Sunday, October 20, 2013

People Are Freaking Out About Morrissey’s Autobiography Being a Penguin Classic

Former Smiths frontman, lyricist, and solo artist Morrissey released his new autobiography a few days ago. It’s blown the top off the book charts in the UK, but a lot of people are upset about Penguin Books’ choice to release it as a Penguin Classic. 

Morrissey's Autobiography: an instant classic?

That’s the imprint reserved for classic classics, such as Tolstoy or Voltaire, and not the Modern Classics line, for the likes of less time-tested writers. (You know, like Virginia Woolf or Albert Camus.) And then, of course, there are regular old Penguin Books: books that aren’t deemed classics at all. Celebrity memoirs, for example.

The reason for the brand new book’s status as a Penguin Classic? Morrissey insisted on it. In fact, it was a condition of his signing a contract with Penguin, who no doubt caved due to predicting the cash cow the book would prove to be. Those who know the singer are not so shocked. It’s a similar move to one he made in 1988 when he persuaded EMI to revive the retired His Master’s Voice label solely for his recordings.

Morrissey joins the rank of other Penguin classic novels and biographies.

Some literary types have their knickers in full twist, such as Boyd Tonkin of The Independent, with the headline “Morrissey gets what he wants, and Penguin Classics sinks in the Ship Canal.” Tonkin says the publisher has chucked “67 years of editorial rigour and learning out of the corporate window” just to “kowtow to the whims of a petulant pop icon.” Brendan O’Neil of The Telegraph says that Penguin has “destroyed its own reputation.”

And that’s just the critics. As per usual, some web commenters are just as disgusted. Below the book’s publication announcement on the Penguin Facebook page, one user stated that he wouldn’t be buying it, saying that “presenting it as a Penguin Classic is prostituting the brand.” Others, especially Morrissey’s many fans, are excited about the autobiography, and see the imprint as a wink on the part of the publisher. It’s a one-off joke, and unlikely to happen again. 

Huw Gwilliam's imaginings of albums as Penguin paperbacks seem prophetic now.

While unlikely to be a classic in the vein of Homer, there’s a good chance Morrissey’s book will at least be literary. His lyrics drop book references as often as they do confessions of angst, starting with How Soon Is Now? The Smiths’ first club hit opens with the line “I am the son and the heir of a shyness that is criminally vulgar. I am the son and heir of nothing in particular" -- a reworking of the line in Eliot’s Middlemarch: "To be born the son of a Middlemarch manufacturer, and inevitable heir to nothing in particular". Morrissey quoted playwright Shelagh Delaney directly with “I dreamt about you last night, and I fell out of bed twice” in Reel Around the Fountain. None of this means Penguin Classic status is guaranteed, but the man knows his lit.

There’s no doubt Morrissey knew exactly what he was doing with Penguin Classics, just as he did with EMI. This is the man, after all, who wrote about media and marketing machinations in Paint a Vulgar Picture. (“And oh, the plans they weave! And oh, the sickening greed!”)

As far as Penguin’s complicity, a line from that very song seems in order:

But you could have said no, if you’d wanted to. 

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People Are Freaking Out About the New Cover of The Bell Jar


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  1. Must admit that I've come around to the instant Penguin Classic. Part joke, part take-down, it shows that even the largest brands can be manipulated.

    A Canadian, it's my duty to hold up By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept as, perhaps, the work most often quoted by Moz. Now, there's a classic.

    1. Oh, I could fill a whole post (or several) with his literary references, and I'm sure there are many that I never even caught.

  2. I think it's nice that people even remotely care about such things in this day and age of the disposable celebrity memoir! Thanks Kelly, really amused me this did!

    1. I guess some people do still care about classic literature, even if the E. L. James crowd outnumbers them.

  3. I remember how you were a big Smiths fan. Funny, but it's been relatively recently that I listened to any of their stuff and now I understand why you liked them.

    The Penguin Classics thing is kind of weird and I can see where it is a sort of brand corruption. Not even sure why Morrissey would want this, but I guess he is impressed by the publisher brand or wants to elevate his own branding. No big deal to me. I probably would not have paid any attention or known about this if you or someone else hadn't brought it up. I didn't even know Morrissey had an autobiography out.

    Tossing It Out

  4. His memoirs would have sold under any imprint. This is pure ego.

  5. I love the outrage of Book Snobs in the morning!

    Anything that gets people to pick up a book is a good thing, IMO, and controversy draws attention and will probably sell more books. I don't know if Morrissey "deserves" to be an insta-classic, but I think it's hilarious that some people are up in arms about it.