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Ghostwriters haunt our illusions about solitary authors

Should we be upset that some of our favourite authors don’t actually exist? Mark Nye

Ghostwriters haunt our illusions about solitary authors

Ghosts are the shadowy forces behind some of the publishing world’s greatest sensations. Reading the literary pages lately, you could be forgiven for thinking that this spectral army is on the rise.

Recently there’s been an outcry over internet identity Zoella’s recent ghost-written chick lit novel – a novel that was expected to be so popular that it had to be launched from a secret location.

The untimely death of Rebecca Farnworth, the long acknowledged ghost for glamour model Katie Price’s novels, as well has her best-selling autobiography Being Jordan, has drawn attention to the role of ghosts.

One of my undergraduate students has been chasing rumours on social media about a future Bryce Courtney ghost (only a rumour). Then last week one of my stellar postgraduate students announced an impending deal to write for one of the biggest names in American publishing.

This will allow her to transition from a relatively frugal life, marked by bits of writing royalties backed up by occasional academic teaching contracts, to money that comes in reliably every week, in a stream approaching an actual wage, underpinned by a massive publicity machine and guaranteed translation into a range of languages.

But unlike many other ghosted contracts, she will also get to have her name on the cover.

This is what is changing. It’s not that there are more ghosts in the publishing machine, but that some of the ghosts are gaining – and even demanding – recognition.

The ghosts appear

Until recently, any conversation about ghostwriting would have quickly wandered into the murky and more disreputable parts of commercial literary production, such as hoaxes and forgeries or, in academic circles, the spectre of contract plagiarism.

Over the course of the last decade, this has changed. Everybody knows Tom Clancy doesn’t write all of his own novels. Neither does Wilbur Smith or James Pattison. Most people would realise that Learning to Fly wasn’t written by Victoria Beckham, but by Pepsy Denning. It was Tom Watts who wrote David Beckham’s My Side. Other ghosts with books regularly in the international top-ten include Andrew Crofts and Mark McCrum.

The list goes on. RL Stine didn’t write all the Goosebumps books. Carol Keene, the alleged author of the Nancy Drew series, never existed. She was conjured by a team of ghosts. VC Andrews – author of Flowers in the Attic – published more books after her death than were published in the author’s lifetime – thanks to Andrew Neiderman, who is better known in his own right as the author of The Devil’s Advocate.

Who names their ghosts?

What is intriguing about ghosted books is the varying level of acknowledgement given to the writer. Some ghosts get to have their name on the cover, albeit in a smaller font.

Others can only be found tucked away on the acknowledgements page, where they are thanked along with the babysitter, favourite aunt or grandmother. Still others remain anonymous and are contractually forbidden to acknowledge their participation in the work.

The work done by the ghost also differs in every situation. They may write up interviews, and shape them into a non-fiction story. They may weave a given set of fictional characters and concepts together with the magic of their words. In some instances, they actually pitch the characters, the concepts and the story and then write it up as well.

In this case, the name writer operates a bit like a brand – a guarantee of readability – that is applied to the cover.

So should we be upset that some of our favourite authors don’t actually exist? Are ghosts to be considered on par with – or even lower than – publicists weaving together a book-length press release? Or do they simply tell the stories of our culture that would otherwise remain untold?

Outside the literary realm, ghosting has long been a respectable and even admired institution in the world of politics. Let’s face it, James Monroe didn’t write the Monroe Doctrine – that was John Quincy Adams. Alex Haley wrote the autobiography of Malcolm X.

Anything comprehensible that Ronald Reagan ever said was penned by Peggy Noonan, including the speech on the Challenger disaster – in literary terms, one of the great dramatic speeches of the late 20th century.

In Australia, Don Watson and Graham Freudenberg ought to be thanked for anything that is remotely literary in political rhetoric.

But ghosting is still perceived to be a problem when it comes to the world of books. In the case of Zoella’s ghosted novel, rumours attributing the authorship of Girl Online to YA novelist Siobhan Curham grew into an astonishing tirade of abuse on social media. Readers felt cheated.

They weren’t just after a good read – even though the book was a work of popular fiction. Rather, the presence of the ghost seemed to violate a cultural requirement that a book has a single “author” whose life experience provides a unitary source of meaning for the text that is authentic and sincere.

Zoella has since declared on social media that she will be writing her next book by herself.

Interestingly enough, the same sense of outrage didn’t apply in the case of Katie Price. But then Price was open about her literary arrangements, announcing in an interview that although she comes up with the concepts and characters, she is “not a writer”, and the work that Farnworth does is “just amazing”. They worked as a team, she confessed, albeit a somewhat unequal one.

Sharing the load

Modernism – and western culture generally since the late 18th century – taught us that books were written in solitary creative frenzies. It valued art over craft, idea over execution, and the concept over the idea of making.

Modern authors – whether literary or popular – were always singular, and heroic. The entity that in literary theory is called the “Author Function” guaranteed the authenticity of a work and dictated its horizon of meaning.

In our own age of “networked” or “collective intelligence” readers are perhaps more open to the idea that a book can be the product of many minds and hands.

Transparency seems to be a large part of the answer to any of the ethical dilemmas this entails. Indeed, if there’s a spectral presence in the celebrity publishing machine, it’s not the writer but the illusion of celebrity.