Sunday, October 26, 2008

This is the Story (About the Stories We Don't Really Want)

Last week, the #4 best seller on the New York Times list of nonfiction books was the sensational autobiography of the woman who played Marcia Brady. Meanwhile, the #4 movie at the box office was Oliver Stone's sensational W, a George W. Bush biopic.

On the surface, this would seem to imply that public interest in the life stories of politicians and celebrities is roughly equal. However, such an interpretation fails to take into account the differences in these two markets. Given the glut of books and the relative dearth of major movies opening in a given week, Bush's showing isn't all that impressive. Consider that he was unsuccessful in beating out a movie called Beverly Hills Chihuahua (would he have stood a better chance against Capitol Hill Chihuahua?). I read a review of the Stone film which predicted failure on the basis that nobody wants to think about Bush anymore; that he is yesterday's news.

Yet isn't this the ideal time to pause and consider the Bush legacy, now that it is at a close? A compelling case can be made that no other single individual had as much impact on the world in this century as George W. Bush. And whatever your thoughts about the president Bush, I don't think there can be any dispute that the man has a fascinating history, the kind of biography that led in the early days of his national prominence to comparisons with Shakespearean character Henry V.

But some may argue that we are a fickle society, always looking for the "next big thing", more prone to grasping blindly forward than ruminating on what has already been. According to this thinking, by virtue of being in the public spotlight for over eight years now, Bush's "brand" is stale. But if that's the case, shouldn't the money that we save from not going to W be instead invested in a John McCain and Barack Obama bio or autobiography?

Certainly, both of those men have written autobiographies which have received media attention. But I get the feeling that media members are the only ones who have actually read the books. To be sure, the public is familiar with the basic life story of both of them, and can recite the Cliff Notes version: McCain went from POW to a maverick political career, Obama from humble beginnings to community activism and eventually a "meteoric" rise in politics. Yet these basic facts and conventional wisdom have been repeated so much that there doesn't seem to be much interest in the complexities and nuances in their life stories and histories.

Some may say that this is not necessarily a bad thing, since personal history may not be relevant to the question of whether someone can be an effective politician. But this brings us back to Marcia Brady. We can't get enough celebrity gossip and dirt. In an era where the boundary between celebrity and politician is being blurred in all kinds of other ways, why not this one? Less speciously, artists of all stripes have long been scrutinized by biographers. An 850+ page tome on the life of John Lennon has just been released, and not because there was previously a void in the market for John Lennon biographies. Every rock star of the baby boom generation could probably support their own library, the way that ex-presidents do. (And some could live comfortably if they never got another royalty check for their music: Keith Richards got a $7 million advance for his autobiography).

Why do these books proliferate? There is a widely held belief that an artist's background can be examined for "clues" into their work. Biographies and autobiographies tantalize us with the perceived opportunity to solve riddles, to demystify. Ultimately, 800 page biographies serve to reinforce that artists and celebrities are at heart no different than the "swinish multitude". We take pleasure in knowing that Marcia Brady was not perfect, was no better and in some ways worse than us.

But do we really want to know that John McCain dated a stripper? Do we want to really know that Barack Obama smokes?


Blogger Jason said...

The bush movie does not impress me at all, I might see it if it is free. But I think every Amercian has seen enough of this guy to make their own movie. "Let sleeping dogs lie." The only thing bush ever did that I agreee with is his latest pay increase for the troops.

6:02 PM  
Blogger Heidi said...

I haven't visited this blog in sooo long. Man, feels like ages. It is ages!

3:04 PM  
Blogger Jessi said...

Wow, your page did not help my headache! It looks really cool but it is really hard on the eyes! I like your post! I can't believe all of the posts that you have made on here!

3:39 PM  
Blogger Nanette said...

Even worse in my eyes than a Marcia Brady autobiography or Shrub bio-pic is the already-destined-to-be-a-bestseller campaign memoir by Sarah Palin, for which she has reportedly been offered a $7 million advance. Why in the world would anyone want to waste a minute reading such a thing? She's now one of our culture's top celebrities. This says a lot about us, given the fact that she seems incapable of speaking even one coherent sentence.

1:04 AM  
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