Monday, May 16, 2005

On Ghosting by Jennie Erdal

This weekend I read another Borders Original Voices selection, a memoir entitled Ghosting by Jennie Erdal. For almost 20 years Erdal worked as an editor and translator for Quartet Books in London, and she also became the ghostwriter for Quartet's flamboyant owner, whom she dubs "Tiger" (his real name is Naim Attallah). Ghosting has caused quite a stir in England, where Atallah is quite well-known and his books well-received.

I wanted to love this book. After all, what's not to like? Ghosting purports to tell the true story of how Jennie Erdal went from Quartet Russian-lit editor (and sometime translator) to ghostwriter of Attallah's books, novels, newspaper columns, articles, and even intimate correspondence. I've often wondered about the relationship between ghost and ghosted (haunted? ghostee?): what makes one person take on the writing persona of another? And is it ever ethical to disclose the relationship? Is the ghost being paid just for the words or also for discretion and silence?

But ultimately, Ghosting answers none of these questions. In fact, I found this memoir just plain boring; I found myself skimming... trying to get over the repetitive bits as quickly as possible. How many ways can Erdal describe Tiger's flamboyance? His little eccentricities, like the mismatched socks, the three watches, the obsessive scheduling, and the never-ending drama? The answer: way too many. Perhaps this book should have remained a Granta article... the added length does not add depth or value.

While many reviews have commented on Erdal's elegant prose, I found the writing clunky. It drags. [And yes, I could cite examples, but I only got 3 hours of sleep last night --(non)emergency at my grandmother's nursing home-- and don't have the patience to transcribe...] There's too much telling (and retelling) in Ghosting and not enough showing, both in her relationship to Tiger and in the sections chronicling her own life (which I found, well, boring...).

Erdal cites extensive passages from the novels she ghosted for Tiger; the passages from the first novel are particularly excrutiating to read. It's hard for me to believe that those novels got good reviews. But then again, Erdal herself mentions that reviewers often see in novels what they are looking to find.

Erdal also chooses to include fairly long passages in French, which are not translated. I can read French, so those posed no problem for me, but I imagine non-French-speaking readers would be annoyed. Another annoyance: Erdal frequently cites words of wisdom from other writers -- sometimes she references the cites with a footnote, sometimes she doesn't (even when she cites directly, using quotes). I couldn't figure out the rationale for this haphazard referencing system -- either reference all the cites or none of them, please!

Bottom line: I wouldn't recommend this book. If you're interested in the topic, like I was, I suggest you browse through the info and links below -- they provide plenty of free info without requiring a large commitment of time.

For more information:

  • Excellent interview/article on Erdal and Ghosting.

  • Overview of the reviews on Ghosting, from Most of them are much more favorable than my own opinion!

  • Reprints of reviews, articles, and excerpts from Ghosting

  • "Giving Up the Ghosting":

  • David Sexton of the Evening Standard, in an interview with Attallah, has depicted a rift between Erdal and her former employer. Attallah is, Sexton writes, 'understandably agitated.' The prominent publisher has found in Ghosting, 'details that you don?t normally put in a book' to the point where he claims, 'I don't recognise myself' It is not mentioned, however, that Attallah personally approved the book after being given advance copies. Sexton himself is ultimately impressed enough to find Ghosting 'a fascinating and notably well-written memoir.'

    Adding further fuel to the controversy, Attallah himself has recently published a new book of his own, this time without the use of a ghost-writer. The Old Ladies of Nazareth is the first of a proposed trilogy in which Attallah explores his own Palestinian heritage, published on October 21.

    With Ghosting's much anticipated publication, the media frenzy will perhaps subside, and Erdal will - for the first time - be able to speak for herself, and under her own name.

    Ghosting is not a literary kiss-and-tell, its author emphasises, anxious about the book's reception. She points out that for years it was an open secret in publishing circles that Attallah, magazine proprietor and owner of Quarto Books and The Women's Press, did not himself write every word of the journalism or the books that appeared under his own name--notably volumes of his interviews with famous women, and a brace of novels. Private Eye had long ago "exposed" the situation, in very unflattering, black-and-white terms.

    Instead Erdal is interested in the intense relationship that developed between herself, an editor, translator and single mother-of-three from a conservative small town in Fife, and the exuberant, obsessive, emotional Attallah, who grew up amid the olive groves of Palestine.

    And she is interested in the complexities of the role she took on in his employ. In one way she sees it as just a simple service, comparing her job to that of the letter wallahs in India, who will compose a letter to order because they can phrase it better than the individual who buys their skills. In another, particularly when she came to write Attallah's novels, it became a strange kind of distortion of her own mental space, as she attempted to force her own creative imagination into the shape of another person's brain.

    Her role developed so gradually that she wasn't aware for a long time that what she was doing was not moral — that writing material for someone else to say without attribution was "ghosting." She says neither she nor Attallah ever used that word.

    "He was very ambitious about being a writer, and he thought I could make it happen for him. I worked at home — about 500 miles from London. I didn't feel manipulated at the beginning. My impression was that a lot of people were doing the same thing."

    By the time she wrote the book, she was sorry and wanted to "take a hard look at ghostwriting, which is very prevalent now. We all get mixed up in our heads. I was doing an extreme form of it — especially with intimate letters. Passing off something that is not your own is not honorable or moral behavior, but it is interesting behavior. Why give words away? Words are very personal."

    Her top salary, she said, was "25,000 pounds a year — less money than he paid his chauffeur. He paid me just enough to keep me interested. It was enough for me to pay the bills. The fact that I didn't get credit didn't matter to me. I knew. He couldn't own my thoughts. Getting credit seemed very low on the list of priorities. It was more important for me to care for my family."
    • From "War of the Words" in W Magazine's March 2005 issue:

    At the very mention of Jennie Erdal's name, Attallah becomes enraged. "Our relationship--any relationship I have--is sacrosanct," he booms from behind his desk. Although he knew she was writing a book about her time with him ("I told him more than once that I wasn't going to make him a saint," says Erdal), he says he was shocked when he first read an excerpt in Granta. Choosing his words carefully, he refuses to confirm or deny Erdal's ghostwriting claims: "It was a very close collaboration where two talents intertwined.

    "I am obsessed with loyalty," he adds, clenching his fists. "And she knows how I view loyalty."

    Though Attallah acknowledges he recognizes "some aspects" of himself in Erdal's portrayal, he is offended by most of her description. "It's like an opera, there are many inaccuracies, embellishments, exaggerations," he says. "She made me look like a comical buffoon. To be called illiterate by somebody with whom you have worked closely is not a nice thing. You can be so kind to someone, and then put a knife in them--and the wound feels just as painful. I feel betrayed."
    A little trivia:
    The Nigella Erdal mentions in Ghosting as one of Tiger's girls is Nigella Lawson, now of cooking fame.

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