Sunday, 20 September 2009

Bookish Bits and Bobs: Giving Up The Ghost

As a ten-year-old I was possibly the world's biggest fan of the Babysitter's Club series, by Ann M. Martin. Had all the books, could recite all their titles to long-suffering relatives who made the mistake of asking which ones I had, had seen the movie countless times, had memorised the life histories of all the characters, and even had a computer game relating to the series that my dad had picked up in the US. Then, for some reason, I made the leap the following year from this to reading Gone With The that was the end of that. I don't think I ever looked back. So my extreme fandom of this series was, if you like, a defining moment. Ann M. Martin's series was the bridge between my childhood and my adult reading.

Except it wasn't by Ann M. Martin. Not entirely. A year or two ago I found out, thanks to our good friend Wikipedia, that many of the titles in the series had been ghostwritten (by a variety of authors, including Suzanne Weyn, Peter Lerangis, Nola Thacker, Ellen Miles, Jan Carr, Jahnna Beecham, and Malcolm Hillgartner). I'd moved on from the BSC series a bit too long ago to be cut up by this in any serious way, but I'll admit feeling mild annoyance, and I can see why people would feel betrayed or hurt by such a discovery. For the uninitiated, allow me to explain: possibly the most insidious aspect of the publishing industry, ghostwriting is a well-known tactic used by people who would not normally be able to get their work published in order to help them actually do so when they arguably shouldn't be able to at all. But what do most people find so offensive about it?

Firstly, let me explain my own annoyance. I'm an aspiring writer myself, and I work hard to improve my writing skills. Then there are people who work even harder on it, by attending writing courses and so on, in the hope that their work will one day attract the attention of publishers. It is therefore perhaps understandable to feel annoyed to see people jumping the queue, as it were, when they've had a leg up from someone else. Ergo there is a sense of injustice involved.

In many cases, there is also a complete lack of honesty about it. Ann M Martin would thank her ghostwriters in the acknowledgements of the BSC books, expressing her gratitude for their help "in the preparation of this manuscript" or for "giving the BSC a voice". These thanks could mean anything at all. And, furthermore, in retrospect it is evident to me that the books were not very well-written at all - so if that's all that Ann M Martin was able to produce WITH the help of a ghostwriter, what on earth must her writing have been like without one? But at least Ann M Martin is a real person - I was even more surprised to discover recently that Carolyn Keene, the 'author' of the Nancy Drew series, was merely a conglomerate of ghostwriters who were hired to bring a publishing house's idea to fruition over a period of years, which again undermines the notion of aspiring writers being given the opportunity to speak their own minds and use their own ideas to succeed.

However, ghostwriters themselves are hardly to blame for the fact that they're able to find employment; it is publishers who perpetuate ghostwriters' livelihoods, for several reasons. One of the most major and obvious outlets for ghostwriting is in the field of the celebrity autobiography. If a celebrity is of below-average intelligence and/or writing skills, it seems that publishers (and, indeed, the celebrities themselves) will stop at nothing to make money from the celebrity's name.

It becomes easier and easier to see, then, why people treat ghostwriters with derision. It's also difficult to not feel this way when ghostwriters' motives are so obscure: writing under a pen-name is one thing, but being made to sign a non-disclosure contract that forbids the writer from revealing that they ever had a role in the work at all? Even if the work is lucrative, I doubt that many people (including myself) can understand the appeal of allowing others to take the credit for your work. In fact, as a teacher of students aged 12 and up, I spend a lot of my time trying to persuade them that plagiarism and over-liberal use of the cut/paste function are NOT credible ways of creating work, and that taking the credit for others' work is morally dubious. How are they going to be convinced by this when their favourite celebrities are taking credit for others' work all the time in their 'auto'biographies?

Ir seems sad that publishers are apparently so keen to make money from an idea that they don't mind sacrificing any integrity that the industry has. I understand that it's a business (if using ghostwriters makes money, then perhaps that's a good business decision); but, on the other hand, it's not a charity, so the ongoing mystery lies in why publishers continue to vest people with talents that they haven't actually got, rather than just telling them no, and giving the time to people who do have talent instead.

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