Is ghost writing the new rock and roll? Not quite. But certainly the profile of the craft has been raised recently. Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Robert Harris’s novel The Ghost has been screened to acclaim at the Berlin film festival. In Paris, another new movie highlights the role of August Maquet, a 19th century ghost who allegedly came up with both plots and characters of novels by Alexandre Dumas, including The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. Meanwhile, the role of ghost writers in the contemporary world of letters is becoming more widely understood.
Look at the non-fiction bestseller list any week these days and you’ll see those celebrity memoirs: chefs, sportsmen, actors, comedians, most of them off the telly. Do these busy people have the time to write their own books? The inclination? The skill? The answer is, generally, no. As the unnamed ghost in Harris’s book explains, ‘We are the unseen operatives who keep publishing going, like the unseen workers beneath Disney World.’
In the last few years this lucrative non-fiction jamboree has spilled over into fiction. Jordan, a successful memoirist once mainly famous for the size of her breasts, now ‘writes’ novels under her real name of Katie Price that outsell the entire Booker Prize list. Sharon Osbourne, another star in the biog section, is just launching into this genre, with Revenge, out on 4th March. ‘She wrote it with help from a co-writer,’ her publisher admits to Bookseller magazine, ‘but it’s her story, her characters, her plot. It was all her own idea.’
At the same time, from over the Atlantic comes the growing realisation that several of the famous names that adorn the fiction bestseller lists have help. James Patterson now acknowledges with a by-line no less than five co-writers for his numerous works. Tom Clancy is another who admits to a collaborative element. The representatives of Robert Ludlum and Virginia Andrews, still regularly producing books some time after their deaths, have also fessed up to the obvious.
Is all this a bad thing? For someone like myself, who makes their living by helping celebs get their golden thoughts on paper, clearly not. For the celebs themselves, if they pitch their story right, their book can be a career-enhancer, as well as giving them the bogus credibility of authorship. Even I was slightly aghast, watching this year’s Celebrity Big Brother, to see Jordan’s new man, cage fighter Alex Reid, describe his wife-to-be as ‘an author’. With no hint, it seemed, of tongue-in-cheek. She is not alone in taking full credit for work mostly done by another. A fellow ghost tells the story of being at an awards ceremony where the book she’d written for a famous pop star was duly honoured. Not only did the star go up to accept the prize and make the speech, back at the table my friend wasn’t even allowed to touch it.
What about the rest of us? If the adoring fans of these icons yearn to know how they overcame poor school reports, shot to fame and faced down their first eating disorder, is there any harm in these books being published?
My immediate answer would be no. The market has a need and the need is being met. Isn’t it pure intellectual snobbery to object to the piles of these tomes in supermarkets up and down the land? Maybe people who would not normally read will start with I am Ozzy or Dreams Can Come True and move on to War and Peace? In any case, why should they move on to War on Peace? Even if they just want to buy the book and stick it, unread, on top of the telly, isn’t that their prerogative?
On reflection, though, I have to admit to a philosophical yes. The publishing world has few scruples. Whatever publishers may say in their cups about nurturing talent and supporting excellence, the bottom line is money. This has always been true, but in recent years, as the power of editors has waned, and that of marketing and sales people has risen, it has become truer. If Megathon Books have a sure-fire commercial proposition, which they can get behind with all the means at their disposal, they’re far happier doing that than taking a chance on some new thing that may or may not do well (even if they know in their guilty hearts that it’s of far higher quality).
Celebrity memoirs are rarely about good writing. People don’t pick up these books because they’ve been told by a friend that they take the literary imagination to a whole new place, that the dialogue sings, or even merely that they have powerful characters and a gripping plot. They pick them up because they have a burning curiosity to understand more about their favoured celeb. The medium of television has created such a brilliant illusion of intimacy that viewers start to believe they know the people they see so frequently on the other side of the lens.
I remember sitting in Waterstones, Piccadilly for the signing of a book I had written for the TV series Castaway, where thirty or so ‘ordinary people’ were marooned on a Scottish island for a year. The show had been a success and the queue stretched out of the front door and round the block. When the punters were let in, did they rush up to me, the author (even though I was on this occasion credited on the jacket). Of course not. They made straight for the four stars of the show sitting beside me. ‘Oh hello, Ben, how’s your dog?’ ‘Hi Julie, were you really OK with the compost toilet?’ They were talking to these newly-famous strangers as you might talk to an old friend.
Working subsequently with Bruce Parry from the cult TV programme Tribe, I got quite used to such unreal interactions. Sit in a coffee bar in central London for five minutes and someone would come up, wanting to communicate, to somehow make that intimacy genuine. They had watched Brucey’s alarmed close-up as he tries, squashed in by his hosts, to sleep on the floor of a hut in Sudan – why shouldn’t they want to say hello? Of course these fans aren’t stupid. At one level they understand that their hero doesn’t know them from Adam or Eve. But at another, I sometimes wonder. I once interviewed a South African newsreader who told me he was rung up at the TV station by a viewer who wanted to know whether he liked the new curtains in her living room.
Many of the magazines on the news-stands feed similar addictive fantasies. Why should anyone care whether Peter Andre is unhappy about Katie Price marrying Alex Reid? Only because they have watched them on TV and know their mannerisms as well as someone they live with. Having watched Alex sitting in the diary room of Celebrity Big Brother wondering if he might turn to God, I almost feel I know him myself. In due course the fallout of this uninspiring love triangle will undoubtedly be documented within the covers of yet another heavily-promoted book.As this literary bindweed crowds the garden of publishing, other, subtler blooms are strangled. As publishers pay bookshops to display their guaranteed success stories in the window, by the till and in other easy-to-purchase places, works of imagination and quality languish on the back shelf – if they make the bookshop at all. Writers of such books must accept feeble sales, and then not grumble when in due course they are quietly dropped. Further down the food chain, other talents never even make it to publication. Writers who might have entertained us in another age give up and become plumbers, taxi drivers, even ghosts. It’s not an easy thing getting a novel accepted these days – unless you’re Katie Price of course.