Monday, October 3, 2011

Opinion — Feeding the Franchise: Co-Authors, Pen Names and Ghost Writers

We have a famous thriller writer who is putting out what — five or six novels a year with the help of a team of co-authors. We have famous characters — James Bond and Mike Hammer — who, like immortal energizer bunnies, just keep popping up though their original creators are dead. And Spencer is about to join the club. We’ve got writers who have a literary reputation to uphold so they change their names in order to write genre fiction. Gore Vidal did it as Edgar Box. The lauded John Banville is doing it as Benjamin Black. We have some writers who write so much and so often they have to have a couple of names so we don’t tire of them or because one series is so vastly different from the others that to use the same name — the real name — would confuse the public — or perhaps the publishers. Then we have someone who is famous as hell, but can’t write. But they figure if they can attach their names to perfumes and clothing lines that they had nothing to do with, why not put their high Q-rated names on the covers of books they didn’t write?

Then there’s Castle. Heat Wave, the book on the store shelves, is written by a fictional character on TV. Not a ghostwriter, but a fictional character. Even on Amazon, the writer is described as Richard Castle and there is a picture of the actor who plays Richard Castle posing as Richard Castle, when he obviously isn’t Richard Castle even if there were a Richard Castle. The book is published by Hyperion (a publishing house owned by Disney). The TV show appears on ABC (owned by Disney). Both the book and the TV show take place in New York City (possibly owned by Disney). The saving grace here is that there is a kind of tongue-in-cheek humor in the show as well as in the pretend-deceitful promotion of the book. Everyone is laughing and some are laughing all the way to the bank. Ah, the conceit of it all! But talk about branding, franchises and cross promotion! This has to be some new high or low.

Franchises, celebrity, and brand names — that’s the name of the game. If Sarah Palin wanted to write a mystery — say How’s that Bullet Working for Ya? — someone would write it for her and it would be published. And it’s doubtful a ghost writer would get any credit. The stamp of fame on unrelated products isn’t entirely new, I confess. Some have said that Elliot Roosevelt, son of Franklin Delano was the most prolific dead author who ever lived or died or something. Books kept coming out, long after his demise. Another presidential offspring, Margaret Truman, daughter of Harry, did the same, another Truman following another Roosevelt. The question is, did any of his or her semi-famous fingers ever touch a typewriter key? Not only are there questions whether Roosevelt and Truman actually wrote their books — they might have — but they continued writing them long after they shuffled off their mortal coils.

Popular TV celebrity Steve Allen was a gifted writer, but his ghostwritten mystery series (Die Laughing and Talk Show Murders among them), featured himself and his wife Jayne Meadows as protagonists in a series of books gladly autographed at bookstores. Did he accept congratulations without disclosing the actual author? I don’t know. Did Gypsy Rose Lee write the G-String Murders? Doesn’t seem so. But no one exposed her. Pun intended.

What about Spenser, Bond and Hammer and their hyperactive afterlives? Are there any ethical guidelines being trammeled? What do readers have a right to know or expect, if anything? Personally, I would shy away from a James Bond written by anyone but Fleming; but there is no wrong doing here. If the real author’s name is on the book cover or there is some other form of genuine, upfront disclosure, then what’s the problem? James Patterson has been open about the factory nature of his book writing and provides at least “co-author” credit on the cover of his co-created books, which is more than Andy Warhol and Michelangelo* did. To me it’s a bit like vegetarian hamburger. Nothing wrong with tofu. Yet, there has been no deception. And there are indications that the new Bonds and Hammers are really good and will make millions of readers happy by keeping the spirit and beloved characters alive. It is also clear, in the case of Spillane, that the writer who extended Mike Hammer beyond his creator’s grave had a collaborative relationship with Spillane and may well be doing it with the tough guy’s blessing.

Further, if famous “literary” novelists use a nom de plume for their mystery books, good for them. If a professional writer uses more than one name, why not? They, like the literary novelists operating on the down low, are showing a willingness to re-enter the marketplace as an unknown and compete with the others on a level playing field. If a writer can hit the bestseller lists using two different names, that’s quite an accomplishment — though often a subtle, well-timed leak can help with the promotion.

The only deception or misdirection that I really can’t abide are the celebrities who put their names on something they had nothing to do with and that has nothing to do with the fame they’ve achieved. In a way, it’s a form of bullying, or thievery — at least fraud. But then, there are some interesting possibilities. How about a dark and bloody murder novel by Justin Bieber, secretly written by Ken Bruen or George Pelecanos? That would cross some line, wouldn’t it?

*How’s that for name-dropping — Michelangelo in bold face?


Ian Dickerson said...

Spenser with an 's' not a 'c' surely...?

Ronald Tierney said...

I do know better. Thanks. The problem with a personal blog is that there are no proofreaders. However, changes can be made after the fact. I appreciate the catch.