Hugh MacDon­ald

The Herald - Arts - - Books -

They are the peo­ple who take the auto out of au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. They are the ghost writ­ers who, armed with tape recorder and in­vig­o­rated by the prom­ise of a per­cent­age of the tak­ings, lis­ten to the fa­mous and pro­duce a book with­out a hint of apol­ogy but with a sur­feit of jus­ti­fi­ca­tion.

It is an art. It is also a busi­ness. The com­mer­cial side is easy to cal­cu­late. Celebrity is the opi­ate of the peo­ple. Au­to­bi­ogra­phies have be­come huge sell­ers if the sub­ject is part of main­stream pop­u­lar cul­ture. Katie Price, fa­mously fa­mous for be­ing fa­mous, has writ­ten one au­to­bi­og­ra­phy that topped the books chart. It was so suc­cess­ful she has done an­other. Coleen McLaugh­lin, fa­mous for be­ing the girl­friend of Wayne Rooney, has sim­i­larly had a suc­cess­ful tilt at the charts with her au­to­bi­og­ra­phy.

Lewis Hamil­ton, the rac­ing driver who has just turned 22, pub­lished his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy on the back of fin­ish­ing sec­ond in the grand prix cham­pi­onship. The pub­lish­ing in­dus­try quiv­ers to whis­per that it shunted 250,000 copies over Christ­mas.

Celebrity sells. Au­to­bi­og­ra­phy makes money. But it is the art that is the more fas­ci­nat­ing as­pect, at least for those who are not the pu­ta­tive au­thors or their ac­coun­tants.

The ghost writer does his work al­most in­vis­i­bly. A great ghost writer will be able to judge pre­cisely what should be told and, cru­cially, how it should be told.

They are the best of mim­ics. Katie Price, or Jor­dan as was, can­not be made to sound like Mar­garet Atwood. Ms McLaugh­lin can not repli­cate the tones of Doris Less­ing. Lewis Hamil­ton can­not be seen to in­dulge in the slow lane of phi­los­o­phy when the fast lane of race crashes and per­son­al­ity clashes are of greater in­trigue to his read­ers.

The ghost writer thus must be­come a voice piece. Some of them achieve an au­then­tic­ity bor­der­ing on ge­nius.

Evan­der Holy­field, the four­time heavy­weight cham­pion, has just pub­lished a su­perb au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. It deals with his reliance upon God, his abil­ity to choose con­tent­ment over bit­ter­ness and the ful­fill­ing trivia of get­ting a bit of his lug bit­ten off by a cer­tain Mike Tyson. This all makes for a com­pelling read but Lee Gru­en­feld, the ghost writer, has ren­dered it un­mis­take­ably in Holy­field’s tones.

I con­sumed the book in two sit­tings and then in­ter­viewed Holy­field. His rhythm of speech, his vo­cab­u­lary, even his tone was ex­actly that of the book. Gru­en­feld has, there­fore, not only told the story in the way that Holy­field wants but also in his voice. It is a re­mark­able achieve­ment. It adds to the en­joy­ment of the reader who be­lieves he/she is lis­ten­ing to Holy­field di­rect with­out the need for a mid­dle man.

Hugh McIl­van­ney per­formed a sim­i­larly flaw­less act in im­per­son­at­ing Sir Alex Fer­gu­son for the hugely suc­cess­ful Man­ag­ing My Life. He was, no doubt, helped by the fact that both men share a sim­i­lar hin­ter­land, be­ing Scots of a sim­i­lar age. But Man­ag­ing My Life was all Fergie, both in his re­mark­able sen­ti­men­tal­ity and his propen­sity for set­tling scores.

Ty Cobb’s 1961 au­to­bi­og­ra­phy also had the stamp of the sub­ject upon it. Cobb, one of the great­est base­ball play­ers, was tough in judg­ment and un­com­pro­mis­ing in ex­pres­sion. He had a record-break­ing ca­reer in his cho­sen sport, mak­ing en­e­mies along the way with an ad­mirable con­sis­tency.

This was all duly trans­lated to the page by Al Stump, who made the base­ball player out to be a bit of a grouch but only in a stern, al­most avun­cu­lar way. But af­ter Cobb’s death, Stump de­cided to write a bi­og­ra­phy of Cobb. It was pub­lished in 1991. It is bril­liant. “With the pos­si­ble ex­cep­tion of Adolf Hitler,” Stump wrote, “Ty Cobb must be the most fright­en­ing hu­man be­ing I ever en­coun­tered in a bi­og­ra­phy. And some com­par­isons favour the Fuhrer.” Cobb was homi­ci­dal, racist, al­co­holic and very, very an­gry. He was en­slaved by vices.

Cobb, Stump’s bi­og­ra­phy, is one of the great­est books of that genre. It serves to show that the ghost writer can also write. It also il­lus­trates how sub­jects now count­ing their dosh might do well to beware the ghost who can bring the skele­tons out of the cup­board.

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