GHOSTING: A Memoir
by Jennie Erdal
Canongate Books £14.99, 288 pages
How should a ghostwriter be characterised? As a working partner? A free craftsman? A useful servant? A creative mind enslaved? A whore? It is interesting how often the last epithet in particular has come to mind in this context: but more of that later.
The history of ghostwriting has yet to be written. At the beginning, every writer was a servant, albeit one who was highly prized for the occult ability to fix words visually in the mysterious chemistry of alphabets and symbols. Such scribes still exist today in some parts of the world: figures squatting in the bazaar, their ancient Remington typewriters perched on orange boxes, composing letters for lonely migrants to girlfriends in villages far away.
Early literary scribes set down traditional texts from the mouths of bards and storytellers. Sometimes they had the sense of serving the authorship of another, or it would not be Homer’s Iliad, the Psalms of David, the Gospel of John. But these are more like brand labels than the post-Renaissance idea of authorship, the one we have inherited. It is very hard to know the person named Homer, but relatively easy to form an idea of Shakespeare - by his time, European humanism had changed the nature of the game. Authorship was now unitary and personal, and carried with it the burden of responsibility. The writer now became an author of books in the same way as one could be the author of one’s own misfortunes - which, for those falling foul of the censor or a libel action, could amount to the same thing.
The idea that books are the personal responsibility of their writers led to the cult of the celebrity author (Sterne, Dickens) and the hero poet (Byron, Brooke). It also forced less heroic writers, afraid of censorship and the libel laws, into publishing anonymously, or under assumed names. But now, with the author seen as a guarantee of “authority”, the false identity became more than just a protective shield.
In early 18th-century Grub Street, where for the first time books were written purely for profit, men such as Daniel Defoe began to invent personae in order to tell exciting but largely spurious personal histories and travelogues. They knew sales were significantly boosted if readers believed these to be first-person narratives, and so came Robinson Crusoe and the London merchant H.F., the supposed eyewitness to the Great Plague in Defoe’s brilliant feat of imagination, A Journal of the Plague Year.
Defoe and his colleagues also borrowed the identities of real popular celebrities, such as Duncan Campbell, the deaf and dumb conjuror, and Captain George Carleton, a soldier who saw thrilling action in the war of the Spanish succession. The sensationalised autobiographies of such notorious adventurers, courtesans and criminals were being churned out by the presses, with some of their subjects even co-operating in the work of the hacks. An occupation and a new industry, ghostwriting in the modern sense, had been born.
The literary writer’s ability to assume false identities quickly metamorphosed into the novel - the most refined as well as the most honest form of lying ever invented - while covert ghostwriting continued in parallel. If novelists were recognised to be imaginative artists, ghostwriters operated in the shadowy, more gullible marketplace of popular journalism. They still do.
No one today mistakes the ghosted memoirs of a footballer or film actor for art, though they are quite likely to be taken, by some readers at least, as the truth.
Ghostwriting reverses the usual process of publishing a book: instead of attempting to make an author become celebrated, ghostwriting is a process of mocking up the celebrity as an author. There is no better example of the resulting hollowness than the farrago of Swan, the novel written in 1996 by Naomi Campbell. It was only after the book flopped that its supermodel “author” admitted having done little more than speak her ideas into a tape recorder, leaving the literary work to her editor and hired hand, Caroline Upcher. There is a deal that celebrities are normally expected to strike with their ghosts, whereby the latter work hard without acknowledgment while the former are discreetly idle, until, in return for getting their name on the title page, they take responsibility for the published text - the plaudits, yes, but also the blame. In breaking that pact of silence, and implicitly referring the rap back to Upcher, Campbell failed in that duty. You could call her disavowal naive, or something else.
In Jennie Erdal’s Ghosting, it is the ghost who betrays. In these transactions the ghost has no overt power (and in many cases little enough of the money) unless it is to be quietly subversive. All one’s rights, except the right to be paid, are signed away in the contract, which often includes ferocious clauses about discretion. On the face of it Erdal’s book is a spectacular example of the Office Boy’s Revenge, though it is not especially nasty. Frequently, in this account of a 15-year professional relationship, she expresses fondness and even tenderness towards her employer. But her story carries an underlying sense of transgression, of intimacy traduced. The literary skill once laid at the boss’s feet now rises up to face him with a mocking, judging gaze.
