Fairy tales

Why is it that certain readers somehow feel let down when they discover that a novel they have enjoyed has in fact been written by a ghostwriter, or sometimes even a team of ghostwriters? We don’t seem to worry so much when it comes to filmscripts, in fact we assume that our favourite films are the result of intelligent teamwork. So what is it about novels that seems to bring out this squeamishness?

            We saw it recently in the rather confected social media furore surrounding the publication of the novel by the young actress, Millie Bobby Brown. She published her novel Nineteen Steps earlier this year, an account of a disaster at Bethnal Green tube station in 1943. The novel was ghosted by experienced ghostwriter Kathleen McGurl and, even though there was no attempt to disguise that involvement, the histrionic shrieks of outrage on social media could be heard for miles. Nancy Durrant wrote about it well in the Evening Standard: https://www.standard.co.uk/culture/books/millie-bobby-brown-novel-ghostwriter-nineteen-steps-kathleen-mcgurl-b1108361.html

            Having worked in publishing myself for many years, and having also worked now as a ghostwriter for many years, I think I know where this curious contrast to our attitude towards film and other collaborative projects comes from.

            It’s brilliantly summed up at the start of Chapter Two of Ford Madox Ford’s 1915 novel The Good Soldier: ‘I shall just imagine myself for a fortnight or so at one side of the fireplace of a country cottage, with a sympathetic soul opposite me. And I shall go on talking, in a low voice while the sea sounds in the distance and overhead the great black flood of wind polishes the bright stars.’

            When we snuggle up at night with a good book, we want to believe that somewhere at some point in the past, an author we love stayed at his or her desk for hour upon hour, a candle flickering in the window, doggedly setting out the text of a novel which they might as well have hand-delivered to us, so intense does our connection feel with them. Inside of our heads, a little voice is telling us: your favourite author, she wrote this for you.

            The reality, as most of us in the industry know, is that a huge proportion of published books, both fiction and non-fiction, are either ghostwritten or are the products of team collaborations. I know, I know: James Joyce did knock out Ulysses on his own, and Jean Rhys would have sunk her teeth into you if you’d suggested she collaborate with someone. But if you’re pondering over what to buy your uncle in Waterstones this Christmas, the likelihood is that you’re going to end up with something not necessarily written by the person whose name is on the front of the book.

            Does it matter? I really don’t think so. Most ghostwriters I know are very hardworking, diligent, skillful and dedicated to their work. They want to create good books. It’s just that the marketing directors of publishing companies don’t want to spoil the romantic notion that is in your head. Is that such a terrible thing? Isn’t the most important thing that you love the book?

            Ghostwriters are good at staying in the shadows. That’s why we’re called ghosts. And we’re happy to carry on lurking there if it helps to make your reading experience more enjoyable. When the plumber comes round to fix your boiler, you don’t really want him to hang around nodding enthusiastically every time you turn the hot water on. He’s done his job. Now enjoy your bath.

Simon Petherick, 2nd November 2023

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