The snow that falls in the river


Posted by in November's Magazine

 I used to think that ghostwriters only wrote for people who were not writers, such as footballers, reality TV stars, celebrity chefs and the like. But I recently realised this was the understanding of the uninitiated. James Patterson, it seems, no longer writes his own novels. He hands a plot outline and a bunch of character biographies to a team of writers who do the line-by-line stuff. Presumably, this is how he’s able to produce a book a month. Other big names, such as Stephen King and Peter Straub, are apparently at it too. And even Wilbur Smith. Just the other month Mr Smith signed a contract for eight books with Harper Collins. He will contribute the plots for said books but a team of ghostwriters will ‘flesh’ the stories out.

I have nothing against collaborative creations; after all many good TV series and films often have more than one writer. What I object to is not being told who the real writers are. It smacks of cheating and, as my sister always says, no one likes a cheater. But when I told a writer friend this she said I was being harsh. After all, the big named writers still produce the golden acorns from which the story tree grows. Without their diamonds in the dust heaps there would be no stories. She has a point. As all writers know, having an original, fresh plot idea is worth its weight in gold. Or at least, it’s worth as much as someone is prepared to pay for it.

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Because guess what? Some famous writers can’t even be bothered with plot ideas. Ideas take time, so why wait for one when you can buy a bunch instead? It seems the latest development in the book world is for big name writers and their publishers to buy up the rights of already published novels written by not-so-famous writers. The not-so-famous writer agrees to withdraw their novel and the famous writer passes on the plot to their writing teams to rewrite. Voila, a novel is born, again and again and again.

Now I am doubly disappointed. Putting your name to a novel that you haven’t contributed to creatively in any way seems to directly contradict the very thing we writers are about i.e. the revealing of a truth. There is also the issue of betraying a trust. When a reader picks up a novel by a specific writer, he or she is ready and willing to “suspend disbelief in the moment” – as Coleridge famously said. Why? Because the reader trusts their chosen writer to tell a good story in a way only he or she can. Lying about who has written the novel breaks that trust. This demeans both the author and the ghostwriter and treats the reader with contempt.

Where does this leave novelists like myself, who have not (yet) ‘made it’ and can’t afford to buy plot lines and pay for writing teams even if we wanted to? Struggling is where, not unlike the small publishers. Only the other day Freight Books, Scottish publisher of the year in 2015, announced it is going into liquidation. In a world where royalties are being slashed because of big publishers discounting bulk sales to book clubs and the supermarkets, while giant book shop chains are forcing reductions on the sale price of a book ever downwards, we lesser-known writers, the ones who actually write our own words, could be heading for extinction.

What of the reader? If more and more plot ideas are bought up and recycled by anonymous writing teams on behalf of a handful of big name writers, there will be a real danger that all novels will start to seem the same – one homogenous airport read. The joy of immersing oneself in the vibrant language of a new writer, the pleasure of living vicariously in the dream world of our favourite author, the delight of discovering fresh stories and the thrill of coming across original ideas could be at risk.

Am I being a tad melodramatic? Perhaps. But only last month the author and president of the Society of Authors, Philip Pullman, talked about the dangers of undervaluing the reading experience. He criticised the “pernicious doctrine of market fundamentalism” and said, “it’s easy to think that readers gain a great deal by being able to buy books cheaply but if a price is unrealistically cheap it can damage the author’s reputation (or brand, as we say now) and lead to the impression that books are a cheap commodity and reading is an experience that’s not worth very much.”

If what he says is true, and I believe it is, the churning out of books by anonymous ghost writing teams on behalf of a handful of big names is going to devalue the reading experience even further. If we are not careful, the pleasure we get from reading could soon be like the snow that falls in the river in Robert Burns’ Tam o’ Shanter. Lost to us forever. I hope not.

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