Monday, April 14, 2014

The Afterlife of Literature

Where Does The Author Go When They Die?
(Try not to get too frightened.)

So recently I watched one of the newer episodes of the once popular television show The Simpsons, having been a dedicated fan of the first ten seasons of the show I was dubious of my ability to sit through an entire episode of the later seasons, but to my surprise I found the episode very enjoyable.

 (We don't speak of seasons 11-24. Ever.)

For those of you interested in my taste the episode I enjoyed was, season 23 episode 6, entitled "The Book Job". After Lisa learns from her favorite author T.R. Francis that most popular books marketed to teenagers are written by a small number of authors with no experience and a fake author to take the credit Homer sets out to write his own group-novel and make "one-million dollars" from a publishing company.

The episode is done in the style of an Oceans-11 sort of heist movie, and features Neil Gaiman voice acting as himself, I'd advise checking it out. After checking Wikipedia for some information I learned that the episode was written by Dan Vebber a freelance writer, and ironically due to the plot of the episode being fake-writers taking credit from ghost-writers, The Simpson's executive producer Matt Selman received credit for the idea.

(Iron E. Get it?)

Dan Vebber got the idea for the episode after reading this New Yorker article. The article explains how T. R. Francis' depiction of the publishing industry is sort of close to reality, where ideas are generated by company executives and editors before being contracted out to authors to create. The company's formula for success is, according to the article, based on rehashing the same popular ideas not only in books but in television and film. The ghostwriters which the publishing companies hire are described as generally in their 20's and having little or no experience writing novels.

This brings up my original question: "Where does the author go when they die?"

Apparently they sticks around.

Not only are the stories for popular shows, movies and novels being produced by executives through market research and exported to ghostwriters to fill in the blanks in the final stages, but many of our favorite and most renowned authors are being replaced in a very post-modern way by their own ghosts. Readers are being subjected to a con on a massive scale which raises all sorts of nifty questions about the nature of authorship.

Tom Clancy

(Tom Clancy: Novelist, Republican, and International Sex Symbol.)

Although according to in an article titled "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain: 7 fiction authors whose careers were extended by ghostwriters" Tom Clancy authored many best selling novels with his business partner "Steve Pieczenik including the three long-running book series—Op-Center, Net Force, and its young-adult offshoot, Net Force Explorers—each of which features the possessive 'Tom Clancy’s' in the title. Neither of the co-creators actually write; Pieczenik hires the hacks and packaging agents, and Clancy holds up his end by being named Tom Clancy".

In Post-Modern literary theory the author can be separated into two parts, the first being the flesh-and-blood novelist who is as human as you or I, and the 'idea' of the author which we as a collective society agree to use to define the author through his works as well as our knowledge and opinions of him. This distinct 'idea' of a novelist which operates and changes independent of the flesh-and-blood author I will refer to as the Author's Concept to avoid confusion as I ramble. Through this division of the author even when the flesh-and-blood author literally dies the Author's Concept can continue to evolve and interact with our world and even in some cases continue to write (not entirely unlike a ghost).

Ghost Writers:
The Move to Haunted Literature

(Anyone else remember the 90's?)

I don't recall many of the actual theory terms I'd like to use here, so I'll largely be making them up and explaining them as I go. Hopefully you'll be able to bare with me here:

When an author's identity makes the split between flesh-and-blood and Author's Concept an author's identity lives on even when the flesh-and-blood author is completely removed. Taking advantage of this occurrence Publishing Companies have begun using Ghost Writers to write in the style of novelists on their behalf, much like the case with Tom Clancy, and provided that the imitation is good enough not to be recognized as a simulation the ghost-written work is integrated into the identity of Author's Concept.

This is frightening news because it would seem to herald the beginning of an age of "haunted literature" where books are produced by these ghostwriters, flesh-and-blood authors wearing the stolen skin of an Author's Concept rather than spawning their own, and the difference between the real and the unreal becomes blurred enough for an Author's Concept to write its own novels and even for an author's 'ghost' to write even after its death.

Tom Clancy's Command Authority
(Cover: 60% Tom Clancy's name. 30% Title. 10% Tank.)

Command Authority, the latest Tom Clancy book produced and was published, over two months after Clancy's death, on December 3, 2013. While Tom Clancy was only one contributor to the novel his name appears in massive letters on the book's cover to attract potential readers and to continue to supernaturally extend the life of Tom's Author's Concept. In spite of what the Author's Concept would seek to have us believe one can't help but wonder if the ailing flesh-and-blood Tom Clancy managed to contribute significantly to the book's development or if we are now truly in a world of Haunted Literature.

Some final questions to ponder:

  • If Ghostwriters are keeping the Author's Concepts of beloved novelists alive and can convincingly produce works for Author's Concepts which bring us as much enjoyment as those created by the original flesh-and-blood counterparts should this act of literary necromancy be considered an act of evil, good, or neither?
  • Do you expect, or have you already noticed, a decline in the quality of television, movies or books as experienced writers and authors are being replaced by executives, market research and inexperienced ghostwriters?
  • Why were seasons 10 through 24 of the Simpsons to unbearably low quality compared to the first ten?

I hope I got some of y'all thinking!

If you have any comments, questions or concerns regarding the preceding post please have them forwarded to the post's author; Phil McKracken's Ghostwriter.


  1. Foucault, literary necromancy, great final questions....bravo.

  2. I really like the idea that authors don't die. Their techniques, writing styles, and story lines are picked up by publishing companies and ghost writers. I guess I do not care who is writing the stories as long as I can enjoy them. I say this, but I know if i found out that one of my favorite authors stories were getting sequels written by other authors I would be pretty upset. So I guess that I care and don't care at the same time. I dont agree that ghost writers are inexperienced. I think production value has gone down. So whether there are less writers or worse sets i think the quality of TV cannot be determined by just one element. Kind of babbled here. I never really watched the Simpsons, but my experience with other TV shows is that there is just not that much more character development that can happen, and based off the type of show that it is perhaps there was no more new material to do. Maybe seasons 10-24 felt so low quality because they felt like repeats.


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