One of the by-products of the Western world’s celebrity obsession is something that really sticks in my craw: the branded celebrity novel. I’m not linking to any examples because I refuse to give them an ounce of promotion, but I will point you towards this article that I was reading on Entertainment Weekly’s website this morning, which both names and quotes several of the ghostwriters that are hired by the celebrities’ management teams to write these novels.
Yes, management team. The making, marketing, and packaging of these books is just another way of expanding a celebrity’s brand, akin to perfumes and nail polishes, at least in the minds of their handlers. Per the article, the ghostwriter is paid “a negotiated fee typically between $20,000 and $40,000” to “churn out several hundred pages that will ultimately be passed off as a celebrity’s creative endeavor.” While I have no doubt several conversations about the contracted book’s creative elements happens between the celebrity’s team and the ghostwriter, I find EW’s claim that celebs “usually create a novel’s characters and plot, providing a foundation for a ghostwriter to expand on” highly suspect, yet another bit of propaganda meant to make these books more palatable to people who, you know, actually care about writing.
Which these books’ young fans clearly do not, at least in the opinion of Valerie Frankel, Snooki’s ghostwriter. (Now there’s something you want on your resume.) “Fans don’t really care whether or not a celebrity wrote it or not, as long as they can visualize the characters and the setting.” You don’t say?
Say what you will about Dan Brown or E.L. James or James Frey or whatever hack author everyone’s shaking their fist at this week: they actually wrote their books. Of course there’s plagiarism, but even that takes more work than these celebs put in. While the ghostwriters likely see more money than the average author does in their lifetime, you have to wonder at what cost? Is someone going to pick up one of their own books on the strength of their name being associated with a celebrity? Unlikely. Per the article, they only get credit for their ghostwriting work if they have an agent as savvy as the celeb’s. There isn’t even a guarantee of success, since, like everything else in the publishing industry, some of these celeb novels have done well and some haven’t.
But it’s not so black and white. Who I am to criticize this particular brand of ghostwriter, when most celebrity autobiographies are ghostwritten? Do those celebs/politicians/whathaveyou get points for spending more time with the writer, or being more honest about their involvement? When I think about it, I’m really a bit of a hypocrite in this regard, because I read S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst (aka by Doug Dorst) last winter, and loved it. Is it okay for Abrams to put his name on that book because I thought it was well-written? Genre-busting? Original and wildly creative? Because he readily acknowledges he didn’t write a word of it? Because I like him more? Because I feel like he could write a book, if he wasn’t so busy directing movies and developing TV shows?
For an in-depth look on how much Abrams actually participated in the conception and execution of S. (which is an incredible book that you should definitely buy in hardcover), this interview with him and Dorst says it all.
There are no easy answers. In developing this piece, I tried to look at the issue from multiple angles, and each one led back to those super-annoying shades of gray. As a writer who is passionate about her characters and her craft, it irks the heck out of me when people compare books to nail polish and perfume, like they’re just another flashy, disposable product meant to generate profit for people who are either grossly overpaid for doing nothing, or grossly overpaid for doing a lot of creative things that do not include writing an actual book. But isn’t that ultimately how most publishers see the books they sell? Aren’t there plenty of so-called airport books, quick reads that scratch an itch when you need it, but don’t have a place in your library? Not everyone has to be David Foster Wallace.
And aren’t I a writer in an industry somewhat like that? I may kid myself that my books are going to be beloved by millions, but the reality (a reality that I am quite satisfied by) is that most of my readers will blaze through the book and promptly forget about it. Oh, some will cherish it (Hi, Mom!), but most will either like it or not, and then move on to the next. Is what I’m doing really so different from what these ghostwriters are doing?
But the one argument I can’t really talk myself out of, the one that my purest, art-worshipping self can’t ignore, is this: we are teaching young people that you don’t have to put in the work to reap the reward. You can pretend to do the work, get someone else to do it for you, and be celebrated for it. It’s the equivalent of one of the popular kids at school paying a geek to write a paper for them. Most schools would suspend you for that if you’re caught doing it, if not outright expel you. But in life? Well, like the kid with the rich parents who gets out of everything, celebrities can just play the VIP card.
Now, I know I’m not giving teenagers enough credit here – of course most of them are smart enough to realize that this is all a fraud. If not now, then when they grow up, grow out of their teenage obsessions, and face the real world. But I wonder if the lesson, if repeated enough, doesn’t stick in some way. I wonder if they’ll take to heart the words of publisher Karen Hunter, who “[doesn’t] know that many teenagers that could write a book, period,” and fail before they even try.
The stuff that gives me hope? Fan fiction. Self-publishing. YouTube, and other creative outlets. Young people – or really just people – have more access and more interest in pursuing personal creative goals than ever before in our history.
So why do these celebs and their ghostwritten novels matter in the first place? The cultural revolution is already in full swing.