Monday, 30 November 2009

Sarah Palin and Other Misguided Efforts

I read the following on the excellent Guardian Books site today:

Rupert Murdoch's biographer Michael Wolff has called on "literate people" to boycott books until publishers stop bringing out ghostwritten memoirs by the likes of Sarah Palin.' [See the rest of the article here.]

Whilst my liberal blood-pressure shoots up at the mere mention of two of the names mentioned, I think I'm going to have to take issue with the owner of the third. Boycott books? How's that going to help?

Leaving aside the fact that Mr Wolff's argument, as presented in this article, is rather confusing (is he suggesting that we boycott all books or simply all ghostwritten ones which remain misleadingly attributed) I don't actually agree with his central argument which appears to be:

People are reading these books under false pretences because they're not actually written by the people they pretend to written by.

Why don't I agree? Well, firstly, I'm not sure that most of the people who buy these books actually give a monkey's who writes them – I think they're just fascinated by the characters involved. Sarah Palin, whatever you think of her politics, is a larger than life character who never fails to elicit a reaction of one kind or another. People want to read about her either in an uncritical, adulatory fashion if her politics and image appeal or in a species of guiltily horrified wonder if she appears to be as entertainingly mad as a spoon. Granted, it would be more honest if the cover read 'ideas conveyed by Sarah Palin in conversation with A. Ghostwriter who then put them into a coherent and readable form' but I don't honestly think it would affect the likelihood of people wanting to read it.

Secondly, I wonder how many people actually believe that these books are written by the people whose photographs appear on the front cover? Maybe I'm crediting the celebrity-autobiog-reading public with too much insight but I would have thought most people realise that if you're famous for – as an example – playing football superlatively well or revealing your rather magnificent chest in newspapers, then you are unlikely also to be blessed with the necessary talent to write about your experiences in a cogent and literate manner.

But, whether we accept Mr Wolff's central argument about false pretences or not, do we agree that registering our displeasure by leaving off buying books would be a good idea?

I can only speak for me, so here's my answer. No. It's a stupid idea. Sleb-memoirs are, notoriously, Christmas- and gift-book fodder bought by people who buy few other books. But they buy these particular books in their hundreds of thousands for the reasons outlined above vis-a-vis La Palin. If people who generally fight shy of literary sleb-fests in favour of the Booker/Costa prize list (which is the group I understand Mr Wolff to be referring to when says 'literate people') stop buying Booker/Costa type books, the only books to suffer will be the latter which, generally, already fail to sell in their hundreds of thousands (unless they win said prize, obviously.) It would be a far better idea to buy more of these books, not fewer, as it might just make the difference next time an unusual but 'literate' book strays over a publisher's horizon.

Mr Wolff clearly thinks that, on many levels, these books are bad. Fair enough. If you think a book is bad, don't buy that book. But don't stop buying books en bloc as some kind of misguided protest.

That's my view, what do the rest of you think?


C. N. Nevets said...

I think most readers deserve enough of a nod to say, "Hey, yeah, you're smart enough to realize that most of these public figure books are ghost written to a smaller or larger extent."

What concerns me more is when I here about supposedly prolific "namebrand" fiction authors who run little ghostwriting factories, cranking out out lines and letting unknowns do most of the finger work.

That I find to more of a dishonest marketting situation.

And even then if the end product is book I like, I'll buy it. If it's one I don't like, I won't buy it.

Alis said...

Hi Nevets - I know what you mean about brandname fiction. I remember when my kids were little they were heavily into a series called Animorphs which was supposedly all written by the same person. Now, either this person had struck it big with a late one in the series and the publisher just reissued the whole of a long back-catalogue, or she was just astonishingly prolific or it was, as you suggest, the work of many hands. You could dignify the situation and say its a bit like the old masters and their studio system where they roughed out the picture and apprentices did the bits they were good at. Then again, you could just say it's cheating.

Alis said...
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Alis said...
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Alis said...

Those deleted posts were me deleting duplicates which some glitch had posted three times in response to Nevets. Shame, looks interesting, doesn't it, as if somebody came, ranted and thought better of it. Twice.

Tim Stretton said...

I've no real desire to read ghsotwritten autobiography or celeb trash; but some people do. The profits created are what allows outfits like Macmillan New Writing to exist, so we have a symbiotic relationship with Katie Price (unpleasant image...).

Good luck to 'em all...

Frances Garrood said...

I agree with you, Alis, and Tim too. But (to go off at a slight tangent) I do wonder how many of these ghostwritten books are actually read by anyone. Bought, yes. Gift-wrapped, no doubt. But read? I think it's very unlikely. Which makes it all rather sad for the ghost.

Alis said...

Hi Tim - yes, that's what I always tell people when they ask me whether I'm not just furious that somebody like Katie Price can get published.

Hi Frances - I agree, it would be interesting to do a follow-up wouldn't it, to see whether these books are actually read in their entirety. I'm guessing the most looked-at pages are the pictures...

Frances Garrood said...

A footnote to my last - in today's Times there's an article saying that 'celebrity' books (usually ghostwritten) aren't doing too well any more - some of them not getting anywhere near their advances in sales - and that publishers are beginning to show reluctance in accepting them.

Perhaps we'd better bear that in mind for when we all start writing our autobiographies as Very Successful Novelists. said...

I saw the legendary Williams Sisters in a short-lived Reality TV show; I was disappointed to find that while they play a mean game of Tennis- they could hardly string a proper sentence together when speaking! I loath to think of having to read something they wrote themselves.
The same goes for any boxer, actor, politician or plumber- most people don't know how to write a book that is legible. The fact is everybody who has not studied literature or creative writing or marketing does need the help of a writer to produce a book.
Maybe one day the ghost writers will be the stars and other people will just openly pay us to tell their stories. Until then, I prefer to read books written by writers, eat food prepared by chefs, watch sports played by athletes, and movies acted out by actors, ect.