Dorothy Parker contributed to this article 54 years after her death
Some earth shattering book news from the New York Times Books Review:
Knopf is claiming a dead dude is about to write a book.
As Dorothy Parker would say, “What fresh hell is this?”
The headline is: “Paul Newman will tell his own story, 14 years after his death.”
Here’s the quote, “Knopf plans to publish a memoir by Paul Newman next year based on hours of recordings the movie star left behind, as well as interviews with family, friends and associates.”
Paul Newman did not write this book.
Paul Newman died of cancer on September 26, 2008.
Paul Newman is writing bupkis.
He can’t even nod and wave his hand and agree to the publication.
Gentle reader: This is a book by some hardworking writer whom Knopf doesn’t think is catchy enough to grab your attention (the internet says it’s Peter Gethers). The book is based on recordings that “were recently discovered” — yes CNN used that passive voice — as if the ghost of Paul Newman rose from the garden and floated over to his laptop to indicate what should and should not be published, when clearly someone was asked to go through Paul’s effects and see if anything could be salvaged or might be useful, and found some cool stuff and asked Paul’s estate if they could write a book.
And then asked if they might write that book in Paul Newman’s voice.
This person, like Dr. Frankenstein, assembled their book from half a manuscript that screenwriter Stewart Stern apparently was once upon a time planning to write about Newman — though the publicists spin this as “Newman’s Own Words.”
(Stern, incidentally, is also dead. He died in 2015. According to a CNN story, however, “many” of the people Stern recorded for this book were on the record. Not all: many.)
So someone went through some things (Stern’s things? Newman’s things?) and found this partially-finished manuscript and/or some recordings (let’s face it: all middle aged humans have an unfinished memoir on their laptop or in notebooks or somewhere for their families to find) and then this person went on and wrote a book proposal. They created an outline, got an agent, revised their outline, wrote a pitch, revised the pitch, sold the project, wrote the project, did more research, made the project better….and finished writing a book that is being published by Knopf.
Paul Newman did none of those things. Paul Newman is dead.
Thanks to the marketing needs of the publishing industry, this living person, let’s call them the writer, gets none the credit for all of this work, instead the publishing company is…you guessed it, turning Paul Newman into a literal ghost-writer.
And turning the biographer into a ghost.
This person/writer recused themselves of authorial credit and instead is hiding behind the term “editor” of the…. let’s all say this together: biography.
I get it: most readers seek salacious stories and “memoir” promises this while biographies do not. Biographies are too 80s. Too middle-school-library. We want to hear stories in immediacy and in first-person. The publicity department at Knopf cares about book sales. Probably everyone at Knopf, bottom line, cares about book sales. But as a writer, wow — it is so painful to know that these days writing a brilliant biography is likely to garner you a ghostwriting credit. Or at best, an editor credit.
Imagine if Annie Liebowitz was erased that way. It’s just Demi Moore’s photograph because Demi Moore was Demi Moore.
Just because biographers focus on a subject, doesn’t mean that the biographer’s writing talent is not important.
Memoirs and autobiographies have long been written by ghostwriters, paid to learn the voice of the author and craft a book to sound better than the celebrity can possibly write (remember this one?) and writers need money…because most of us are not celebrities that can get a book deal by sending an email to Knopf.
Why does publishing insist on remaining a culture of celebrity, and not a culture of content — at least where hardcover books are concerned? Why can’t the publishing industry say, “Sorry, Mr. Celebrity, but if you want to write a book and can’t write, we are going to have to hire a writer whose name will be on the cover of your book as the writer.”
Book-people are all (let’s face it) nerds who want authenticity. Give us truth.
Perhaps it is because of book categories. This book is a nonfiction life story written in first-person, and therefore must be called a memoir…? I bet that lots of creative non-fiction writers have desperately wished to write first-person biographies but have been told that their work would be shelved as fiction.
Is it that no estate has ever allowed a writer to assume the voice of a celebrity after a celebrity has died? Is this groundbreaking of Knopf to decide that instead of calling it a novel, the House would stick with traditional categorizations….meaning that they were left with “this is a ghostwritten memoir authored by a dead dude”?
But online book searching is done by keyword, not category. There are no “shelves” online. Creative nonfiction has flourished since Simon Schama started winning awards for readable histories. Why can’t we let this genre explode the way that fiction has?
Ask any writer whose book might cross genre and you’ll hear the woes of shelving books in “sections” that are not inclusive of the whole book.
(Wow, this is the moment to spin off into a whole theory of racial and/or sexual nomenclature, checkboxes on forms, sorting humans into classes, and other socially relevant thoughts — but I haven’t had coffee, so I’ll just stick to Paul Newman’s “posthumous memoir.”)
The writing of this book must have required hours and hours of research, listening to unedited interviews, sifting through recordings, seeking access to friends and family, yes, all that, but also finding the story, creating a narrative arc, and crafting words to the satisfaction of a professional editor: Paul Newman didn’t do any of this. He left it unfinished.
Why does a dead guy get an author credit for living his life and talking about it on tape? A biographer did all the work.
Part of the answer to this question is calling a biography a biography and releasing this need to call every life story a “memoir.” The rest of the answer lies in letting go of ancient systems of categorization, giving writers their due, and letting creativity reign.