This article titled “Your guide to a happy new year… by Dawn, Eddie and other celebrity self-help gurus” was written by Vanessa Thorpe, for The Observer on Sunday 17th December 2017 05.35 Asia/Kolkata
Once the post-Christmas slump lifts and 2018 looms, an unprecedented crowd of well-known faces will be waiting to take readers by the hand and guide them into the new year. Following a tide of celebrity autobiographies, celebrity novels and celebrity children’s fiction, this year the book-shaped gift under the tree is more likely to be a celebrity self-help manual.
Comforting and instructive life manuals written by well-known entertainers and performers are being heavily promoted this season as booksellers bank on a public thirst for sincere advice from familiar, if unexpected, stars.
Leading the pack is Dawn French’s new journal, Me. You. A Diary, which came out in hardback this autumn ready for the Christmas market, but is also selling well as an interactive ebook. In its digital format, as well as in print, French’s deliberately collaborative effort invites each reader to make their own comments on the author’s daily tips for better living.
“This book is a way for us to tell the story of a year together,” suggests French. “Feel free to write your appointments in it, lists, thoughts and reminders of, say, who to kill, and when, and in what order. By the end of the year, I am hoping you will have a fatter, scruffier book that is written by me but totally personalized by you.”
The book is one of a number of literary counselling projects, each authenticated by a star name. And publishers have clearly judged it is comedians who make the best confidants. The acclaimed autobiography of Eddie Izzard, Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chickens, in which he reveals the continuing impact on his life of his mother’s death when he was six, has picked up many admirers since its launch this summer, and is still selling, bolstered by a promotional tour, which is now running in Paris until the end of January, with US dates just announced for February.
Comedian Sarah Millican’s How to Be Champion, billed as “a guide to surviving life”, also offers encouragement to depressed readers who might be facing up to a failed marriage or an unsatisfactory career. The message is summed up in the author’s exhortation: “Be yourself or else you’ll have to keep up the pretence for ever.” Chapter headings include Things My Dad Taught Me and Ten Good Things About Being Overweight, and the life hints are mostly modest and grounded with the occasional favourite cake recipe.
Millican describes how she eventually conquered the nerves that once forced her to recite her own childhood poetry from behind a curtain in the living room of her South Shields family home. After her first marriage fell apart just over a decade ago, she began to “try-out” at standup comedy gigs, partly as a form of catharsis. A successful solo run at the Edinburgh festival fringe soon saw her established as a leading light entertainment figure.
A trend among comics for revelatory, and even melancholy, solo shows has been evident on the live circuit for some time. Standup acts about mental and physical illness, and on coping with bereavement, are now as common as traditional observational comic material. And while comedians regularly gain notoriety for having a tougher-than-average ability to present their world view, it seems a willingness to expose a few personal insecurities is now a definite bonus.
The commentator and columnist Caitlin Moran could be considered to have reinvented the self-improvement publishing format with her bestselling How to Be a Woman, published in 2011. In this semi-ironic look at the advice genre, Moran debunked many restrictive taboos surrounding femininity, and some of its themes were followed up this year in Daisy Buchanan’s How to be a Grown-Up.
Last Christmas Davina McCall had a hit with her candid book, Lessons I’ve Learned, discussing the reliance on drugs she once shared with her mother. This summer the comedian Robert Webb waded into equally deep waters when he tackled the social construction of masculinity in his honest memoir, How Not to Be a Boy. A live tour based on Webb’s book has just ended.
The wave of supportive celebrity sharing has also crossed the Atlantic with the launch this winter of Unqualified, by Hollywood sitcom actress Anna Faris. She offers advice on love and relationships, given added piquancy by her high-profile breakup with the film star Chris Pratt, who writes the book’s foreword.
This celebrity foray into self-help follows renewed interest in the whole genre. In the last five years, several major British publishing houses have refreshed imprints in this territory. Three years ago Hodder & Stoughton launched Yellow Kite, an imprint designed “to help you live a good life”, and shortly afterwards HarperCollins relaunched its Harper Thorsons brand for “mind, body and spirit” titles. Last year Penguin launched Penguin Life, aiming at putting out 20 titles a year, and this year Bloomsbury launched a health and wellbeing imprint called Green Tree.
Yellow Kite’s Liz Gough recently told Glamour magazine she suspected that readers’ increasing interest in seeking emotional help from books was in line with the popular phenomenon of online TED talks. “People are struggling to make sense of the world, and they want to enrich their lives in some way – whether that’s going to a book club or a poetry reading, or taking up other methods of self-care such as yoga or meditation,” Gough said. “People are looking for balance between the scientific and the spiritual.”
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