The Award-Winning Book and the Ghost Writer

July 27, 2011 in Best Of, Blogging, Entertainment, Misc, On Writing, Social/Political Commentary by pacejmiller

[Update: 12 November 2011 -- Anh Do's new book, 'The Littlest Refugee' is coming out and this ghostwriting controversy is still around.  According to Do, the book's publisher Allen & Unwin hired a proofreader to compare the manuscript Do wrote against the one written by Visontay, and found that less than 10% of Visontay's sentences were used.  This was used to support the notion that Do rewrote the book from scratch.  The question is, of the remaining 90%, how much contains revised or reworked sentences?  But in any case, does that really mean anything?  I'm sure any writer in Do's position would feel they put in enough time and effort to have the right to consider the book their own.  Ghostwriter assistance or not.]

Ghost-written celebrity memoirs and autobiographies are like farts in a wind storm — nobody really cares and nobody gets hurt.  It’s more of a surprise to discover that a celebrity has put in some actual effort into a book that bears their name.

Anyway, I was reading the paper this morning and saw that The Happiest Refugee, a best-selling memoir about comedian Anh Do’s life, picked up three awards at the Australian Book Industry Awards, including the 2011 Book of the Year (and also Newcomer of the Year and Biography of the Year).  Note that the awards are not based on literary merit but rather on sales and impact on the industry.

Interestingly, the article wasn’t a celebration of Do’s achievements — it was really about how the original manuscript was penned by a ghost writer, Michael Visontay, who worked as a senior editor with a couple of major national newspapers.

My initial reaction was one of shock, wondering how someone could accept three book awards, including the biggest one, when someone else had written it.  My guess is that this was the exact reaction sought by the article, which then went on to clarify that, according to the publisher Allen & Unwin, the actual book that won the awards was written by Do and bore no resemblance to the original manuscript handed to them by Visontay.  In any case, the CEO of the Australian Publishers Association (APA) stated that ghost-written books are allowed to win at the Awards (which I don’t agree with, or at least the ghost-writer ought to share the award).

Fair enough.  But there was more to the article that made me curious.  First of all, Allen & Unwin claimed that a ghost writer was initially employed because Do said he simply didn’t have the time to write the book.  However, after he saw Visontay’s manuscript, he suddenly ‘found’ time to rewrite the whole thing because he wanted it to be in his own voice.

Nonetheless, Visontay will still receive royalties from the book ‘as a gesture of good faith’.  Ghost writers usually charge a flat fee or a percentage of royalties or a combination of both — but all this would be stipulated in the contract from the outset.  It seems a little strange to me that Visontay is getting royalties, not because he is contractually entitled to them, but because the publisher felt generous, when allegedly very little of his manuscript made it into the book.

Secondly, Do’s remarks in an interview and what he wrote in the acknowledgements section in the book seemed to contradict each other.  In explaining the ghost writer situation, Do said:

‘Basically, this guy interviewed me and transcribed the interviews and it just really, really helped me.  They sent … all these interviews transcribed and it was lots of me talking and I have used that, and then wrote the book from that.  The book, the finished product, is nothing like the manuscript, the transcription given to me.’

Is Do saying that Visontay’s manuscript was no more than a transcription of a series of interviews with him?  I’m sure he did more than just that as a ghost writer, but let’s for argument’s sake assume he didn’t do a whole lot more than that.

But then, in the acknowledgements section of the book, Do wrote: ’To my friend Michael Visontay, who taught me how to write a book and and helped me with structure and form.’

So what the heck did Visontay do on this book?  Did he interview Do and transcribe the interviews?  As the ghost writer, it would make no sense if he didn’t.  Did Do write the book from the transcriptions or Visontay’s manuscript or are they one and the same?  How much did Visontay help out on this book?  Was the acknowledgement a reference to Visontay’s manuscript or was it suggesting that Visontary physically helped him in the writing process?  And is he just ‘some guy’ or a ‘friend’?  Does it really matter?

To make this mystery even more compelling, Visontay said he did not wish to comment on the matter.

Mmm…smells fishy to me.

I guess the attribution of authorship is always a tricky area.  Just how much work does one need to put in before they go from ‘contributor’ to ‘author’?

Famous short story writer Raymond Carver’s works were brought under the spotlight in the late 90s, when it was revealed that his editor Gordon Lish had made significant changes to Carver’s works, including slashing up to half the word count, changing titles, characters, adding sentences, changing endings, tone and style — the style which Carver is well-known for.  That doesn’t make Carver a fraud, but it does raise some interesting questions.

When I read Andre Agassi’s riveting autobiography Open, I was amazed by how well it was written, only to discover that the grunt work was done by a Pulitzer-winning ghost writer, JR Moehringer, whom Agassi warmly acknowledged at the end of the book.  In that case, Moehringer interviewed Agassi, transcribed them, then created a narrative with them, which Agassi then worked on with him to shape into the finished product.  No one made much of a fuss over the fact that only Agassi’s name was on the cover, a decision Moehringer helped Agassi make.

Ultimately, it’s probably still a fart in a wind storm.  After all, Jessica Watson’s True Spirit, the book that was published supernaturally quick after the teen sailed solo around the world (I personally never understood all the hoopla, to be honest), won General Non-Fiction Book of the Year.  Hard to imagine she didn’t get a lot of help with getting that one into shape.