Friday, June 3, 2011

Ghost in the Machine

I had a chat with a ghost once, years ago. He'd come into the bookstore where I was working at the time, introduced himself not as such, but rather as the author of some perfectly respectable, if obscure publication, and offered to sign the copies we had on hand. Pleased to say, we had some books for him to sign. In the course of signing -- so far as we knew the only book to his name -- someone on staff asked in all innocence if this was his first. Indeed not, he said. Most of his books were out of print, he explained, which resulted in a respectful, commiserating silence. Not a bit of it. Without a twinge of visible discomfort, he smiled up into our sad faces and said that the books that had made his living for him had more usually been published under other people's names. He was a ghost, you see, unembarrassed, "It's been a good living," he said. As I remember it, he'd worked mostly with country music stars on their autobiographies.

I can't think of his name, I regret to say.

One ghost whose name I do know, Sandford Dody, wrote a smashing little book of his own, later in life, Giving Up the Ghost: A Writers Life Among the Stars. Mr. Dody, who passed away, at ninety, just a couple of years ago, wrote autobiographies with or more accurately for great actresses such as Bette Davis and Helen Hayes, among others. His own autobiography detailed these experiences in a thoroughly bitchy, witty way that left little or no doubt as to the author's opinion not only of the ladies with whom he collaborated -- for want of a better word -- but also of the publishing industry that had likewise counted on his discretion theretofore, and paid him not terribly well for it. He paid them all back, including even the stars that turned him down. He had this to say of Kate Hepburn, for instance:

"As if to prove her transcendence over earthly matters, the lady has, it is apparent, not combed her hair in over fifteen years."

I highly recommend the book -- if you can find a copy, as it has long since gone out of print. Not often we get to hear from the ghosts.

Addressing a more recent trend in the field, a friend in publishing once described to me the process by which a now minor Hollywood star exercised her "final approval" over the children's books published under her name. It seems no one had explained to the lady that it might be bad form to scribble words like "poor" and "ugly" and NO!" directly onto the drafts of her illustrator's work, and that altering the words of the text might also ruin the rhymes in what was, after all, meant to be a poem. Collaboration, you see, is the key to celebrity creativity.

An article in the New York Times this week, briefly discussed what would seem to be a new trend in ghosting, the celebrity novel. Not content to exploit whatever mileage there may still be in the "true" stories of such fading celebutantes as Nicole Richie and the Kardashians, the idea now is to publish their somewhat worn scandals in fiction. On the plus-side, I suppose, this allows for a certain liberality with the facts at which even the most flattering "autobiographer" might blush. For instance, a number of these young ladies may make their characters into, say, actresses, movie stars, or virgins. Novel, indeed. My sympathies are all with the ghosts, of course. Must be some very heavy lifting involved. The idea however of celebrity fiction is hardly new. Again, there is nothing new under the sun. Bad fiction, like bad prose in general -- to say nothing here of execrable poetry -- has been passing out from the Dream Factory since the days of the silent pictures. Witness the deathless fiction of everyone from Theda Bara to Marlon Brandon. What? You never read a Tony Curtis novel?

The difference now would probably be that one no longer has to have been good at something, like acting, comedy, social-climbing, divorce, anything, first. Not now. At the very least, one would once, presumably, have had to have been known as something other than for being a drunk, illiterate, orange bimbo. Well, take heart skanks, 'cause it seems even Snooki can "write" a novel. The bar is officially as low as it can go. In fact, when last seen, the bar had been abandoned somewhere in the sands of the Jersey shore.

The article in the Times tries to rise to the level of news, en passant, by suggesting that what is new about this latest wave of fake fiction is the all but universal understanding that these books were not even read, let alone written by the tarts on their covers. Here's where the snickering is expected, and the only reason the story much interests me. The average reader of the Times, it will be understood, will not have read any of these books either, nor ever be expected do so. The average reader of the Times, it might be assumed, will not even have heard of Kourtney Kardashian, Nicole Polizzi or Lauren Conrad. I certainly never heard of that last one before. That's what's meant to make the piece so droll, you see, and not at all beneath the notice of America's newspaper of record. The laugh is understood not to be on the publishers of these novels, or the publicists, editors, or promoters of these acts, for want of a better word, all of whom may well be readers of the Times. Yes, the butt of the joke is obviously the young women with their pictures in the paper holding their books -- and quite possibly holding a book for the first time in their lives. But it has already been established that the Kardashian girls and their ilk can not actually be embarrassed. It is not part of the celebutante experience, shame. So, who then are we meant to laugh at, really? The joke, I think, is really on the vast shnookery of little girls and young women who are expected to buy these books at Walmart and Costco. It's the suckers that are funny, see. The johns. That's the joke, that's "the story." Funny?

