When Gwyneth Paltrow had the nerve to show up at a charity book signing - bringing with her lots of guests, plenty of publicity and raising a substantial amount of money for the cause - several authors felt compelled to share their somewhat negative thoughts on the matter. The reactions of these authors have blown the story wildly out of proportion; in an article entitled “What’s trending online”, the headline “Gwyneth Paltrow hijacks book event” came ahead of “unrest in Egypt” and “plane crash in Alabama”. In riling a lot of authors, ‘Gwynniegate’ has put the issue of celebrity-led books firmly back in the spotlight.
It has become increasingly common for actors, reality TV stars, models, musicians, sportsmen and the like, to land huge book deals. Their biographies have long been the stuff of pre-Christmas publishing endeavours for publishers up and down the lands. But we’re no longer just talking about autobiographies, but fiction, children’s novels, and in the Oscar-winning actress’ case, a cookbook. Although she’s perpetually talking about food - what she’s eating, what her children aren’t eating, listing myriad macrobiotic concerns on her now infamous ‘lifestyle’ website, Goop - Mrs Coldplay is no more qualified than the rest of us to be creating cookbooks. The reality is that Paltrow gets to churn out cookbooks because that’s what Paltrow wants to do; the fact that she thinks she has a legitimate voice on the matter is enough for a publisher to back her. So the rules that apply to regular, struggling writers suddenly disappear when a celebrity enters the frame.
Other published authors who’ve won their publishing deals on merit alone, have often been frustratingly silent on this use of publishing as a brand extension device. But in Paltrow’s case, the floodgates of literary rancour have suddenly opened wide, and reputable writers have been rushing in to mock and lambast.
Jay McInerney, tweeted:
"Author's night at East Hampton Library hijacked by movie stars with ghost-written books."
Ouch. Sex and the City author Candace Bushnell chimed in too:
"Author's worst nightmare: sitting next to Gwyneth at a signing."
But the most outspoken of Paltrow’s critics was Christina Oxenberg, who had to sit next to the star. On her blog she explained:
"Due to the inflexibility of the alphabet I had the questionable good fortune to be seated directly beside Gwyneth Paltrow ... Then the divinity in question arrived with hubby, children and a couple of massive bodyguards. The worshippers blocked my view of the whole world."
Oxenberg claims that the other authors were completely overshadowed by Ms. Paltrow’s presence, and that unlike regular fans who attend signings (open to meeting new writers and to checking their signings out too) Gwynnie’s fans paid Oxenberg no attention other than to leave litter on her table. At one point when she left to go to find some sustenance and subsequently returned with a plate of “sloppy hamburgers” and “stinky steak sandwiches” (perhaps intended to horrify to Paltrow’s vegan sensibilities) the bodyguards refused to let her take her seat, forcing her to crawl unceremoniously under the signing table.
But have the catty reactions to Paltrow stepping onto other authors’ turf actually helped the cause of non-celeb authors?
Is it unfair that movie stars et al., with their agents, their network of contacts, and their profitable brands, find it incredibly easy to land book deals? Probably. Can we blame Gwyneth Paltrow for taking such a deal and then standing behind the book? Not really. This hasn’t stopped several of the other authors who attended the fundraiser from offering their less-than-complimentary thoughts about the whole episode. While Christina Oxenberg’s anti-Paltrow tirade was rather amusing, she has drawn just as much flak as the movie star herself with many labelling her jealous and bitter. But, whether intentional or not, Oxenberg has successfully managed to piggyback onto Paltrow’s fame, raising her own profile in the process.
All this mud-slinging has been rather fun to watch, but ultimately it has served to trivialise a more serious underlying issue; the fact that major publishers continue to encourage celebrities to put their faces onto third-rate books which tend to be largely ghostwritten, certainly undermines their role as literary gatekeepers. The reaction of authors like Oxenberg has only served to turn what could have been a story about taking a stand against the industry preference for profit over literary credibility, into just another piece of gossip which is bound to be quickly forgotten.
In these circumstances the celebrity in question tends to take the blame while the publisher’s role is overlooked. Sure, there is space for some celebrity titles, but it is beginning to feel like they are dominating the book market. A proper, reasoned and serious debate on the issue is long overdue. Poking fun at Gwyneth Paltrow is only going to offer a temporary relief to a chronic irritation.
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