One of the Andaman locations in my new novel.

Ross Island, India circa 1936, another setting in the new novel.

Reflections on a life among words

OUT TAKES ...bits and pieces of story, research, and process

Ghost World (By Anonymous)

October 31, 2009

Tags: ghost writing, publishing industry, false memoirs

I feel a bit transparent this Halloween. You see, for the past six months Iíve been a ghost. That means no habeus corpus, no credit, no identity. Iím so insubstantial I canít tell you whether Iím writing a kiss-and-tell or a how-to or a what-if, or all of the above. I canít name the author of the book Iím writing. I canít even name myself! But worst of all, from my new vantage point I can see that todayís publishing business is riddled with spectral writers Ė some of whom donít even know theyíre ghosts.

Why am I a ghost? Not put too fine a point on it, I am paid more to pen a book ďbyĒ someone who canít write than I can imagine being paid in the current climate for literary work of my own. Thatís not because my three novels have been poorly reviewed or failed to sell; itís because they have failed to sell like blockbusters or branded series.

Editors at mainstream houses today will send quality literary manuscripts back even to award-winning authors with a Post-it stuck to the title page that reads, in effect, ďDead on Arrival. Replace this with a bestseller or give us back your advance.Ē I cannot name names here, since these authors are feverishly trying to ďredeemĒ themselves now by writing those bestsellers, but this has happened to friends of mine who are widely considered literary lions. Some slaved over their books for six or more years before being rejected. More than a few, for the sake of survival, are turning into ghosts.

A different variation on the ghost syndrome applies to young authors who, just a few years ago, would have been published by caring editors at major presses and hailed by book reviewers across the country as brilliant new voices on the literary scene. Today most of those critics have been laid off by dying newspapers and magazines, and the brilliant new voices are lucky to find a home at a small press that turns out several hundred copies of books that ought to be published in the thousands. Many resort to self-publishing which, in the eyes of the mainstream publishing industry and most serious readers, renders them invisible.

Of course, American publishing has a long tradition of ghost-written series such as Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys, but that tradition used to fool kids who didnít know better. Ghosts also have been routinely used as technicians to craft the stories and ideas of politicians, celebrities, and executives who have neither the time nor the ability (no secret that Sarah Palin would need a ghost to Go Rogue) to write their own books; that tradition has never fooled anybody. But the current explosion of mainstream ghostwriting is duping a segment of adult society that used to know better.

Years ago I worked with a woman who ghost-wrote essays and theses for high school and college students. At the time I was appalled. Today, even MFA students dare to hire ghostwriters. (Woe to any of my students who try this!) Why, you might ask, would an aspiring writer even consider hiring someone else to write for her? Well, why not, when ghostwritten authors like Tom Clancy and James Patterson are treated by the publishing industry as heroes!

It might seem a paradox that even as more published books are written by ghosts, more budding writers are defending their creative voices through personal blogs and websites. But are these bloggers really writing their own stuff, or are they cutting and pasting the work of others? Are they even who they say they are? How can anyone know?

The popularity of memoirs would suggest that thereís a major market for true stories by real authors. But James Frey, JT LeRoy, and Margaret B. Jones are just some of the recent writers who, in effect, have ghost-written their own books by concealing their true identities and distorting their true stories.

Writing as a ghost, I have to admit, can be as liberating as acting. You explore somebody elseís stories in somebody elseís voice to serve somebody elseís agenda. Ghostwriting can be played like a game against the unsuspecting reader. Or it can be practiced like a mechanical skill, as impersonal as auto repair or computer assembly. In my ghost guise I am an identity technician.

But one fundamental feature of good writing has always been its authenticity. To paraphrase Hemingway, all you have to do to become a good writer is write one true sentence after another. Truth lies in the feeling, the observing, the reporting, and in the accountability of author to reader.

All these variations of the ghost syndrome now creeping through the publishing industry make a mockery of both authenticity and accountability. They encourage writers to lie and cheat, and train readers to believe even the most blatant deceptions. Worse, this trend trains readers not to care when the liars are revealed. Just a few months after James Frey was exposed for inventing the core story in his supposed memoir, A Million Little Pieces, Frey signed a seven-figure deal to write three books for Harper Collins.

Ghost-written books may make perfect sense to a reality show generation that assumes reality is contrived. After all, fact and fiction have never been more interchangeable than they are in todayís pop culture. But that very statement means that true literature by substantial authors has never been more sorely needed. Otherwise we all might as well disappear.

Happy Halloween!

below for more about Aimee's books & work.

Anthologies of fiction and nonfiction that Aimee has edited or contributed to.
a suspenseful novel of rescue and redemption set in Central Asia at the start of the Cold War, featuring two unforgettable heroines whose fates are irrevocably intertwined.
The unforgettable tale of star-crossed love that spans four decades and two continents.
A young photographer wrestles with her repressed past and identity as an Amerasian in New York's Chinatown. Now back in print after more than a decade, FACE is Aimee's first novel.
Work on Eating Disorders
While there are numerous memoirs available chronicling individual womenís struggles with anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders, this is the first book to bring together many peopleís stories to create a complete and candid picture of the recovery process. Aimee Liu has skillfully brought together firsthand accounts of recovery to create a realistic roadmap for the journey. This book also includes informational sidebars, written by professionals in the field, on topics including treatment options, choosing the right therapist, the pros and cons of medication, how parents and spouses can help, and much more.
How do anorexia and bulimia impact life AFTER recovery? GAINING is one of the first books about eating disorders to connect the latest scientific insights to the personal truth of life before, during, and especially after anorexia and bulimia.
America's first memoir of anorexia, and one of the earliest books about eating disorders, originally published in 1979
Craft & Criticism
Resources and suggestions for students and fellow writers
Aimee's latest book reviews