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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Sarah Shaffi

‘Does it really matter who wrote it?’: the rise of ghostwritten celebrity fiction

Who’s behind the keys? Photograph: Maisiebeth/GuardianWitness

As long as there have been celebrity memoirs, there have been ghostwriters.

It will have surprised no one to learn that Prince Harry did not in fact sit down at a typewriter and bash out his memoir Spare, even before it was revealed that journalist, memoirist and novelist JR Moehringer was the writer. Katie Price widely acknowledged her ghostwriter, the late Rebecca Farnworth, who wrote not one, not two, but four of Price’s memoirs, while musician Keith Richards’ Life was written by James Fox.

“When a celebrity releases an autobiography, there’s an implicit understanding that they probably didn’t write it,” says novelist Ayisha Malik, who has worked as a ghostwriter.

But what about literature’s latest trend: the celebrity novel? Do the rules that apply to the celebrity memoir remain the same when it comes to celebrity-authored fiction that has been ghostwritten? After all, a memoir is a collection of tales that clearly belong to a specific person – who they are written down by doesn’t matter so much, as long as the experiences themselves are real. But isn’t there a difference between a ghostwritten memoir and a ghostwritten novel?

There have always been famous people who have written fiction, but the early 2020s has seen a trickle turn into a flood. From Richard Osman to Anton Du Beke, via Tom Hanks and Ethan Hawke to Shirley Ballas, it seems there is no celebrity who will turn down the chance to write a novel for adults. The children’s books world is also rife with celebrity authors, including Alesha Dixon, Jamie Oliver and Coleen Rooney.

Some of these celebrity authors, particularly those whose backgrounds are linked to writing in some form or another – from scriptwriting to penning lyrics – do write their own fiction. Among those are Osman, well regarded for writing his cosy crime Thursday Murder Club series, and children’s author and former McFly member Tom Fletcher. But others will employ the services of a ghostwriter.

Shirley Ballas.
‘Sheila brings my ideas life’ … Shirley Ballas. Photograph: Jeff Moore/PA

“Writing fiction uses a different writing muscle to writing memoir,” says ghostwriter Shannon Kyle, who co-founded The Ghostwriters Agency with Teena Lyons. “In some instances the celebrity will come up with a loose plot and the ghostwriter has to work around this. Involvement, I think, varies wildly depending on the celebrity. A tiny minority can write and their work only needs an editor to help shape it, but the majority of people in the world, celebrity or not, cannot write a bestselling novel without a team of people behind them.”

Lyons says the question to start with is whether ghostwriting itself is ethical. “To answer this, you would have to look at the three parties involved: the ghost, the author and the reader,” she says. “From a ghost’s point of view, this is a business transaction, they are selling their skills as a writer, so it is no different from any other business transaction. The same could also be said for the author: they’ve asked the ghost to write what they would have said if they had the time, skill or patience to write it. The place where the lines might get a little blurred is when it comes to the reader. Most people know and accept that the majority of non-fiction is written with the help of ghosts. The genre of celebrity fiction is not so clear cut and therefore readers won’t be so aware of the collaboration.”

Gillian Stern, who has ghosted a number of celebrity memoirs, says that if “a ghostwriter sits with a blank page and doesn’t have any input at all from the celebrity, I think that’s ethically difficult.”

Some celebrities are explicit about their use of a ghostwriter for their books. Farnworth – Price’s memoir writer – also authored nine of the novels released under Price’s name. Malik was credited as a consultant for Great British Bake Off winner Nadiya Hussain’s novel The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters. Although her name wasn’t on the cover, the credit page for the book states it is by “Nadiya Hussain with Ayisha Malik”.

But does this credit accurately portray the division of labour in creating a novel? What exactly is covered by that four-letter word “with”? For The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters, Malik met with Hussain to brainstorm the baker’s “vision for the novel: the story, the characters, themes etc”.

“I then received a storyboard, which I used as a template to write a book,” says Malik.

Similar brainstorming took place for Strictly Come Dancing judge Ballas’s first novel, Murder on the Dance Floor, which is out in October. Having released a memoir, which was ghostwritten, Ballas found there were a number of stories from her life and career that had been left on the cutting-room floor.

Ballas wanted to put those stories into a novel, but she is clear that her expertise does not lie in writing and that credit has to be given to Sheila McClure. Releasing a novel is not, says Ballas, about being known for writing a book, “because I didn’t write it”.

“I’ve just given the ideas and Sheila brings my ideas life,” says Ballas. “She is the professional, not me.”

The pair’s initial meeting involved McClure listening to Ballas’s stories and some of the areas she wanted to address, including sexism in the dance world. “I went away with that information and came up with a synopsis and a character list and then went back to Shirley,” says McClure. “We did a lot of talking at her kitchen island.” And then, once more details, such as character portraits, were finalised, McClure went away to write, coming back to Ballas for feedback. The former ballroom dancer was very hands on, even if she didn’t do the writing herself.

“I’ve spoken to many people who have written books and they don’t want the real writers, or ghostwriters, to get any credit,” says Ballas. “I think this is a collaboration where all parties concerned should get their share of the credit.”

But Ballas seems to be in the minority when it comes to being open about ghostwriters from the beginning of the process, at least in adult fiction. (In children’s books, celebrities will often be paired with named co-writers: radio presenter Greg James writes his books with Chris Smith, comedian Hamza Arshad’s co-writer is Henry White, singer and television judge Alesha Dixon teamed up with Katy Birchall for a series of books.)

Many celebrities who release ghostwritten fiction will say nothing at all, and it is only a careful scouring of the acknowledgments page and its coded language that hints at the presence of a ghostwriter.

One celebrity who has found himself at the centre of speculation about the authorship of his novel is Rob Rinder, whose The Trial was released recently. In his acknowledgments, he thanks the journalist Emily Fairbairn “for weed-whacking through my cerebral detritus to find an intelligible story”; asked by the Guardian whether Rinder had used a ghostwriter and what Fairbairn’s role was, his publisher Penguin Random House said: “This is Rob’s book based on his personal (albeit fictionalised) experiences at the bar. He’s worked alongside his editors Emily Fairbairn and Emily Griffin to create a compelling novel. To put Rob in the same category as a ‘celebrity ghost-written novel’ with little involvement is unfair and untrue.”

But do readers really care whether or not a novel is written by a celebrity? And should they? Katharine Reeve, senior lecturer practitioner in creative writing and publishing at Anglia Ruskin University, says she doesn’t think “readers want to know about the ins and outs of the multiple layers of editorial and publishing processes involved in a title”.

Malik says that if a reader “enjoys the book, then does it really matter who wrote it?” But, she adds: “There’s an inherent deception in the whole process, especially in an age where the author has become just as important as the writing. When an author talks about the book they’ve supposedly written by themselves, they’re essentially lying to the audience. Generally, I feel people don’t like lies.”

Whether or not readers know – or care – that some of the celebrity novels they are consuming are ghostwritten, it is clear there is a huge appetite for them. For the moment, at least.

“The sparkle of celebrity will always sell more, and this is a fact of life in every single industry,” says Kyle. “Celebrity authors are definitely having their moment, but like all things, this trend will eventually ebb and flow.”

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