I feel a bit transparent this Halloween. You see, for the past six months I’ve been a ghost. That means no habeus corpus, no credit, no identity. I’m so insubstantial I can’t tell you whether I’m writing a kiss-and-tell or a how-to or a what-if, or all of the above. I can’t name the author of the book I’m writing. I can’t even name myself! But worst of all, from my new vantage point I can see that today’s publishing business is riddled with spectral writers – some of whom don’t even know they’re ghosts.
Why am I a ghost? Not put too fine a point on it, I am paid more to pen a book “by” someone who can’t write than I can imagine being paid in the current climate for literary work of my own. That’s not because my three novels have been poorly reviewed or failed to sell; it’s because they have failed to sell like blockbusters or branded series.
Editors at mainstream houses today will send quality literary manuscripts back even to award-winning authors with a Post-it stuck to the title page that reads, in effect, “Dead on Arrival. Replace this with a bestseller or give us back your advance.” I cannot name names here, since these authors are feverishly trying to “redeem” themselves now by writing those bestsellers, but this has happened to friends of mine who are widely considered literary lions. Some slaved over their books for six or more years before being rejected. More than a few, for the sake of survival, are turning into ghosts.
A different variation on the ghost syndrome applies to young authors who, just a few years ago, would have been published by caring editors at major presses and hailed by book reviewers across the country as brilliant new voices on the literary scene. Today most of those critics have been laid off by dying newspapers and magazines, and the brilliant new voices are lucky to find a home at a small press that turns out several hundred copies of books that ought to be published in the thousands. Many resort to self-publishing which, in the eyes of the mainstream publishing industry and most serious readers, renders them invisible.
Of course, American publishing has a long tradition of ghost-written series such as Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys, but that tradition used to fool kids who didn’t know better. Ghosts also have been routinely used as technicians to craft the stories and ideas of politicians, celebrities, and executives who have neither the time nor the ability (no secret that Sarah Palin would need a ghost to Go Rogue) to write their own books; that tradition has never fooled anybody. But the current explosion of mainstream ghostwriting is duping a segment of adult society that used to know better.
Years ago I worked with a woman who ghost-wrote essays and theses for high school and college students. At the time I was appalled. Today, even MFA students dare to hire ghostwriters. (Woe to any of my students who try this!) Why, you might ask, would an aspiring writer even consider hiring someone else to write for her? Well, why not, when ghostwritten authors like Tom Clancy and James Patterson are treated by the publishing industry as heroes!
It might seem a paradox that even as more published books are written by ghosts, more budding writers are defending their creative voices through personal blogs and websites. But are these bloggers really writing their own stuff, or are they cutting and pasting the work of others? Are they even who they say they are? How can anyone know?
The popularity of memoirs would suggest that there’s a major market for true stories by real authors. But James Frey, JT LeRoy, and Margaret B. Jones are just some of the recent writers who, in effect, have ghost-written their own books by concealing their true identities and distorting their true stories.
Writing as a ghost, I have to admit, can be as liberating as acting. You explore somebody else’s stories in somebody else’s voice to serve somebody else’s agenda. Ghostwriting can be played like a game against the unsuspecting reader. Or it can be practiced like a mechanical skill, as impersonal as auto repair or computer assembly. In my ghost guise I am an identity technician.
But one fundamental feature of good writing has always been its authenticity. To paraphrase Hemingway, all you have to do to become a good writer is write one true sentence after another. Truth lies in the feeling, the observing, the reporting, and in the accountability of author to reader.
All these variations of the ghost syndrome now creeping through the publishing industry make a mockery of both authenticity and accountability. They encourage writers to lie and cheat, and train readers to believe even the most blatant deceptions. Worse, this trend trains readers not to care when the liars are revealed. Just a few months after James Frey was exposed for inventing the core story in his supposed memoir, A Million Little Pieces, Frey signed a seven-figure deal to write three books for Harper Collins.
Ghost-written books may make perfect sense to a reality show generation that assumes reality is contrived. After all, fact and fiction have never been more interchangeable than they are in today’s pop culture. But that very statement means that true literature by substantial authors has never been more sorely needed. Otherwise we all might as well disappear.
Causes Aimee Liu Supports
PEN USA, Academy for Eating Disorders, Women for Women, UNICEF, Amnesty International