Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Thought Experiment: Ghostbusters

Imagine, if you will, a world where poorly executed fake Picassos go for more money than work by the best contemporary artists, even though it's tacitly understood that they're made by unemployed grad-student painters. Imagine a world where random character actors grace the Broadway stage, but are credited in the program with names like "Scarlett Johansson" and "Claire Danes." Imagine that the lip-synching acts, a la Milli Vanilli, dominate the music scene. Imagine that all of this is an open secret, and nobody says anything, because nobody cares. If that sounds outlandish to you, then take a good look at the New York Times bestseller list any week of the year. I'm willing to bet that half the titles you find there are ghostwritten.

Ghostwriting is a parasite eating the face of American literary culture. And I'm not going to lie: I've tasted that face myself. I doubt there are too many writers in the NYC area who haven't at least contemplated the possibility on occasion. Ghostwriting is a decent way to make a few thousand dollars as a struggling novelist, and for those who excel at it (like Chronic City's Oona Laszlo), it's not a bad way to make a living. Although it's nigh well impossible to survive financially as a literary writer, I know of at least a few people who are able to keep out of poverty ghosting full-time, and I don't fault them in the slightest. Nor do I really take issue with the "Authors," the folks whose names go on the spine. Often celebrities, politicians, or major successes in other fields, they've paid their dues, and who can blame them for wanting to share their knowledge, their stories with the world? Wanting to see yourself on a library shelf isn't the worst form of hubris I can imagine.

Yet therein lies the problem. The whole point of a ghostwritten book is its physical presence: there is the "author's" name on the cover, his photograph on the back. Though the words inside are not the author's per se, the book is his, and thus an object worth desiring. As we move into an era where the book qua physical object is increasingly separated from the content within its pages, though, I wonder what the consequences of this paradigm will be. Through ghostwritten titles, publishers have trained readers to devalue the actual formation of language into narrative, meaning, idea. The content, i.e. the writing itself, is treated as a commodity, easily farmed out to the lowest bidder; the "author" (and his "platform") is the product. But as we gain ever-greater access to these "authors" through streaming video, Twitter feeds, podcasts, and the like, what does a ghostwritten book offer that sets it apart?  Immediacy?  Even when a book is "crashed," or published in the minimum amount of time possible, it can't compete.  Greater accuracy?  Book publishers aren't exactly known for their fact-checking.  A handsome binding?  Forget it, says the Kindle. So, without the jacket design, the creamy heavyweight pages, the glossy photo inserts, what will be left of the author for publishers to sell?

This is why I consider ghostwriting a face-eater. The only way to make books relevant in an increasingly digitized world is by valuing writers not for their ability to promote and publicize their work, but for their ability to, well, write it: beautifully, intelligently, distinctively. Because books aren't made of paper and ink anymore, if they ever were -- they're made of words. Funny how easy that can be to forget.


V. Wetlaufer said...


Virginia said...

Double amen! (And I say that as a fellow ghost writer. Sigh.)

John Wiswell said...

Boy, I would love the idea of your last paragraph to become a reality. At present, though, with the likes of Stephen Fry and Neil Gaiman transferring part of their brands (and building considerably more of it) to the net in spots like Twitter, I think the face-eating won't change things too gravely. The name on the book is still the tag of identity. If that identity can be expanded on Youtube and Facebook, publicized on Digg and taste-maven blogs like Bookslut, we'll still be very brand-conscious regardless of who actually makes the content. But boy do I want you to be right.

The Chawmonger said...

Ah, John, you're probably right... but I can dream, can't I?

Seriously, thanks so much for reading (and commenting) on this post!

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