Obamas sign record-breaking book deal
Barack was a writer before he was a politician. Yet the huge fee that he and Michelle have received for their next books has surprised everyone. What will his political memoirs teach us?
Six weeks after leaving the White House, a month after sunning themselves in the Caribbean, the Obamas have found a new job.
On Tuesday, Barack and Michelle sold the global rights to two new books — one by each — for more than $65m. The enormous fee, from Barack’s long-time publisher Penguin Random House, far outstrips anything offered to past ex-presidents — or indeed to most full-time writers.
Little is known about either book. Michelle’s has been described as “an inspirational work for young people that will draw upon her life story”. The former first lady has only published one book to date: an account of her time spent gardening at the White House. But her well-received speeches hint at a talent for language.
Yet it is the promise of a new book by her husband, covering his eight years as president, that has got people talking. Political memoirs have a long history, from Julius Caesar to George Washington. Pretty much every US president has gone on to write one after leaving office.
More than most, however, Obama understands the power of a good story. Before entering politics he published Dreams from My Father, a highly regarded account of his upbringing as a mixed-race kid with an absent dad. The narrative was so vivid that it framed his political career. Aides to Hillary Clinton, who fought Obama in the 2008 Democratic primaries, lamented that they were running against a “story”, not a “real person”.
In 2012, that narrative was challenged. The biography Barack Obama, by David Maraniss, published during Obama’s second presidential campaign, caused a stir. It exposed some minor distortions in Dreams, and revealed a colder, more calculating side to the president. Maraniss was praised for his research; as one reviewer wrote, he surely knew Obama’s great-grandparents better than Obama did.
According to The New York Times’ book critic Michiko Kakutani, Obama was the most literary president since Lincoln. His book is sure to be a good read. But should those who want to know the real Barack turn to a biography instead?
Nothing but the truth?
Biographies are dead, say some. What with Wikipedia, we have all the facts about famous people’s lives that we need. Memoirs offer something more: personal colour, unique insights which only the writer can provide. Obama can tell us more about his presidency than anyone else.
It is naive to think that memoirs are more truthful, reply others. Memory is never perfect, and writers — especially politicians — often distort facts to romanticize their life or protect their legacy. Biographies, meanwhile, depend on thorough research to succeed. If anything, in the age of fake news, they are more valuable than ever.
- Which book are you more excited about: Barack’s or Michelle’s? Why?
- Can a work of nonfiction ever be entirely truthful?
- Choose an episode in your past and write an account of it. Ask yourself: Why have I picked this moment? How can I make it interesting for the reader? How accurate should my retelling be?
- Read either a memoir or a biography of someone you admire. Write a book review, to be handed in next month.
Some People Say...
“Each of us knows from his own experience that there is something beyond the evidence.”E.M. Forster
What do you think?
Q & A
- I want to write a book!
- There’s nothing stopping you: After all, Jake Marcionette was just 13 when his semi-autobiographical book “Just Jake” became a bestseller. Thanks to e-books, self-publishing has become much cheaper and easier (that’s how Marcionette got started). And memoirs by non-celebrities are more popular than ever. If you have a story to tell, go for it!
- Any advice?
- Read a lot — that will give you a sense of how to tell a story, and what sells. Before writing, ask yourself: What is unique and interesting about my story? As you write, get feedback from others: family, teachers, librarians. There’s no harm in emailing or tweeting at authors you respect, and asking them to take a look too! Once you’re happy with what you’ve written, why not enter a young writers’ competition?
- According to sources involved with the auction. The publishers have not confirmed the figure.
- Past ex-presidents
- Bill Clinton, the previous record holder, was paid $15m for his memoir My Life.
- An account
- The New York Times described American Grown as “warm and personable”.
- Unlike an autobiography, a memoir covers certain chapters of the writer’s past, not their whole life.
- Julius Caesar
- The great Roman general wrote lengthy books about his experiences battling Gallic tribes in a war of conquest, and fighting Roman rivals in civil war. Unlike most contemporary memoirs, Caesar wrote his in the third person.
- David Maraniss
- The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist has written many political biographies, including First in His Class, about Bill Clinton. He plans to write a follow-up book on Obama.
- Minor distortions
- For example, Obama conflated different people into single characters. This is a common practice in memoirs, often done for the sake of tightening the story or protecting identities. But it is one example of why memoirs should not be taken too literally.