x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Morrissey's move into literature part of a growing musical trend

Making the move from musician to published author is not an easy one, but a few are finding success on both stages.

Over the past 65 years a full library of literary greats have graced the Penguin Classics roster, from Homer, Chaucer and Dickens to Woolf, Steinbeck and Updike. One famous surname you might not expect to see on that list, however, is Morrissey.

The British singer recently announced the completion of his long-awaited memoirs and jokily suggested that only the illustrious reprint specialists possessed the necessary gravitas to publish them. Penguin Classics appeared to agree, describing the potential link-up as "a natural fit" and suggesting that Morrissey's memoir "is a classic in the making," which raised a few eyebrows.

Books written by musicians - really written by them, rather than "ghosted" by journalists - actually vary wildly in both content and quality, but are increasingly in demand. The next few weeks will bring us debut novels from the Texan country singer Steve Earle and the Idaho folk-rocker Josh Ritter, and a paperback version of the former Sleeper singer Louise Wener's recent Britpop memoir. Meanwhile, Patti Smith is reportedly writing a detective novel; and Bob Dylan is embarking on a six-book deal with the publishers Simon & Schuster.

Do such works deserve so much shelf-space? One worthwhile recent release is The Celestial Café by Stuart Murdoch, the founder and front-man of the cerebral Scottish outfit Belle & Sebastian. An enlightening insight into his less than rock 'n' roll lifestyle, it was actually compiled from his blog by an enthusiastic independent publisher, and Murdoch is dismissive of most musicians' attempts to diversify.

"When the writing is an extension of their pop life there's an immediate bond there, like if Morrissey had written about himself when he was doing The Smiths I would have absolutely bought it," he says. However, "the conceit of an artist trying to get into something else, trying to write a novel, the actual thrill of a pop person trying something new only lasts for a very short time."

As Murdoch suggests, anything more ambitious than a memoir can prove arduous for even the most ardent of followers. In the late 1980s the Australian rocker Nick Cave released a collection of poetry called King Ink ("this book is not worth the paper it's printed on," wrote one Cave fan, via Amazon) then a dark, difficult novel called And the Ass Saw the Angel, about a tortured mute. "I've never heard anybody recommend it, although I know quite a lot of Nick Cave fans," says Murdoch, a Cave fan himself.

Tackling fiction while maintaining a music career can be troublesome. The British singer Kate Nash was rumoured to be writing a Roald Dahl-influenced children's book four years ago, but it has yet to emerge. More successfully, the former indie-pop it-girl Wener made a conscious decision to swap songwriting for storytelling as her solo career waned in the late 1990s. Only after four increasingly ambitious novels did she delve back into her musical past, with the 2010 memoir Different for Girls.

Wener now has a healthy new fanbase, but perhaps the most critically successful musician-turned-writer is Willy Vlautin, of US folk-rockers Richmond Fontaine. His debut novel, This Motel Life, eventually appeared in 2006. "I had been writing novels for 15 years at that point," admits Vlautin. "I used to write one then put it in a drawer and then start another one. I never had the guts to send them out."

Having finally finished a book he actually liked, he met a literary agent through the band, and it transpired that the critics liked his writing, too. This Motel Life featured in The Washington Post's 25 Books of the Year; the 2008 follow-up, Northline, won rapturous acclaim across the globe, and last year's Lean on Pete cemented his status "as one of the most emotionally charged writers in America," according to Scotland's Sunday Herald. "The band has to be a hobby now. Vlautin is a writer."

In fact, Vlautin has managed to successfully combine the two disciplines. Northline comes complete with an original soundtrack, comprised of songs he wrote while struggling with the manuscript. "The whole book to me feels like a dark, heartbreaking ballad," he says. "My hope was that someone would read the novel then listen to the soundtrack and maybe the songs would transport them back into the story. Maybe it would make the characters stay alive a bit longer."

Like Murdoch, Vlautin admits that "I don't have a lot of interest in books by musicians," but "I read Steve Earle's first collection and thought it was great." That book, Doghouse Roses, was a set of short stories and, 10 years on, the hard-living singer's debut novel is finally about to emerge. I'll Never Get Out of this World Alive is named after a song by the country legend Hank Williams and early reports have been favourable.

Slightly confusingly, his new album has the same title but isn't directly linked to the novel, apart from the overall theme: mortality. Earle is combining his talents in a live sense, meanwhile, staging readings as well as gigs, a challenge Josh Ritter has also undertaken recently. "Reading is terrifying," confirms Ritter. "Songs, less so."

The singer-songwriter's forthcoming debut novel, Bright's Passage, has also received some excellent early reviews, and it seems that certain artists - chiefly rootsy US folk-rockers - are predisposed toward fiction, after a suitable gestation period. "I've always thought that songs were condensed novels," explains Ritter. "A song is a hallway you build, lined with doorways. A novel is the decision to walk through one of those doors and explore the mansion beyond it."

For those musicians not born in tumbleweed country, memoirs are a surer route to critical success, if your memories are still intact. Patti Smith's 2010 account of her relationship with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids, won a National Book Award last year, and further memoirs should follow that intriguing diversion into detective fiction.

Wener's contemporary, Luke Haines of The Auteurs, was compared to British surrealist Spike Milligan due to 2009's Bad Vibes, a hilariously acerbic account of the mid-1990s Britpop period. The ever-contrary E, of US rockers The Eels, took a different tack with his 2007 autobiography, Things the Grandchildren Should Know: it was published under his real name, Mark Everett, and the cover made no mention of his music career. It proved hugely popular all the same.

Dylan's 2002 memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, was much higher-profile, and proved so successful that he secured a reported eight-figure deal for six further books. Eric Clapton was less ambitious, only self-penning his 2007 autobiography due to firing his ghostwriter halfway through, but the intensely confessional book benefited greatly from that personal touch.

As for the potential merits of Morrissey's memoir, he does possess some previous publishing experience. In the early 1980s the erudite singer penned three biographies - of James Dean, The New York Dolls and various B-movie actors - but these were rather low-key and pamphlet-like and are long since out of print.

Conversely, his new tome reportedly weighs in at a hefty 600 pages, and while several publishers have shown a keen interest, Penguin Classics may just hold another trump card. With a canon full of Shakespeares, Brontës, Dostoevskys and Fitzgeralds, they are not a company known for asking authors to make cuts.