Erdal tells of her life as personal ghost writer to a tycoon publisher she calls Tiger, and who calls her Beloved. Why a publisher would need such a ghost may seem odd, but Tiger is no literature-savvy English graduate, perfectly able to turn in a polished short story or novel. He is a mysteriously wealthy Palestinian migrant, a flamboyant, passionate and commanding figure, but terribly idiosyncratic in his use of English. “Once he got going,” says Erdal, “the English language did not know what hit it. Subject and predicate were in a kind of unhappy free-fall, with the component parts, unable to agree, fighting it out and coming near to killing one another.” There were also frightening chasms in his education, particularly in the knowledge of books and writers. Could such a figure write literary fiction?
Tiger’s vanity, and his craving for acceptance by literary society, led him to persuade Erdal, hitherto an editor in his small publishing house, to attempt this feat on his behalf. In the end she wrote two novels, which were published under his authorship and by his own imprint. In virtually all the decisions about genre, plotting and writing style he deferred to her, and she responded by producing impeccably literary, sparely written texts, graced with lucidity and sensitivity, and so persuasive that they gathered notably respectful reviews in the broadsheets.
Only the sex scenes were held to be risible, and these were the one aspect of “his” books that, for Tiger, were not negotiable. “Have we done the fucky-fuck yet?” he asks as she progresses. Beloved, not surprisingly, is reluctant to do the fucky-fuck, and only by heroic efforts is she able to manufacture scenes of sufficient squelchiness to appease Tiger. Otherwise, what surprises and eventually frustrates her most is his limitless capacity for missing the point. “’Who closed the door?’ he suddenly demanded to know. ‘We say there is a click on the door closing, but we don’t say who closed the door.’ ‘No, we don’t,’ I agreed. ‘But why don’t we say it? We have to say it! Otherwise how can the readers know? I read it so many times, 20, maybe 40 times - and each time I asked myself “Who closed the fucking door?” I got so irritated.’” The irritation was mutual, but “there was absolutely no point in trying to explain to Tiger the nature of dramatic suspense”.
Ghosting is a very funny book, in the tradition of satires on the solipsistic world of rich men - Lord Copper in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop springs to mind. Another of its pleasures is the playful evocation of another enduring genre, the corsair abduction narrative, in which an innocent European girl finds herself trapped in a sultan’s harem. The Levantine Tiger has all the right credentials: rich, forceful, gorgeously dressed, mercurial, equally capable of dazzling charm and sudden tempestuous rages. His London office is staffed by long-limbed, well-born girls in their early 20s who are hired and dismissed according to Tiger’s whim. It is a court and a seraglio in which everything that happens - much of it terrifically exciting and energising - revolves exclusively around him.
But there is a darker side to the metaphor. When Beloved enters Tiger’s palace - timid, intellectual and from a puritanical Scots background - his ungovernable extravagance alarms her. But, in need of the salary, she is drawn in until Tiger’s hold over her becomes almost suffocating. So she succumbs, progressing from editor to translator, to amanuensis, and so to ghostwriter - an activity that, after the success of the two novels, extends to a weekly newspaper column and even, most painfully of all for Beloved, more sticky exercises for The Erotic Review magazine. At times, Tiger even prevails upon her to take on the role of his letter-writer. Like the Remington virtuoso in the oriental bazaar, she is required to write flowery love-letters to his latest inamorata.
Beloved is, of course, ashamed, not least when a professor at her old university tells her she is “no better than a common whore”. Many ghostwriters will sympathise with Erdal for facing up to this view of their trade. She does not deny it, for how could she? To ghostwrite is to put the gratifications of authorship up for sale, to collude in a sham. Her book is an attempt at redemption, or at least a clean-breasted confession.
At one illuminating juncture Erdal writes about Hitler’s filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, whose memoirs are published under Tiger’s imprint. Riefenstahl is perhaps the most notorious sell-out artist of the 20th century, but Erdal gives her a sympathetic hearing. Any possible kinship between her position and Riefenstahl’s remains unstated, but that is not to say Erdal doesn’t feel it. As she says, in mitigation of the film director, “perhaps she knew not what she was doing, only how to do it.”
Subsequent publicity has revealed that Tiger is the proprietor of Quartet Books, Naim Attallah. Erdal tells us that Attallah “allowed this story to be told”, a remarkably trusting permission which says much for the generosity that is on plentiful display elsewhere in this book.