The US vice-presidential candidate's forthcoming book is just the latest in a long line of political memoirs
Palin's unpublished memoir might deserve its bestseller status
Forget Dan Brown, it seems that Sarah Palin has actually turned out to be the publishing sensation of late 2009. The former Alaska governor's autobiography isn't even out until November 17, but it is already top of the bestseller list on Amazon's US website, putting Palin back on top of a news agenda she dominated as the Republican vice-presidential candidate this time last year. It's a book written - by her ghostwriter of course - in just four months.
Until Going Rogue: An American Life is published we can't be sure, but it's a pretty safe bet that it will be the polar opposite of the most popular political memoir - make that memoirs - of recent times: Barack Obama's Dreams From My Father and The Audacity of Hope. The latter is essentially a well-reasoned policy document but the former was quite something - a compulsively readable memoir of Obama's life before he even got into serious politics, and written by the man himself.
Usually the decision to write memoirs is influenced by a number of factors: the desire to right perceived wrongs with one eye on the verdict of history (certainly what George Bush will be attempting to do), and to capitalise on the whopping advance from a slavering publisher - Bill Clinton got a world-record $15 million (Dh55m) for My Life. They are also sometimes bids to increase popularity in preparation for future campaigns (Nicolas Sarkozy's Temoignage was a massive success before the French presidential election). Palin, who believes the press unfairly caricatured her, got a neat $7m (Dh26m) advance from HarperCollins and is still not ruling herself out of the race to be the Republican candidate in 2012, fits all three.
But does anyone actually read them? These hulking doorstops of books all too often sidestep the scandals for explorations of the minutiae of political life. Clinton's My Life is a case in point: he couldn't ignore the Monica Lewinsky affair (he calls it "immoral and foolish") but spends far more time directing his ire at the person who tried to impeach him after it became public, Kenneth W Starr. Add that to endless justifications of how hard-working he was - we learn that he got up at 4am to watch the inaugural ceremonies for Nigeria's new president on TV - and it's no surprise that the political comedian Jon Stewart joked: "I have to confess, I did not finish the entire book: I'm on page 12,000."
The notion that political memoirs are mere bookshelf decoration, a way to show off to friends at dinner parties that you are actively interested in politics and therefore really interesting yourself, holds some truth. There are, though, some genuinely good memoirs out there. You just have to look beyond the most popular ex-prime ministers and presidents to find them. Earlier this year the British Labour MP Chris Mullin wrote of his experiences in Tony Blair's government. In a sense it is a kiss-and-tell story - a much-praised memoir of his time as a backbencher and junior minister ("under-secretary for folding deck chairs" as he self-deprecatingly calls it) in Blair's administration. It is full of gentle humour but an incredible insight into the bizarre workings of government.
Staying in the UK, Alan Clark's three volumes of diaries are simply brilliant, charting the downfall of Margaret Thatcher in such virtuoso style that they ended up being adapted for television - which you can't imagine happening with Clinton's My Life. Meanwhile, in the US, it is telling that the memoir of Ulysses Grant is still held up as the best of its type - he left presidential office in 1877. Mark Twain memorably compared it to Julius Caesar's Commentaries.
And yet Grant barely mentions his time as president in the book, which is probably why it has stood the test of time. All of which brings us right back to Sarah. Perhaps Going Rogue is so eagerly awaited because she isn't burdened with explaining the machinations of high office. She can simply be her forthright, fearsome self. Plus, it's only 400 pages long...