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Among the ghosts

Does it matter who actually wrote a novel – or a political speech?

11 June 2011

12:00 AM

11 June 2011

12:00 AM

Does it matter who actually wrote a novel – or a political speech?

What’s the most distinguished ghost-written book? John F. Kennedy, while still a postgraduate student, put his name to a book that went on to win the Pulitzer. Decades after his assassination it emerged that it was substantially ghosted. Should not the keepers of the records, as with sportsmen caught out doing their great things on steroids, affix an asterisk to his name? After his death in 2002 the Nobel Prize-winning Spaniard Camilo José Cela was accused of using the services of two (also now dead) ghostwriters. The jury remains out, but another asterisk may be hovering. Two asterisks, perhaps, since Cela is also under suspicion of having been a plagiarist.

We learned a while ago that the Swedish academy, asterisk at the ready, is investigating the case of a living author suspected of ghosting. What, one wonders, will they do if they find it to be true? My guess is they’ll do nothing, perhaps not even make public their findings. The wise men of Stockholm are notoriously reluctant to withdraw awards: so far, they even stick by the one they gave in 1949 to Antonio Egaz Moniz, a pioneer of pre-frontal lobotomy. Moniz only stopped scooping brains out of luckless human beings when one of his former patients, less tolerant than the Nobel committee, shot him.

The general rule about ghosting is that the lower the literature, or the aspiration, or our esteem for the author, the less we’re upset. It’s said that Donald Trump will emit a ‘heavily ghostwritten’ book as a consequence of his brief presidential campaign. One no more expects genuine writing from him than a genuine coif. When Katie Price admits that hands other than her own create her bestselling works, we smile indulgently. No one expects a model to write her own books any more than they expect her to sew her own clothes. As for living, said Marie Antoinette, we have our servants for that. Jordan has the estimable ghostwriter Rebecca Farnworth.

Move a bit up the literary scale and a certain uneasiness does set in. When Graham Lord alleged that Dick Francis’s wife, Mary, ghosted those bestselling novels of the turf, one did feel a twinge. Dick was never going to win a Nobel, but somehow one liked to think that horsey world was, well, manly.

I happen to rather like Jeffrey Archer’s novels (The Fourth Estate is, I think, much underrated). I can live with the fact that there is a helping hand at work in them. More so as the author, cheeky as ever, quips that his Mary, like Francis’s Mary, translates his fiction into English. Another little helper, one is told, was Archer’s former desk editor, Richard Cohen.

One of our currently eminent ghostwriters, Andrew Crofts, has gone so far as to claim: ‘I don’t believe that the readers who enjoy these stories care who actually does the typing, any more than they care whether Mr Kipling actually bakes his own cakes.’ There might, of course, be complaints if it turned out that Mr Kipling had not written The Jungle Stories. But where junk food for the mind is concerned, who cares?

Croft, with his cakes analogy, is instructing us not to think of an ‘author’ but of a ‘brand’. Don’t think ‘reader’, think ‘customer’. If you adopt this commercially rational approach, it helps solve several problems.

One is that the most valuable brand-name authors can’t produce enough, fast enough, to satisfy the market. Tom Clancy pastes his name happily on works by a platoon of writers as invisible to the reader’s eye as his Ghost Recon force is to the enemy they invariably defeat. As Clancy’s publisher puts it: ‘Tom Clancy creates the ideas for these series, and the writers execute Clancy’s ideas. All these titles are subject to Clancy’s overall editorial supervision.’ The output of the Clancy factory is only equalled, in its selling clout, by the output of the James Patterson factory.

The other problem solved is that authors (damn them) die on you. Publishers are unwilling to let a top-selling brand go quietly to the grave. They are made to ride out, corpses in the saddle, like Charlton Heston at the end of El Cid. The website lists some 200 authors who have ‘written’ posthumously. Currently there is a bit of a fuss about Robert Ludlum, whose after-death output looks likely to exceed what he produced while still a warm body.

The term ‘ghostwriting’, and a profitable line of business based on it, was invented by the American literary entrepreneur Christy Walsh in the 1920s. His main interest was ‘sports celebrity’ memoirs by the likes of Babe Ruth. The 1920s was also, interestingly enough, the period when the ‘creative editor’ came to the fore. Foremost among these was Maxwell Perkins. Perkins, a former newspaperman, joined Scribner’s in 1910. Scott Fitzgerald was his first big ‘discovery’. American literature has always valued intrusive editors more than its British counterpart. Perkins was among the most brilliantly intrusive. He shaped The Great Gatsby like plasticine. In 1928, Perkins took on his greatest editorial challenge with the voluminous work of Thomas Wolfe. He was instrumental in hacking works such as Look Homeward Angel into shape. Fitzgerald, in a letter to Wolfe, called Perkins ‘our common parent’. Could one also call him their ghost?

Where ‘ghosting’ gets most vexatious is politics. Here we enter a world of doublethink and doublespeak. Some politicians are engagingly cynical on the subject. Of his autobiography Ronald Reagan quipped: ‘I hear it’s a terrific book! One of these days I’m going to read it myself.’ An actor, Reagan was trained to read lines given him and saw no shame in it. Reagan’s ‘bright new morning’ might be one of the great vote-winning speeches of the late 20th century; George H.W. Bush’s ‘thousand points of light’ could be another. Bush didn’t come up with that zinger — his speechwriter Peggy Noonan did (she also put some of his most famous words into Reagan’s mouth). The presidents merely autocued what was fed up to them.

Take another example, seen in the Oscar-winning The King’s Speech. The narrative concludes with George VI – unstammeringly — giving an address at the outbreak of war. But those weren’t his words. The film makes that quite clear. Churchill, a few months later, urged his people to fight the enemy on the beaches. He wrote those words himself. Hitler wrote (or improvised) his own speeches. So did de Gaulle. Does one value them more than politicians, or monarchs, who merely read their ghosted script?

I’ve admired David Cameron from that moment which turned his career around at the 2005 Tory party conference. Things looked terrible for him. He stayed up all night, wrote his own speech, memorised it and won the day. Cameron didn’t use ghosts, he exorcised them. It was a good day for British politics. Would there were more of them.

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