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.