x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Literary assist

There are more titles – both fiction and non-fiction – ghostwritten than you might think

Ghosted autobiographies no longer trouble us. We seem to have reached an accommodation with the idea that a specialist in a particular area - cricket, brain surgery, acting - may not have sufficient writing expertise to write a book. It's common knowledge that the veteran journalist Hunter Davies wrote the footballer Wayne Rooney's books; that Sharon Osbourne's memoirs were co-written with Pepsy Dening; that Price is ably assisted by Farnworth. In fact, it's more unusual when celebrities decide to write their memoirs unaided, as Tony Blair has just done and the actor Rupert Everett did a few years ago.

Ghosted fiction, however, really winds some people up. But why? If we don't have a problem with ghosted non-fiction, is ghosted fiction such a big issue? You could even argue that it's more acceptable for novels - which are, after all, made-up - to be ghostwritten than autobiographies, where the point is intimate self-exposure and/or strict adherence to "the facts" of a life. The difficulty stems from a misconception about the way books are published. The idea of the lone writer in his garret, crafting his masterpiece in meticulous longhand, is certainly attractive and romantic. But it's only part of the story. As one publisher points out: "There's a sliding scale. There's the author who writes alone and refuses to be edited so not a single word is touched. Then, at the other end of the spectrum, there's the completely ghosted novel. In between these extremes, though, there's a whole host of different ways of writing a novel."

Literary novelists are imagined as having absolute autonomy, absolute control over their books. But you only have to consider the cases of F Scott Fitzgerald and Raymond Carver, whose work was reshaped by "mentor" editors, to realise this is a simplification. Likewise, many celebrity novelists genuinely are as involved as their publishers claim in the conception of a book's characters and plots - Osbourne, for example, is said to have had a lot to do with her novel Revenge.

Sometimes, admittedly, it stops short of everything. When Naomi Campbell published "her" novel Swan back in 1994 there was widespread clucking when it transpired that she hadn't written it herself. (Swan was the work of Caroline Upcher, then an editor at Heinemann.) This was partly because ghostwritten novels were more of a trade secret in those days; and partly because her publishers handled the fuss so badly. They had tried to create the illusion of Campbell's involvement, so when she admitted in interviews that she'd had none, the public lost interest. ("It wasn't really even ghosting," Upcher later admitted. "It was just another novel by me but with someone else's name on the cover.")

Nowadays, the fashion is to be transparent about ghosting: you put the ghost's name on the title page so readers know what they're getting. The only case where you wouldn't do this is when the ghost doesn't want to be named - "and then you're in an awkward position", says one editor, "because you can't be as open as you'd like." When this happens, it's often because the ghostwriter has another career - perhaps as a journalist or a "proper" novelist - which might conflict in some way with his role as amanuensis. (An example of this would be a comedy critic ghosting a comedian's memoirs.)

But the idea that ghosts are bitter and mistreated is plain wrong. They're well paid, the best ones exceptionally so, and someone like Farnworth would be in a position to negotiate a percentage of the royalties. Granted, this hasn't always been the case. The Nancy Drew series of children's mystery books was created in 1930 by Edward Stratemeyer, founder of the Stratemayer Syndicate book packaging firm. Over the next 40-odd years, hundreds of Nancy Drew titles were ghosted by several different authors and published under the collective pseudonym Carolyn Keene. Ghostwriters for the Stratemeyer Syndicate signed contracts forbidding them to use their Stratemeyer pseudonyms independently of the syndicate, and were paid $125.

Would Nancy Drew fans have been disappointed if they'd known this? Probably not. What about fans of Virginia Andrews' Flowers in the Attic and its numerous sequels and spin-offs? Andrews died in 1986, after which the franchise mysteriously went into overdrive. For years the identity of the ghost was kept secret until eventually it was revealed to be one Andrew Niederman. The former Atomic Kitten star Kerry Katona's publishers were so pleased with sales of her autobiography that they asked if she'd like to have a crack at a novel: "And I thought, well, I would like to", she told the journalist Lynn Barber, "but I'm a bit dyslexic, so I said I don't really know how to start. So they got a lady called Anne-Marie who did all the research and put in things like commas and brackets and paragraphs, which was a great help."

This is absurd, surely? Even immoral? Absolutely not, according to Andrew Crofts, one of Britain's most high-profile ghostwriters: "Everyone knows that film and television scripts are collaborative efforts and that politicians hire speechwriters. 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."

The most important question is: do the books work? Children certainly enjoyed Katie Price's Perfect Ponies: My Pony Care Book. They voted for it to win an award at the Galaxy British Book Awards - much to the annoyance of Chocolat author Joanne Harris, who called the decision "depressing beyond words". But it's interesting, isn't it, that children rate Price's books so highly? Their interest in them has little to do with who Price is and how she became famous. You can't fool children.

As one editor observes: "Who wrote the thing is interesting but ultimately secondary to whether it's a good read. Did you enjoy it?"