Friday, October 15, 2004

Ignore that man behind the curtain!

Interesting discussion going on over at Lee Goldberg's blog...

Lee brought up the recent revelation (recent to he & me, at any rate) that author Michael Gruber (Tropic of Night) was the real writer behind the popular legal thrillers published under Robert K. Tanenbaum's name.

Gruber's bio in the official Bouchercon program admitted as much: "[Gruber] ghostwrote the Butch Karp and Marlene courtroom thrillers for Robert K. Tannenbaum."

I happen to find this outrageous (and more than a little bizarre) but such things happen more than you'd think in the literary world. Clive Cussler, Tom Clancy and James Patterson, among others, have all published bestselling novels under their own names that they only partially (at best) wrote.

What I find truly odd is that nobody seems to give a damn. When infamous lip-synchers Milli Vanilli were revealed to be nothing but pretty faces who hadn't sung a word on their multiplatinum album, the music world was rocked.

The album was removed from print (the biggest-selling album ever to suffer such a fate), their Grammy was taken back, their careers were destroyed. Rob Pilatus (not sure if he was Milli or Vanilli) sank into depression and killed himself.

Lip-synching allegations have also dogged the careers of such artists as Madonna, Janet Jackson and Britney Spears. When it was learned that Whitney Houston only mouther her famous rendition of The Spar-Spangled Banner at the Super Bowl a few years back, she took her share of heat in the media.

Strangely, though, the fact that a best-selling book wasn't actually writen by the person whose name is on the cover doesn't seem to bother anyone. At least Britney Spears actually recorded her own music, even if she doesn't always perform it during her concerts. (She also has the excuse that she's doing some rather aerobic dancing at the same time.)

But when someone like Tannenbaum puts his name on a book he didn't write -- and then shows up at signings to personalize it with his signature -- no one cares. Or do they?

Put me down as someone who does care. This is a disreputable practice that publishers should cease. Authors might be commodities to sell books, but they're more than that. The great tradition of literarure demands that they be more than just brand names. Otherwise, why doesn't Putnam just slap "Patricia Cornwell" or "Tom Clancy" on everything they publish and just dispense with the pretense of art.

If we can't trust that the name of the author on the book actually wrote it, it undermines and diminishes both publishing and literature. At a time when tragically few people actually buy and read books, this is a risk we cannot afford to take.