19 March 2005

Ghost Stories

Very, very few of those big, fat celebrity autobiographies, memoirs (autobiographies that don't bother to check the documentation for accuracy or completeness, although their proponents often characterize them as something else), and even works of fiction (Newt Gingrich, the State of the Union, William Shatner), are actually written by those to whom authorship gets credited. The ones we know about are easy; Colin Powell went on My American Journey while putting Joe Persico's name on the cover along with his own, and Stormin' Norman proclaimed that It Doesn't Take a Hero while clearly crediting Peter Petre. (How ironic that military figures—who have lived their lives in the ultimate bureaucracy of the anonymously authored report—seem better about crediting the wordsmiths…). Joe Queenan's essay on the evils of ghostwriting (NYTBR, 19 Mar 05) does not portray this as a good thing.

[G]hostwriters are by nature timid, diplomatic, gun-shy. A ghostwriter would almost certainly have persuaded Kinski to leave out the part about puking in someone's face or seducing high school girls, and would probably have deleted the passage about Kinski's wanting to see the director Werner Herzog slowly strangled by an anaconda or bitten by a poisonous spider that would "paralyze his lungs." It is by saddling celebrities with such sober professionals that agents, editors and book packagers come to stand between the public and some truly unforgettable reading experiences; I personally would welcome the unghosted autobiography of Keanu Reeves or Paris Hilton or the unghosted memoirs of Michael Jackson. And, without the mediating force of a ghostwriter, Geraldo Rivera's Exposing Myself might have been really disgusting, not merely nauseating. By strategically positioning a goodnatured hack between the celebrity and the public, the publishing industry is doing fans of the joyously cretinous a terrible disservice. Let us never forget: by their words ye shall know them. Not by their ghostwriters' words.

Come on, Joe, tell us what you really think.

The de Gaulle-Malraux literary liaison, if it ever existed, is an illustration of ghostwriting at its very best. One dashing figure, who has the brains but not the leisure to write a book, secures the services of a genius with time on his hands. The nominal author provides the relevant facts, figures and anecdotes about those gay old times at L'Ecole Normale Superieure; the ghostwriter does the heavy lifting. But nobody ever officially admits that a ghostwriter is involved because that gets up the public's nose. This was also the template for the manufacture of John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage, which won the callow young senator an image-enhancing Pulitzer Prize for a book that he almost certainly did not write, at least by himself. The underlying philosophy here was clear: Get the book written; let the sticklers worry about who wrote it. (emphasis added)

There's the rub. It's just a question of having the time, right? Well, that might be an unrealistic expectation to begin with; Queenan is probably being unduly optimistic when he asserts that it might have taken Dan Quayle only 400 years to write that monstrosity masquerading as his own autobiography. (I always thought that the press was a bit too easy on Quayle's "intellectually challenged" persona.) What Queenan's article doesn't grasp is that the ability to tell stories does not always accompany having the stories to tell. If nothing else, that explains why some very bright men and women down through the years—Sartre is perhaps the paradigmatic example, but he's far from alone—have written some very bad works of fiction, while some less-than-Nobel-Prize-candidate dilletantes—Mary Shelley, Leo Tolstoi, and Sinclair Lewis come to mind, but that's just off the top of my head (where I used to have hair)—have written some truly memorable ones. They are different things. Queenan is right that the role of the ghostwriter should always be acknowledged, if only out of intellectual honesty, even when the ultimate subject is essentially an exercise in intellectual dishonesty, like Limbaugh's wretched excesses. He's wrong, though, when he implies that somehow, without those ghostwriters, the stories can be told. Even in 400 years.

Speaking of the rub, when is the last time one of those shelfstraining monstrosities did not lead you to sleep, perchance to dream? Doesn't that argue for a greater role for the ghost between the covers?