That isn't the story though, is it? It certainly isn't anything to do with the poor ghostwriters. In fact, the piece in the Times isn't a story at all, just another opportunity for the Times to show itself superior to what it would not otherwise deign to report, no? So clever. There are the color photos of these three girls who officially wouldn't make it into the Times unless they were murdered or married a Kennedy, yet there they are, in color, right where actual news might go. Call it... "cultural reporting." The real story, barely hinted at in this snide puff, is the complicity of the corporate media in finding, making and pimping these creatures in the first place. The real fiction here is that these women have just happened; self-made, these girls, self-invented in the great American tradition. Nothing to do with the Times, or any of the other entertainment corporations to whom these young women answer for their celebrity and their livings. It is actually the old fiction that all prostitutes are happy in their work, always willing players, at least according to their pimps. Who profits? In the Times article, this latest bit of "branding" is compared to the perfumes, jewelry, clothing-lines and whatnot sold under celebrity names. Does anyone think these girls have a degree in chemistry? That they are goldsmiths? That they stay up nights cutting out patterns and sewing like just so many contestants on Project Runway? Of course not. Be serious. We all get it, right? And where's the harm? The best part, you see, is that we all get to blame these girls, roll our eyes at their venality, their stupidity, their vulgarity. Even the Times gets to mock them without being tainted. If anybody is too stupid to realize that these girls are being used, well... That's the the trick, you see, that's the dodge. It's their own damn fault, these girls, for being exploited. And if your little girl now wants to grow up and be famous and rich, just like Snooki, well then, you're just a bad parent, aren't you? It's the little ten year old's fault for not being a more sophisticated consumer. Not St. Martin's Press, or Macmillan, not MTV or Viacom, not HarperCollins, etc., no. These three chicks, and their teen and tween and twenty-something fans, they are responsible for coarsening the culture. Get it? It ain't ever the pimps. We are not meant to notice that the cynicism at which we are meant to laugh while reading the New York Times piece is exactly the same cynicism which produced the piece in the New York Times.

Please note, neither in the Times article nor anywhere else in the media coverage of these new books, at least that I can see, does anyone actually credit the ghosts. Pity. What they might have to say would probably be considerably more interesting than the books they wrote. Doubtlessly there are confidentiality agreements in place, not, I should think, to protect the reputations of the ghostwriters, or, such as they are, of the celebutantes.

Among American publishers, the majors aren't doing all that well for themselves nowadays. The rise of the killer Bezos business model and ebooks etc. has all the entertainment giants running around the Street like widows howling for Jesus to help them cash their Confederate securities, but maybe, just maybe, we independents might remind them that they are still in the book business with us. How about the independents not promote the next few major literary novels from HarperCollins, St. Martin's Press, Simon & Schuster, etc., as if literature is the only business they are in? How 'bout we just do a few displays of their good stuff right next to their trash; something big, with a lot of books, David McCullough's latest right in the middle, but with a big sign over it that says "From the publishers of Snooki"? Gallery Books, you know, is Simon & Schuster. Same company. Publishers love it when we "brand" their good stuff for them. So, maybe a display of Kardashian Konfidential with Jonathan Franzen and a sign that says "Novels from Macmillan"? Not a boycott, you understand. Those things never really work. Just a "rebranding".

Why not? What have we still to lose? It's unfair, isn't it, that we don't get any benefit from all that discounted trash the publishers sell? Meanwhile, they want us to be showrooms for just the good stuff, right? The front, as it were. Hell, they don't really even try to cut us in on the real action. So, how 'bout we talk about the business they're running out the back? Maybe mention here and there that the same company that pays millions for fake novels from fake celebrities, also charges real readers $37.50 for the new McCullough because they simply must, in order to make a profit? Maybe we should staple a listing for Snooki's book from the Gallery trade catalogue onto the next front page notice of the NYT Book Review, suggesting that the reader might also enjoy some other culturally significant new books also published by the corporation responsible for The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris? Maybe offer the next Mann Booker Prize winner with a free copy of the latest celebutante novel from the same publisher, prepackaged? Gotta take the good with the bad. The next book by a Harvard professor discussing the decline of the west? How about we market it with a book of style-tips from some reality star from the same publisher?

Nobody really much cares about the reputations of the celebrities. Just as clearly, no one gives a damn about the wage slaves who write this crap for them. Do you think we might start a conversation at least among those of us who care about books, about just who is really responsible for getting Snooki into the New York Times?

Let's talk about the ghost in the machine.

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