Thursday, June 2, 2011

Ghosts in the Celebrity Machine

By Dan Gerstein

Last week we had some pun fun with the contest the Kardashian sisters were running on Twitter to name their soon-to-be published novel (we'll post some of our favorite submissions soon, FYI). But as the New York Times points out today, celebrity chick lit is fast becoming serious business. To wit (and we're using that phrase loosely): Nicole Richie, Hilary Duff, Lauren Conrad have all joined the Kardashians in scoring big bucks book deals relatively recently, while Snooki had her fiction debut (A Shore Thing) land on the Times best-seller list at the beginning of the year.

This trend raises a seemingly juicy question that the Times dutifully uses as a hook for its story: did these starlets actually write these books themselves? The authors and their publicists adhere to their reality TV training and try to maintain the fiction that their fiction is their own -- when the question was put to Snooki on the Today Show, she replied, “I did. . . . Because if you read it, you’ll know the first page that I wrote it. Cause, like, it’s all my language.” But the Times reporter rather effortlessly confirms that they've all used ghostwriters; Richie's publisher contradicted her claims of authorship in the bat of an eyelash extension.

Reading this, I could not help but have a Claude Rains in "Casablanca" moment. We're supposed to be shocked, shocked that there is ghostwriting in Hollywood. That women who are paid to look good reading other people's writing on camera might get paid for using other people's writing in print. That a self-appelled "Guidette" who admits to having read two books in her life might have had some help writing a 304-page novel. Seriously, the news here would have been if any of these actresses and/or professional publicity chasers had written the book without the aid of a ghost.

What the article did expose, though, was an implicit prejudice/disdain for ghostwriting that remains all too common among journalistic and writing elites. Most average Americans understand and accept that politicians work with speechwriters, late night talk show hosts use jokewriters, CEOs hire professional business writers to help craft their leadership tomes. And yet when it comes to the Kardashian sorority producing a novel for a major publisher, perhaps the most obvious case of literary assistance imaginable, the Times felt compelled to search for a non-existent ethical issue. What's next: an investigation into the veracity of professional wrestling?

Now we suspect that Times' overreaction is due in some part to the apparent novelty of ghostwritten novels, that such a personal form of individual imaginate could be subbed out mostly or wholely to another writer. But the fact is even top fiction writers like James Patterson and James Frey have been employing small armies of ghosts to support their prolific output. And we can attest from our recent experience, with dozens of non-writers calling us for help in turning their inspiration into a novel, that this practice is only going to become more and more common-place as the barriers to entry for publishing a book disintegrate.

That's a subject for a longer dedicated meditation. For now, we would suggest that if the Times is looking for a scandal here, it should seek out and talk to all the promising young writers who are being Snooki-ed out of publishing deals.

Gerstein is president of Gotham Ghostwriters


Larry Dietz said...

When I gave speeches as West Coast Editor of Playboy I was always asked if the monthly Playmates actually wrote the responses to the data sheet questions/subjects. I answered truthfully, "Yes. But not always on the first try." Jeez! Starlets using ghostwriters! So they stand in line behind the pols and business execs whose pearls of wisdom come from oysters other than themselves?

And if we're supposed to be grim or huffy about the starlets' books taking deals away from real writers, look through a year's worth of NY Times Book Reviews, at display ads for first novels. Is it coincidence or destiny that 75% or more are for books written by, drum roll, attractive young women writers?

ted botha said...

When I still owned a TV (reality TV made me throw it away), I was shocked, shocked to see an interview in which Chelsea Handler and Lauren Conrad exchanged views on 'the writing process.' Both had just seen their books come out. Talk about surreal TV. It made me want to hang up my pen ... at least for a moment.

Anonymous said...

Not every author is a professional writer. Does this make their stories less worthy of publication? If there's a public, there's a way...

Alice G said...

One of the problems with admitting one uses a ghostwriter is that many don't understand the traditional role of the ghost. Although it can vary along a broad spectrum, the typical role of the ghostwriter is to put the author's own words on paper in a way that fully reflects the author's thoughts, ideas, and yes, even rhythm and syntax, if the context calls for it. The goal of a good ghostwriter therefore is to digest and then regurgitate the author's thoughts -- not invent something from whole cloth and staple the author's name to it. Whether this holds true for works of fiction by reality-TV stars, of course, I couldn't say, but if it doesn't, it's a shame. Such fictional acts of fiction-writing will only worsen the existing prejudice against ghosts.

Miranda said...

I have done ghosting work on several novels, all with newbie writers, helping them with everything from line editing to fleshing out scenes to writing a query letter. It's alot like being a creativity coach and quite rewarding. Should be no different for the famous...I'm willing to believe the Snookster came up with some of her own ideas, if not actually writing the novel with her name on it.

lauterprof said...

To Aliceg's point, a CEO of a major U.S. corporation once said to his speechwriter, "You make me sound more like me than I do." His remark demonstrated both her insightful delineation of what ghostwriters do and why he needed one!