Books Culture Music

Here to stay: Celebrity literature and Lana Del Rey

The move from celebrity status to becoming an author is one that many have attempted to make, and frequently to much success. The American singer and songwriter Jewel published a poetry collection in 1998 which sold over 1 million copies, albeit to mixed reviews.  With sales of poetry books hitting an all-time high in 2018, it makes economic sense for publishers to capitalise on the pre-established fanbase that a celebrity will bring along with them.

Amidst the news that American singer Lana Del Rey is publishing a poetry collection entitled Violet Bent Backwards over the Grass on 29th September 2020, what can be said about the value of celebrity literature, and what we, as readers, seek from it?  Del Rey has, in interviews, suggested she wants to release the collection of 13 longer poems and several shorter pieces for $1 due to her belief that her thoughts are “priceless”, yet listings of the collection online indicate a pre-order price of £16.99.  How do we reconcile these two vastly different prices and the intent behind them and the collection as a whole?  Is it merely a self-aggrandizing exercise in marketing, or a way to open up to fans, whilst encouraging them to read?

These questions are ones that came to a head in 2014, with the release of beauty YouTuber and vlogger Zoe Sugg’s debut novel Girl Online, which smashed sales records, selling over 78,000 copies in its first week (more than any previous debut novel since records began).  Yet, controversy quickly arose when it was revealed that Sugg had been “helped” (to what extent has still not been officially confirmed) in writing her novel by children’s author Siobhan Curham.  Speculations of ghost-writing quickly arose, leading to Sugg having to take a break from her social media for a couple of days.  In this case, it was Sugg’s name that was the selling point of the novel, and at the suggestion of ghost-writing, fans were disappointed and Curham received abuse online. Zoe Sugg’s celebrity name and her novel were inseparable in the eyes of fans. Sugg’s YouTube channel where she vlogs her day to day life and recommends make-up products as if she were your big sister cultured a sense of authenticity and closeness between her viewers and herself. When the transparency that fans had grown used to was broken at the suggestion of ghost-writing, so was any sense of authenticity of Sugg being behind her book.  What this suggests is that readers want the celebrity name behind the celebrity novel/poetry collection, and, perhaps, what we seek is a true expression of an idol’s soul; a way to see them as human rather than just as polished figures on a screen.

Del Rey’s slide from songwriting to poetry writing however, may be less controversial than a YouTuber “writing” a novel with no previous experience.  In the past, Del Rey has blended poetry into her lyrics, showing an enthusiasm for the art in her inclusion of lines of American poetry, by the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Walt Whitman, and T.S. Eliot.  Aside from the inclusion of poetry in her songs, Del Rey’s past lyricism has been noted for its powerful expression of emotion; something to keep in mind when we consider that Wordsworth’s definition of poetry suggested it “is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” which “takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.” Quite apart from the debate over whether song lyrics can be considered poetry, Del Rey evidently has a deep love for poetry and the powerful expressions of emotion that it often entails.  Whether or not the collection is of high quality, the passion is there.

Celebrity literature has often been justified by the fact that it sells; bringing in a captive audience and encouraging them to read, as well as providing publishers with the money possible for bringing less-known authors’ work into the light.  If Del Rey’s unusual decision to sell her collection and the accompanying spoken-word album for $1 goes ahead, despite the arrogant overtones of believing that her thoughts are “priceless”, Del Rey would also make poetry accessible for readers.  Furthermore, she has marked 50% of the profits from the spoken-word album as for charities dedicated to Native American land conservancy and rights, fulfilling our expectation that celebrities must use their platform for good.  This intended low price and Del Rey’s intention to sell it in mom-and-pop stores in California (smaller, often family-run stores) seem to mark out that this is an authentic project, one of passion and soul, away from the marketing exercise of much celebrity fiction.  Yet the higher price for the collection found online (an unusually high price for a poetry collection with only 13 longer poems) collides with this authenticity, indicating a level of greed and a knowledge of Del Rey’s fanbase who will spend that much in a bid to support their idol.  

Whether her poetry is good or not Del Rey does try to authentically bear her soul, showing promise in the talk of love and yearning, and of the real woman behind what “people think” of her. Whilst her attempts at haikus and shorter poems reek of the Insta-poetry trend which often saw the visual aesthetic of the poem as a priority over its content other longer pieces such as ‘happy’ (available on her Instagram @lanadelrey) hit the mark rather better. If what people ultimately wanted from Zoe Sugg was authenticity, then Del Rey seems to have cracked it.  In Jamaican-American poet June Jordan’s emphasis on “telling the truth” as the definition of poetry, then Del Rey seems to be telling her truth.  Let’s just hope that they are her own words after all.