Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Literary ghosts

by Miriam

The subject of ghostwriting seems to be in the air right now. The recent New York Times profile of James Patterson pulled back the curtains on something that was a fairly open secret within the industry: Of the 620 books (give or take) that Mr. Patterson publishes every year, most are collaborations in the loosest term of the word. As Andrew Crofts points out in his rather passionate defense of the practice, if it’s not the oldest profession, ghostwriting has certainly been around since writing utensils began to be used to make literature instead of just grocery lists.

Two new films, Roman Polanski’s The Ghost and L’Autre Dumas, starring the great Gerard Depardieu, deal with the notion of authorship and literary collaborations and I’m intrigued by what they have to say. For agents, a good ghostwriter is a huge asset to one’s client list. Generally excellent writers themselves, they are able to put their egos aside and use their skills as literary entrepreneurs. They are usually able to multitask, are very organized and meet deadlines without the sturm und drang that can drive editors (and sometimes agents) to the nearest bar. And their services can command very nice money.

So, why do we still feel a little disappointed when we find out that a favorite author had more than just transcribing help? Do you?


  1. I admit, I do feel disappointed. It's kind of a little like cheating on a test. We expect that the finished product is the idea and creation of the one person whose name is on the paper. Then we find out otherwise. Being a writer myself, I want to put my full self into my creation. Yes, I gather ideas from friends and family. I ask, "What should happen here?" or "How should this character respond?" But there is a difference between the gathering of ideas and having someone else actually do the work for me.

    Maybe it's just because of my limited understanding of ghost writing, but for me, it's not an option.

  2. A lot of non-writers seem to think that the idea is the most important part of a novel. But most people who've actually tried to write a book know better. Once you realize the idea that seemed so clever in your head takes about ten minutes and two pages to sketch out, you're left with a little more work to do. And that part is the writing.

    I've never met a writer who suffers from a lack of interesting ideas. I've met lots of people who want to be writers but somehow never get around to putting their ideas into novel-length series of words.

    I see the benefits of the ghost-writer system, especially from a business perspective (on behalf of agents, publishing houses, and authors - both the famous ones and the ghost writers themselves).

    But talking about ghost-written novels, especially novels with unacknowledged ghost writers, I think the system is deceptive and harmful to the industry as a whole. It trains readers to expect templated products, to shop by brand name, and to be risk-adverse (e.g. not picking up a new novel that has the author's name on the cover instead of the brand name).

    Non-fiction books, especially ones with celebrity authors, are another story (literally, figuratively). These are occasions when a good idea really is a critical starting point and yet an author is needed to transform the good idea into a compelling narrative. Can anyone imagine what Sarah Palin's book might have looked like without her "co-writer?"

  3. I'm disappointed if the writing style or the voice is different. I remember the firs time I knew that I was reading a ghost-written novel - I was about 12 years old and it was a Tom Clancy one. It didn't sound nearly as well researched and the voice just wasn't the same. It took me forever to finish it.
    However, when Robert Ludlum died I continued to read several of the ghostwritten novels and I like some of them b/c the authors have a voice that I like (I would read books by them that aren't part of the series).

    I almost never expect a celebrity/politician to write their own book, so I don't even bother.

  4. On the one hand, I don't care for "Patterson's" writing style, so I don't buy any of his books. Not enough description for me and the few times that I've tried reading one of "his" I just felt empty afterwards. But that said, I know that they make a lot of money for Little, Brown, which can help them to work with unknown authors, so he's okay in my book.

  5. I think it's the same reason we feel disappointed when we find out a singer was lip-synching (even more so if it's not to a track they at least created--remember all the Milli Vanilli debacle). We feel cheated and misled, and as if someone is benefiting off of another's talent and hard work. Even if the original author has written tons of great books in the past and the ghost-written books are based off the original author's brainstorming, it feels like a deceptive practice. (I can see the benefits to the ghost-writer system from the writer side, but I'm trying to speak from the consumer side, as someone who might have no knowledge of how anything in publishing works.)

  6. I understand the concept of creating a brand and then not being able to keep up with the demand of your readership. And while 'farming out' is certainly done in other industries, I don't agree with it as it applies to the arts. I'd rather see an author give a new writer a blurb and help propel his or her career rather than solicit help with his own. In the case of celebrities writing their stories with help from experienced writers (with both names prominently displayed on the cover), that I expect.

  7. I wouldn't want my name on a book written by someone else, I'll admit.

    But I'll also admit that I wouldn't mind doing the writing for the publishing experience in advance of novels of my own, never mind the paycheck and a few perks, even if someone else's name would take credit.

  8. It seems to me that the way to go is to state that a book series is a franchise or brand, rather than pretend all books are written by the one person. In other words, make it clear on the book that it's a "James Patterson's [Title]," which doesn't imply he's done all the work, but still allows anonymity for the ghost writer.

    Yes, I would feel cheated if this was not stated somewhere, even in small type on the title page, and I was a huge fan.

  9. As a reader, I agree with most of you in that it's disappointing to find out that an author you like is not really writing his/her own books -- and this is especially true when it comes to fiction for all the reasons you've cited. Christine, your point about Little Brown using the profits from Patterson's titles as a way of supporting their unknown or less successful but more literary works has been the conventional wisdom for many years, but in fact, managing his "brand" requires so many of the publisher's resources (both in personnel and finances) that it may actually prevent them from nurturing the less commercial authors.

  10. Yes, basically what everyone else said. You feel like you've been admiring an illusion and it's just been shattered. It's almost like a double standard, isn't it? We're told that publishing has high standards, and that if you're going to make it at all as a writer you have to be able to meet those standards. We work hard at it, then someone comes along who either lacks the talent or doesn't want to put in the effort, pays someone else to write and is a success for it? It just doesn't seem particularly fair. His success should be because of his writing skills, not because of someone else's.

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