Wednesday, June 01, 2011

The ghost is clear

In the post below, I referred to a "co-authored" novel by a famous person, written about in the Times. And lo and behold! Today, the NYT reports on the trend of ghost-written novels by celebrities. Yet Georgina Bloomberg is not mentioned in the later piece, which is much snarkier - or at least more cynical - about the phenomenon, and which focuses on books "by" various reality-television stars:

Like a branded fragrance or clothing line, the novel — once quaintly considered an artistic endeavor sprung from a single creative voice — has become another piece of merchandise stamped with the name of celebrities, who often pass off the book as their work alone despite the nearly universal involvement of ghostwriters.
And, "What celebrities do contribute are storylines thinly based on their own lives [...]"

Meanwhile, from the Bloomberg article:
In “The A Circuit,” a young-adult novel by Ms. Bloomberg that just arrived in bookstores, the father figure, Rick Aaronson, is a blunt-talking Wall Street billionaire who lives in a Manhattan town house and “owns half of New York.” His older daughter, Callie, is an Ivy League graduate with a passion for politics. And his younger daughter, Thomasina, or Tommi, is an award-winning equestrian who chafes at her father’s expectations of a traditional career.
Doesn't take much of a clef to sort that one out.

The word "author" appears twice in the earlier piece, in reference to Bloomberg, not counting the time she uses it in reference to herself. Not once in the piece about Snooki & Co. It's buried, really, that a publisher "offered Ms. Bloomberg a two-book contract and put her with a co-writer, Catherine Hapka." The story here is, Bloomberg's gone and written a book, breaking out on her own, emerging from her father's shadow, etc, etc. "Writing has never come easily to Ms. Bloomberg," we learn, the implication being that she overcame this challenge.

Perhaps this is just a coincidence - it's a big paper, and different journalists may have different feelings about the same phenomenon. Yet the writer of the Snooki piece, Julie Bosman, was also one of the co-authors (in the non-euphemistic sense, I'd assume, given it's a newspaper) of the Georgina Bloomberg profile.

Clearly a choice was made - by Bosman, by co-author Michael Barbaro, by the paper, who knows, to place the Kardashians in one category, Bloomberg in another, even if all are, in publishing terms, part of the same phenomenon. What I'm now wondering is, was this out of some pressure - political? personal? - to portray Bloomberg in a flattering light? Because it's not obvious to me why a silly but at least self-made celeb (that's you, Snookums) would be more of an embarrassment as a "novelist" than someone with a famous last name, other than if this is a question of class, dahling, and no one that faux-bronzed could possibly be deep.

Or was it more in the Styles Section vein, where on the surface, it's all rah-rah this new novel, rah rah its brave author, but where conveniently enough, comments are opened, and class warfare ensues? Or is this not really the question - Styles style is precisely about writing a piece that will make the subject feel warm and fuzzy, while making sure enough ridiculousness shows between the lines that even a dense and/or conservative reader will, by the end of it, be storming the Bastille.

As for the phenomenon itself, predictably enough given that I'm a grad student in literature, I'm not thrilled about it. While the peak of my fiction-writing abilities was back in high school, I'm plenty annoyed on behalf of all the people who are actually trying to publish novels that these are what get published, and on behalf of anyone concerned with the future of fiction, where the pickings will be slimmer than otherwise, as the definition of "novel" shifts to be a genre welcoming of, and perhaps in time dominated by, this kind of thing. It's frustrating that only those in-the-know get that these books were ghost-written, and that the purported authors' egos are now inflated by a sense of themselves as Writer.

But there's also the question of privilege - to publish a novel at all, it helps to have spare time and connections, to have received a good education and thus to have writing skills, etc. It was never and was never going to be fair who would get their stories told, but at least there was some presumption of, this is someone capable of conveying that story in writing. This, however, is another level entirely. Whatever happened to "as told to"?


Britta said...

Reading the Bloomberg article, it was subtle, but I definitely thought it was pretty subversive. The quotes from the girl made her definitely seem stupid and unreflective, and there were lines like "she writes about the hardships of being the daughter of a billionaire" which, at least to this non-billionaire, reads as tongue and cheek.
I also told my sister, who is a literary agent in NY, about this book, and she rolled her eyes (over the phone), so at least some literary agents find this process gross. She also pointed out though, that best selling tripe subsidizes the Deep and Complex Work of Art that wins awards and sells 10 copies, so while there's a bit of zero sum, there's also a bit that these books expand the pie, so there's more for everyone. Also, a publisher out of business publishes no one's works.

PG said...

Agreed with Britta that the NYT piece on Bloomberg was not flattering (at least to those of us who don't know her; possibly she's a much dimmer bulb even than the article implied).

And agreed with Britta's sister that publishing isn't a zero-sum game (bookshelves might be because B&N has only so much square footage, but with the massive number of books bought online, I'm not sure shelving space is really important either). Let's be honest, most people who buy a book because it's by Snookie probably aren't in the market for the next Booker Prize long-lister. Books by celebrities are almost certainly expanding the market to new barely-literate consumers who'd otherwise be reading, just as J.K. Rowling's massive success probably didn't inherently crowd out other YA authors. (That said, I'm fine with blaming Stephanie Meyer for all the teenage vampire dreck on the shelves these days.)

