Sunday, March 19, 2006

An excellent piece on ghostwriting

Tim Adams in the Guardian:

'A new ghost writer has to learn a lot about style,' [Christy Walsh, prominent American ghostwriter] suggested. 'He usually makes the mistake of thinking that he ought to write the way his celebrity talks. That is an error. He ought to write the way the public thinks his celebrity talks.'

In the gap between those two voices lie all of the ghost's creative possibilities and all of his worst nightmares. Whenever my bank balance appears to tempt me toward ghosting, I'm haunted by the story of an indefatigable ghost who used every desperate resource to make it to the end of his contracted 70,000 words about a particularly prolix Yorkshire cricketer. No routine catch at midwicket or unsuccessful lbw appeal was left unexplored. There were paragraphs about the sound of birdsong at various county grounds, and about favourite groundsmen. When he delivered his manuscript and felt the burden of word-count despair briefly lift from his shoulders, he received a call from his publisher. 'This is terrific stuff. Do you think you can do another 30,000 words?'

Cricket's original hero, WG Grace, employed a writer called Arthur Porritt, who described exactly the 'Rooney dilemma', the one which states that great sportsmen do all of their talking on the field: 'Getting material from Grace was almost heartbreaking,' he recalled. 'All he would say in recording some dazzling batting feat of his was 'Then I went in and made 284'.

There's lots of other good stuff in here (it's funny, too, and slightly shaming, how many of the ghostwritten novels I have actually read--Naomi Campbell's, for instance, and also Ivana Trump's: "After paying her ghost Camille Marchetta $350,000 to write a novel about a Czech alter ego named Katrina, Ivana Trump . . . seemed to have convinced herself of her gift. 'To my surprise, I find I have a great imagination,' she told -Vanity Fair in her unwieldy English. 'I don't say I'm the Shakespeare, but it's not just about the beautiful people and the gorgeous yachts and the fabulous homes and lots of sex. I tried to put in more the feelings'").

Jennie Erdal is quoted, and then also Andrew Crofts, whose theory of ghostwriting seems to me most convincing (he puts his finger on why it's always seemed appealing to me):

'If I'm writing about someone who is morally dubious, I'll find myself fiercely defending them if someone criticises them. You have to see things entirely from their point of view. Being a ghost is a bit like being a therapist,' he says. 'But it is probably more like being a defence lawyer.'


  1. Question: I know you went to Yale for graduate school. Not that I think I have much of a chance of getting it, but I've perused their graduate course selection, and far from offering the panoply or full gamut of literary subjects and periods I expected, things seem to be heavily weighted to Augustan era writing, stuff from the Renaissance, Victorian economics, maybe one or two courses on the Modernists, with of course tons on Beowulf and other medievalists like Chaucher. While I believe in having a strong background in the past like any lover of Literature, in an environment like that, one can't exactly branch out or truly specialize, i.e: be a student of contemporary or post-WWII fiction which is my area of interest. In despair of a better alternative, I was thinking of even applying to the African American Studies program, knowing that most of the literature that would be read there would of the kind I enjoy. It's my opinon that the antiquarian impulse in graduate studies programs, especially at the Ivy Leagues, is a little too strong, and I would like it if they gave equal importance to the stuff being written today as they do to things written hundreds of years ago. One could argue it's a matter of accessibility and that most contemporary or postmodern writing is eminently understandable and one need not be a scholar - or better yet, need a scholar in order to understand it. However, when I think of writers like Norman Mailer, that argument hardly seems to hold water. Also, there's the consideration that speaking of comtemporary literature, literature which has not be canonized, one is forced into theorizing for oneself as opposed to relying upon the authoriative statements and interpretations of others, and that consequently, from a pedogogical stand point, there is no way of ensuring the veracity or reliability of what one has to offer to one's students.

  2. Anonymous, you are welcome to write to me at my Columbia e-mail address and I can give you an answer in more detail. (And I do think American Studies, perhaps, might suit you better as a department/program choice than English if you're interested in writing about twentieth-century American things.)

    Based on what you've said here, I have to say that I wonder whether/why you are really wanting to do a PhD in English literature. You call it an antiquarian impulse, but I have to speak up for Yale and others and say that it is very natural that English departments (like history departments) should mostly study the past! Insofar as they are responsible for roughly a thousand years of English-language literature (assuming we are talking about English in particular; there are other issues about the English-language-only-ness of it), there ends up being a rough proportionality to the way it's covered. Fair enough.

    I certainly believe that there are good intellectual reasons why professional scholars as well as, say, book reviewers, writers and other intellectuals should write about very contemporary things; but I don't think university departments are set up to counter that!

    You have to remember that a PhD in the end is a professional degree at least as much as it is a tranche of years for intellectual development/study. A PhD is partly a degree you do to qualify you to teach in an English department; and an English department of, say, 12 people may have only two who specialize on twentieth-century American literature (and that includes Faulkner or Wallace Stevens as well as more contemporary stuff). If you apply to graduate programs to do twentieth-century American literature, you are already competing against literally half the pool of applicants (well, I'm making up the numbers, it may not be quite that much) and must be truly spectacular to stand out. If you apply for twentieth-century jobs (and jobs in English are still divided according to extraordinarily traditional field designations), you will again be competing against a huge pool.

    Don't give up hope, I'm sure there are ways around this. (And you're right, I think, to suggest that the Ivy League schools are most traditional in their curriculum--you may want to look at top programs like, say, UC Irvine or UT Austin that are less period-bound.) But do think about what you're getting into--if you really want to read and write about contemporary things, is it not possible that you want to be a freelance writer and book-reviewer rather than an English professor? Perhaps do an MFA to begin with, if you are set on getting a degree?

    There's one link that I recommend to everyone contemplating graduate school in English, and I've pasted it in below. Good luck with your studies.

  3. I read Jennie Erdal's Ghosting: A Memoir this summer and enjoyed it quite a bit. The oddest ghost-ghostee gap I've seen manifested itself when a character in Pamela Anderson's Star Struck quotes an Auden poem.

  4. Call me terribly naive, but I'm still a tiny bit shocked that a celebrity's novel is often not written by her/himself. What?

    I can understand a ghostwriter writing an autobiography (celeb tells life story to writer, writer turns it into coherent prose), or a ghostwriter writing the nth part of a frachise (I understand that Tom Clancy can't write all that, and I strongly suspect Michael Crichton doesn't).

    But a made-up story in a first novel by a celebrity not even being made up by the person who supposedly made it up? That's weird. And worrying.

  5. I have now actually read the article and feel even more worried. Wayne Rooney has a brand manager???

    Time to re-read Martin Amis' The Information, methinks, though that's not about ghosting per se, but very much about the mindset that brings us Wayne Rooney books.

    And I'm also still incredibly curious about who Scott Westerfeld ghosted for...

  6. I have a fantasy of ghostwriting, but I'm sure it's much less enjoyable than I imagine it to be--but I still really do think it would be cool to try and capture something about someone's voice. We must try and figure out what Scott's book was! I am told by various people I know who've done that sort of work that it can be extremely lucrative....

    I agree with you, Marrije, about the particular weirdness and worryingness of the celebrity novel. You wonder how these things get started (and whether novel-writing really has the kind of cultural cachet that makes sense of this phenomenon!?!); does Naomi C. go to her manager and say, "I've always really wanted to write a novel, but I'm a bit busy to do it myself"? Or does the manager go to her and say "We need to do some branding, and you putting your name on a novel that tells your life story is a better way to do it than autobiography--there are going to be lawsuits if we publish anything true"? I can't really imagine, to tell the truth; don't know enough about that universe....