Written by Kevin LaTorre
Perhaps there has never been a clique so easily bruised—and eager to bruise—as writers. A recent article from Literary Hub’s Book Marks, “When Celebrities Write Novels,” inspired today’s musing indictment. The piece lists some novels from A-list celebrities, and includes works from Bob Dylan, Carrie Fisher, Steve Martin, and James Franco. Withholding their own opinions, Literary Hub instead attaches review excerpts to each book, so the unfamiliar receive a quick critical taste. The article was triggered by Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff, the novel from actor/journalist/human cigarette/activist Sean Penn, and so I dive down this rabbit hole in his honor. Thanks a ton, Mr. Penn. Truly, I haven’t been so intrigued, confused, and unsettled since your escapade with El Chapo.
The writers showcase evident glee at how critics have eviscerated Penn, and characterize would-be celebrity novelists as “stray[ing] from [their] lane.” Apparently, there’s a lane that writers possess, and a separate lane for everyone else. While there are disciplines (and vices) particular to scribblers, the boundary isn’t fortified, and admits travelers. New voices are usually welcomed into the fold by the strength of their written work, and so the writers’ colony expands. However, celebrities seem to face stricter scrutiny for their literary efforts. The sloppy writing suffers a march upon the points of pens with cries of vindictive satisfaction; the skilled writing receives a glacial welcome, and isn’t invited to stay for dinner. But quality of writing isn’t the point; it’s now about the name on that cover. Celebrities seem to receive a stiff double standard. Why is this?
As a jaded little speculator, I’d naturally attribute this attitude to cynicism. Many writers might see a famous actor’s name on the cover, and assume that readers’ name recognition (and surefire purchase) earned the publication, rather than the merit of the prose. Celebrities aren’t “true” writers, but arrogant wayfarers who can try their hand at all shiny objects within reach. Point to a few examples of pseudo-intellectual oddballs and journeymen (James Franco and Sean Penn come to mind), and suddenly this reasoning seems plausible. Naturally, this perceived flippancy irritates other writers. Essentially, the cool kids are sauntering into the origami club, slapping a crinkled dollar onto the table, and sneering because they’ve already hit puberty correctly.
This characterization languishes in a schoolyard because, at its root, the puffed-up scorn for would-be novelists is childish. Immaturely deciding that dynamic literary expression can only belong here and not there is a vain effort. Genuine creativity originates wherever it pleases, no matter how commercial, insufferable, or famous. Lit Hub’s own list showcases two examples. For one, the late Carrie Fisher began rewriting her initial Star Wars dialogue, before revising (without credit) nearly a dozen popular films, including The Wedding Singer, The Sister Act, and Hook. This work came in between her assorted novels and memoirs. Long-time funnyman (and novelist) Steve Martin has quietly and continuously written television, films, and plays since the early 1970s. Meteor Shower, his latest play, ran on Broadway until January 2018, and received critical praise for its surrealist comedy. Certainly, Fisher and Martin defy the snobbish characterization some would give them: each began discreetly and diligently, eventually coming by the writer title honestly, through consistency and skill. This is authentic craft. This is what we risk ignoring for the sake of silly, purist prejudice.
So maybe we shouldn’t revile a novel for its author. Snubbing celebrities for being otherwise successful can’t be considered balanced discourse. My suggestion, of course, doesn’t require the world to kowtow to every whimsical word of a famous writer—that would be similarly prejudiced. There is a balanced middle road to fairness, on the even gravel of objectivity. Let’s note when a celebrity tries and fails, and applaud when a celebrity tries and succeeds. Perhaps humble openness can improve literary discussion; after all, the world could use fewer snobs. Why don’t we leave the pinky rings, upturned noses, and Mean Girl attitudes at the door?