian and complements to Glover!

rupert tube said...

"We'll see how soon it dries up once the people funding him realise he is talent-free." @1:41

But the world is full of mugs, Ms V, not a few of whom are American. Lack of talent hardly stopped the Duchess of York in her tracks.

I was disappointed but not surprised to see that overfed buffoon, Matthew "Bagpuss" D'Ancona, bigging up Cherie in the ST.

He seems so impervious to anything outside the goldfish bowl that anyone who succeeds according to its grotesque system of palm-grease and patronage is automatically "a good thing".

I think Guido's forthcoming evisceration of the Dead Wood Press is long, long overdue.

verity said...

Rupert Tube- Yes, the world is full of mugs, but they are not normally found among the top echelons of professions.

My point, speaking as a non-American who is confused about why you inserted an opinion about Americans in your post addressed to me, is, once the NY merchant bank realises that actually, Blair brings absolutely nothing to the table, they will dump him.

Mr Bush owed Tony Slime a favour and the Bush family is well-known for lending a hand to people who have been loyal to them. That's why he got the non-potentate job as "Middle East Negotiator" or whatever is joke phrase they used for the job title. Once Mr Bush's term in office comes to an end this year, this job too will dry up.

Cherie Mouth's book with be a clunker, and that will account for speaking engagements drying up. Tony Blair will never get around to writing his book (having it ghosted, that is) because he has the attention span of a May fly.

The world is poised on the rim of an empty vessel and will drift off.

Richard Havers said...

All three, in their own ways, are vanity publishing; without the 'author' having to pay for them.

Raedwald said...

Thanks for this post Iain - very useful to read the reality of all this written by someone who really knows their onions. I've been wondering how it all stacked up.

Anonymous said...

whilst I agree the art of writing a decent political memoir has been lost of late, and I think most of that is to do with rushing these books out so soon to the events they document. And inevitably because it involves people still in office unless the author is desperate to burn lots of bridges or rock lots of boats, theyll draw shy on most of the stuff people are more interested.

But as far as John Majors book goes I disagree, because whether you think he should have included the affair in it or not, the point is as soon as it did come out (as these things inevitably do anyway) such an omission destroys the level of trust with the reader, in the same way the current set of books do, because what else did he choose to miss out ?

Anonymous said...

"Robin Harris was her main assistant on both volumes of her memoirs."

So Robin Harris was her ghost writer. I was misinformed.

Anon 4.21 pm

Anonymous said...

enjoyed the feature in the times on saturday. credit to her for writing it (mostly) herself and hardly surprising she got tony to proof read it. its unlikely that ill rush and buy it but i might take it out of the library in 5 or so years time. as for lord michael and prescott, ill rely on extracts on here thanks.

verity said...

8:08 - whether "... [Major] should have included the affair in it or not, the point is as soon as it did come out (as these things inevitably do anyway)...".

They do?

How do you know?

aardvark said...

judith said...
"Lord Michael Levy
Wrong, wrong, wrong - you ain't a 'Lord First Name' unless you are a younger scion of the upper peerage, certainly not a Life Peer."

If a newly-created peer wants to use his first name along with his title the way to do it is to introduce a hyphen.

e.g. George Brown became "Lord George-Brown".

Anonymous said...

killemallletgodsortemout said...

"Why can't NuLab voters see that they, and the rest of the country, have been taken for a ride by their party and by the likes of the Bliars, Pisspot and that greasy Levy bloke."

Actually, they can.

"Not a particularly incisive question, I know, but are Labour supporters thick, or what?"

No they are not. They are intelligent enough to know that there is not much difference between the liblabcons. They know Labour pretends to be concerned for their welfare and then betrays them, the others barely bother to make the pretence. They just hope the Labour pretence might sometimes provide something for them.