Anonymous said...

It was ever so. Junk has always been published and always will be. Nepotism is all around us. Not sure who buys and reads such trash, not me. I assume "Daddy" will buy lots of copies as gifts. Good literature will last and it won't be promoted in the Style section, alas. JM

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Britta, PG,

The zero-sum question is a tough one, and I did consider it when writing this post. I get that in the short term, nonsense may subsidize substance. What's more of a concern is if "novel" comes to mean something radically different than it has. As I wrote before, it's one thing if privilege-as-in-opportunity allows some more than others to get stuff published. If Bloomberg had, say, done a stint as a connections-intern (is there any other kind?) at Teen Vogue, then gone on to publish a YA novel, that would be evidence that life is unfair, but it wouldn't change what "novel" means. It's another altogether if we grow accustomed to seeing just one name on the cover of a book written by someone else entirely, in which the "plot" is just an as-told-to memoir with names not even creatively altered (Thomassina? Really?)

Taking a long-view approach, we can look at it as, back before TV and the (highly addictive) Daily Mail Online, complaints about junk entertainment referred to... the kind of novels now assigned as Great and Serious in high schools and colleges. Genres evolve, ways of entertaining ourselves evolve, etc. I'm not in the camp that sees this as tragic, and I maintain that there's as much about the human condition in "Seinfeld" as in great literature. But a move that rejects both authorship and creativity is one that fundamentally changes the genre, and that pushes what we currently think of as novels into a literary-sorts-only category, sort of like where poetry now lives. And high-brow literary fiction wouldn't be the only sort impacted by this. A book a) really written by its purported author, and b) even if semi-autobiographical, done so in a way that's more sophisticated than names slightly changed, need not be subtle and sophisticated Art. I'm not concerned about an insufficient amount of highbrow-ness, but with... what I just described.


I don't get the sense from the article that her father's all that excited about this. I think he (indirectly) funds it, and his surname is what got it published, but that this is probably a bit embarrassing for him.

PG said...

FYI re: KitchenAid 5 qt. stand mixers, they're on sale at Amazon today for $200, in various colors.

The thinly-disguised story of one's youth has already become canonical literary fiction when written by good writers (e.g. Sylvia Plath's "Bell Jar," F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Other Side of Paradise"). Competent writing, not subject matter, is what makes literature; otherwise "Lolita" would be a particularly squalid letter to Penthouse magazine. If Bloomberg had literary skills like Nabokov's applied to the bare bones of her story, it might be quality quasi-fiction. But of course, at that point it wouldn't sell as well because it'd be long on creative imagery and short on brand names. People who buy a book for the celebrity connection want to hear about skipping the waiting list for a $2000 purse, not about furry warmth and golden midges. I just don't envision these books replacing what people who want to enjoy good writing will read, any more than their less autobiographical predecessors like Danielle Steele or Judith Krantz did.

As for the human condition, don't books like Snooki's have plenty of that? They may not delve very deep or be clever at coming up with names for behaviors (as "Seinfeld" and the Brit sitcom "Coupling" were), but it's still life.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Thanks for the mixer info!

As for the literature question, I'm not sure if quality of writing is the only thing that distinguishes the roman-à-clef or semi-autobiographical novel from what I will call, for the sake of consistency, Fifi fiction. That's certainly part of it, but I think there's more to it, or maybe just that it needs to be more precisely explained what's meant by "quality of writing." When, for example, a high school student reads aloud a piece of creative writing that is clearly his own grievances with a couple slight alterations to names, it would be a stretch to call this fiction because it's not exactly written with readers in mind. However clearly and entertainingly the kid writes, details that are only of interest to the writer get kept in, because the point isn't to tell a story, but rather to convey what really happened. It's more like non-fiction dressed up as fiction. My sense of the new genre is, the celeb tells her (his, ever?) story to the ghostwriter, who in turn takes out what she-the-ghostwriter thinks are the irrelevant details. However, this is a choice that really ought to be coming from the person whose story is being told, since some details are relevant, depending what the story's meant to be. Anyway, I'm not conveying this as precisely as I'd like to, but my point is that something happens to make an author's real experiences into fiction, even if that something isn't always so radical as to make the real-life people and situations represented unrecognizable. And it's my sense from the descriptions of this new genre that that something would be missing.

As for Snooki's book, can't say I've read it, but re: "Seinfeld," what makes it brilliant is that it gets at universal situations in a way that makes the viewer think, I should have thought of that, or that will just seem so obvious, but that is actually kind of hard to convey. This is true of much of the show, but I'm thinking especially of the episode where George decides he misses Susan and wants her back, whines (and even sings!) about it a great deal, and then the episode concludes with him walking up the stairs to her apartment with this look on his face that says, ugh, this again. Yes, everything creative is in some way about "life," but this reaches another level, the level it's traditionally more acceptable to attribute to, say, Proust.