Saturday, February 03, 2007

Ghostwritten fiction: A travesty that needs to end or bread on the table? by Linda Hall

Did you know that not all the novels you see on the shelves of your favorite Christian bookstore are actually written by the individuals whose names you see under the 'by' line? Shocked? Or does it even matter to you? It should.

This issue was recently addressed on a Christian novelists' group I belong to when one of our members was approacehed by a Famous Christian Person asking her - through her agent to ghostwirte a novel. The author would come up with the idea and write the book for X amount of dollars (in the case a lot) and then hand the whole thing over to Famous Christian Person who would stamp his name on the front, just like he was the author. The real author would be sworn to secrecy about the fact that it was she who really wrote the book and not Famous Christian Person.

I scratch my head and wonder what kind of brain processes are required to turn this into something that's remotely okay.

When I define ghostwriting, I need to backtrack and tell you what I don't mean. I'm not talking about co-written novels with the real author's name somewhere on the cover. We're all familiar with the Left Behind series. And most of us are aware that Jerry Jenkins wrote the books with theological input and ideas from Tim LaHaye. Both names appear equally on the cover. I'm also keeping my focus here on novels, and not on nonfiction books or memoirs, many of which carry the 'as told to' line on the cover. And that's fine.

What I'm talking about are works of fiction in which the real author's name does not appear anywhere on the cover or in the book.

This practice is deceiving. The public picks up Great Christian Novel by Famous Christian Person and thinks, 'oh my, not only does this guy preach twice a week on the television, but he also writes all kinds of books, and even novels! What a talented person! How does he do it? God must truly be blessing him.'

It also degrades the author. A few years ago a well-known minister 'wrote' a novel which was featured on numerous television programs including Oprah. The author who actually wrote it ended up feeling used and lost and degraded when Famous Christian Person wanted nothing more to do with her. You may well say, "Well, she should have known. She signed the contract, after all."

Unfortunately, the human psyche doesn't work that way. Author Liz Curtis Higgs uses the harshest terms I've heard in describing ghost writing. To her it's nothing short of 'prostitution.'

This also demeans the craft of the novel itself. Anyone who has ever written a novel realizes that it's not easy. It's not something that can be knocked off in one's spare time.

Recently, I signed my name to a letter which went to all Christian publishing houses
as well as to many agents. Part of the letter which was drafted by author Angela Hunt and signed by more than 40 of the top Christian novelists, including Jerry Jenkins, Francine Rivers, Randy Alcorn, James Coggins and moi, stated in part:

A novel is an art form that arises after years of work and studying the craft.
We are committed to excellence in our fiction, and we write to glorify God. For a publisher to propose that a novel be cranked out, stamped with a celebrity's name, and sold to an unsuspecting public demeans our work and dishonors our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the truth and tells the truth.

But I believe that the greatest damage is done to the celebrity. The practice says to the celebrity, "You're someone special. You're far superior and better than this measly novelist. Your name alone sells books."

This fuels pride, something the Bible warns against in the strongest of terms. As well, it feeds our culture of celebrity - or cult of celebrity, the near lust we have for the rich and famous.

For more on this subject, I would encourage you to read Randy Alcorn's excellent editorial on the subject. Click here:

We must end this travesty. Ephesians 4:25: So put away all falsehood and tell your neighbor the truth.


Belinda said...

This article has been an education for me. I had no inkling of this practise. It reminds me of the story, Cyrano de Bergerac! about the man with a large nose who wrote love letters for a handsome man with no writing ability. It was the heart behind the words that counted in the end in that story.

N. J. Lindquist said...

I agree 100% - even dug into my files for a note I sent to a listserve back in June about this practice, and posted it on my blog since it was too long to put here.

N. J.

N. J. Lindquist said...

Meant to add - ghosting is probably more common in non-fiction writing than fiction. While some say "as told to" or with, or give joint credit, or maybe give editing credit, many don't say anything. Although I think it's a little better than it used to be.

N. J.

violet said...

I suspect it has a lot to do with marketing (which seems to be new rabbit's foot that writers and publishers of all stripes are stroking these days). I'm not against energetic marketing. But this is what happens when the end justifying the means plays out. I don't think 'prostitution' is too strong a word.

Keith Clemons said...

Personally, I don't even like it when they co-list names where one person is the actual author, and one provides imput i.e. Bill Bright and Ted Dekker; Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, because it's still using the "Famous" person to sell the book, and again you have the same, "my name sells books" pride issue.


Deborah said...

Oh Keith, you're back! Waiting for the sequel about your CBA adventure.

Now, to the ghosting issue. In the non-religious publishing world, some brand name authors are actually deceased and a team of writers churn out their novels, or so I understand.

Or the name-brand author dictates notes and a team of scribes actually writes the manuscript in polished sentences. (That would be my dream writing life--getting to be a writer without having to do all the polishing involved.)

We're talking about a whole spectrum ranging from an author who does everything him or herself to the above-mentioned case where the author does nothing but supply his or her name to a project. And yes, that idea, especially in Christian circles is repugnant. It does demean writers, and elevate celebrity in an unhealthy way.

I'm afraid we're going to be seeing more of this as Christian imprints are bought up by big conglomerates with their eye on the bottom line.

It's good that writers are standing up against this and encouraging each other to make sure they get credit for what they do in addition to money.

Unfortunately in today's world a talented writer is more likely able to earn a living ghostwriting or some reasonable facsimile than writing under his or her own name.

I don't know what we do to get over our fixation on brand names and celebrities. It's abominable and I'm not sure how we change the culture on this. But I think it starts with the kinds of campaigns Linda is telling us about here.

As a first time novelist, I'm finding it is really hard to sell books if you are a relative unknown. But if your name is Dan Brown, then, even if your books aren't that great quality, everyone snaps them up.

Thanks for posting on this, Linda,


Alan said...

With respect, I think this discussion is mixing two separate issues.

Sticking someone's name on a novel he or she didn't write is misrepresentation and is wrong. We're agreed about that.

But speaking as someone who both writes and edits, I'm much less alarmed that people are doing creative work for which they don't get public credit. Editors may make a substantial contribution to a work of fiction or non-fiction, but we take it for granted that we labour in relative obscurity, and I really don't see this as an injustice. Whatever talents we have are a gift, right? (1 Cor 4:7) I think of St Philip Neri, second patron saint of Rome, who used to advise his proteg├ęs, amare nesciri (love to be unknown).

Deb, you asked how to change our culture's fixation on celebrities. I'd suggest that we start by being "signs of contradiction": it's easy to mix our motives when we critique the attention paid to people who, like the recently deceased Anna Nicole Smith, are famous principally for being famous. It's harder, but more culturally powerful, I believe, to discipline ourselves to remain unswayed by the lure of public attention. (Say I, having on occasion checked my blog's sitemeter several times in an hour.)

Affirmation by the public of the principles or the artistic vision for which we stand, yes, that's worth pursuing. But public recognition of us personally? Lord, grant us instead the grace to pray the litany of humility.

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