What came first, language or the story? The logical sequence is, supposedly, that language came first. Humans emerged from the primeval swamp, and our evolutionary ancestors, developed handy attributes like walking upright and the opposable thumb, began talking to each other and then, a few hundred thousand years later, told stories to each other around the camp fire for entertainment. Read more “The story came first”
There are thousands of business and self-help books that coach the reader on how to communicate. A less obvious but also important attribute is the ability to listen. It is a discipline one has to learn as a ghostwriter, and one of the most important. You’re telling someone else’s life, not your own. Read more “The ghost as listener”
As I was driving to my short summer holiday last month, while fretting in guilty fashion about the CO2 emissions of the petrol-fuelled hire car I was driving, I distracted myself by listening to Radio 2.
Each hour the BBC news headlines informed me about the shocking fall-out of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, more extreme weather events, success for the GB team at the Paralympics …. and a story about Tom Cruise’s car being stolen.
Each hour, I waited for more details on this last item: was he held hostage? Did the thieves kill or injure someone through reckless driving? No. It was stolen and then, um, found a short while later, undamaged but with some items missing. That was it.
It is impossible to understand the modern world without acknowledging the steady and deep infiltration of mainstream news and television broadcasting by celebrity culture, the ‘Kardashian effect’ – that is, the idea that something is newsworthy simply because it is said by a famous person, or has happened to one. When I was young, gossip about the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton was confined to the colour supplements. Nowadays such froth may feature on the front page.
This obsession is not harmless. In the same week that the BBC told us about a theft of car belonging to a movie star, I learned more about trauma and suicides experienced by nurses and doctors in the UK who are whistleblowers, hounded to self-destruction by the retributive action routinely meted out to almost anyone in the UK public sector who dares stand up for public safety and civil rights, as I wrote about in an earlier blog. Such cases receive negligible media coverage.
I think I understand why our news media have an imbalance in coverage towards lives of movie stars, singers and sportspeople, sometimes neglecting stories that are profoundly in the public interest.
This is an issue for ghostwriters. After all, to an extent we contribute to, and profit from, celebrity culture. The reasons are largely to do with economics, and the dynamics affected me personally, because I became a ghostwriter in response to them. Before digital media transformed the economics of publishing, around the period 2004-2008, it was possible for freelance writers to pursue a career penning features and news, including material that we might call ‘real’ stories. With the collapse of revenues from print advertisements, all media had to change their business models. The PR industry grew, while the pay rates for investigative journalism fell. Those of us whose only ability was writing had to earn a living by writing on behalf of others – others who could afford to pay.
In my case, I am often able to combine conscience with a reasonable income as there is a growing industry in sustainable business, in which I’ve developed some specialist knowledge. It’s easy, however, to imagine an ethical dilemma for a ghostwriter: accept a modest fee to promote the appalling way in which a citizen’s rights have been denied, or a lucrative sum to describe how an Instagram star made their millions with questionable tactics?
The publishing industry has questions to address. Increasingly, publishers insist upon an author having a large following before committing to publishing a book. This was evident in case of the fake cancer sufferer Belle Gibson, whose misleading dietary advice was published in a lavishly produced publication The Whole Pantry by Penguin on the basis of her huge social media following. The book encouraged cancer sufferers to shift away from scientifically sound medical treatment, before her deception was exposed by investigative journalists.
It might be mistaken, however, to take the cynicism around stardom too far. Most famous people have genuine ability and achievements, often humanitarian as well as artistic or sporting. Marcus Rashford, for example, is a gifted footballer as well as an articulate and effective social campaigner, using his profile to alleviate poverty and suffering. Perhaps, for every bad celebrity, there is a good one.
We ghostwriters could strive for a balance; alternate our memoir-writing with some honest investigative endeavour on behalf of a sound cause, in the way that some lawyers will combine corporate work with pro bono human rights cases.
Above all I think the growing tendency towards celebrity worship is an issue that as a society we need to discuss – publishers and ghostwriters included.
- Philip Whiteley is an author and ghostwriter, who pens fiction under the byline PJ Whiteley. There is more information at www.pjwhiteley.com
Six of my 16 great great grandparents, on my mother’s side, were economic migrants, who came to England not so much in search of a better life as in a desperate bid to survive. They were the fortunate ones, because thousands of their peers perished due to starvation.
By the next generation, according to the comprehensive family tree that my father compiled, one or two had skilled occupations – though one was killed in an industrial accident. The third generation were a little more settled; my maternal grandfather, for example, was a warehouse manager. It was similar on my father’s side: I recall my paternal grandfather as a middle class soul, who lived in a semi-detached house with an immaculate garden – but he had been born into an overcrowded house, left school at a young age and became educated through evening classes.
Education rescued my family from poverty – extreme poverty, going back just a couple of generations and more. I can now understand more fully why my parents would say to me, over and over again when I was a boy: ‘Read more books, Philip!’ ‘Don’t just read the sports pages in the newspaper! Read the rest of it as well!’ Books were our wallpaper: thick spines displaying authors’ names – Shakespeare, Greene, Bellow, Murdoch, Lessing and many more – filled the shelves on landings and in hallways as well as the living room and bedrooms.
I wasn’t a bookish child, you see. I was outdoorsy and sporty and I got nagged into becoming an author. My ambition aged 15 was to become a professional cricketer. I think being a writer is better, though. I agree with Carl Sagan, cited in a recent UG blog, that books are a form of magic, a way in which to travel through time. For my family, they were more magical still: they were the means of survival and created a path to a better future.
Books may have had an even more positive influence than most of us realize. In a fascinating finding, aired recently on a BBC documentary The Violence Paradox, there is evidence indicating that the great humanitarian reforms of the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries – abolition of slavery, torture, executions, racial segregation – were attributable to a significant degree to people becoming more literate. And the explanation extends beyond the observation that educated people become more politically aware, to include the insight that reading novels assists our ability to display empathy, and therefore identify with victims of violence and seek justice. Authors need to understand the concept of which character’s ‘point of view’ you are writing from. The point here is that it isn’t the author’s, and it isn’t the readers’ either – we are consciously escaping into someone else’s.
Books do have the capacity to spread evil ideas, but in aggregate reading makes us more tolerant, more aware, and less violent. Some people might say that the wheel, or the ship, or the electric light bulb, or the programmable computer, is the greatest invention. But truly the most brilliant invention in human history is the printed and bound book.
- Philip Whiteley is an experienced author of non-fiction and fiction, and a ghostwriter. He writes novels under the byline PJ Whiteley. More at www.pjwhiteley.com
One of the questions on the United Ghostwriters tweetchat on 20 January was whether a ghostwriter would ever turn down a project for which they were qualified, had the availability, and the fee was good. In other words, are there issues of principle that would prevent you from taking on a project?
So far in my ghostwriting career, I have been fortunate to have clients who I consider to be honest in the story they tell, and justified in telling it. On occasion, I have turned down offers to work on a book that promises to reveal the secrets of a lucrative and unconventional investment strategy – but where there is no registered company address, and there would be difficulty in carrying out due diligence. It is a case perhaps both of ethical principles and basic fear on my part! I wouldn’t want to be accused of peddling propaganda around what turns out to be a Ponzi scheme.