The supposedly candid memoirs of elite athletes serve as a money-making promotional tool. Despite the name on the cover, they are usually written by someone else. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.
What the ghostwriters really think about sports memoirs
I recently interviewed Muggsy Bogues, the shortest man to have ever played in the NBA. A tiny kid from Baltimore’s projects, Muggsy was strafed by buckshot, witness to murder and effectively fatherless, all before puberty. But the really extraordinary thing is that he never grew beyond 160 centimetres and, despite years of abusive scepticism, played 14 seasons in the NBA.
Muggsy’s life is objectively remarkable, and I was excited to speak with him. But early in the interview, I knew something was wrong. Muggsy was warm, answered each question and betrayed no impatience while indulging them, but I never got the sense that I’d pierced anything. No question or theme – not God, death or poverty – could yield much more than garbled cliché.
One simple test of the success of an interview is the question: What do I know now, that I didn’t before? In Muggsy’s case, the unfortunate answer was: very little. Fanatical athletic commitment isn’t kind to introspection – at least introspection unrelated to their craft – but it’s presumptuous to pin this on some failure of personal insight. Muggsy was speaking to a stranger on the other side of the world whom he’ll likely never speak to again. He owed me nothing. Why is it necessarily a failure of insight? Couldn’t it just be a natural guardedness, a practised discretion? Or couldn’t it relate to my failures of rapport, attention or preparation?
Of course. But I also knew that his story – or at least the parts of it I wanted to write – would not reveal itself through his own reflections. I would have to do the heavy lifting. Not with exaggeration but with an enthusiasm and attention to detail which, for whatever reason, I could not tease from Muggsy himself.
Afterwards, I thought of the late astronaut Edgar Mitchell, who had seen nuclear mushroom clouds, walked on the moon, secretly conducted experiments in telekinesis on the way there, worked as a backchannel between Uri Geller and the CIA, trekked to consult remote shamans, got deep into alien visitation theories, and who had also written an unreadable, incongruously dull memoir.
And I also thought about sports ghostwriters. What were the pleasures? The pitfalls? Did ghostwriters still see themselves as journalists while working on so-called autobiographies – or were their subjects purely clients to be deferred to? What compromises followed? And what conditions were required to make a good ghostwritten memoir? Are there many? Are there any?
So I asked a few Australian sports ghostwriters about their work, all of whom have worked with household names. To encourage their candour – and to respect the delicate nature of their work – I granted them anonymity. I’ve included two conversations here.
The athlete’s career was distinguished; the manuscript was not. It had, apparently, been written by a mate – and our ghostwriter had inherited a mess. “It could honestly have been scraped from Wikipedia,” they tell me. “It was inane, trite, repetitive, unrevealing, and just deathly boring from the first line until the last.”
Both the book’s publisher and its subject agreed: the draft was awful. The ghostwriter’s job now was to salvage it – an operation, by the writer’s own admission, that was only partially successful.
This situation – a superstar’s memoir in the balance, and a stranger assuming custody of their friend’s mess – might have generated bad feelings. It didn’t. The ghostwriter says their subject was grateful for their work and unfailingly polite. “It was interesting, in that he’d worked so relentlessly at his own craft and could sense that his original ghostwriter had no idea what he was doing, but he was very polite about this,” they said. “It stressed him out, thinking that he might be associated with something subpar. I think the angle there was his personal brand more so than his literary tastes, but I admired him for it. He was as helpful as he could be, but honestly, if I’d started again from scratch, it still would have been an uphill battle to build trust and rapport in the time I had. He cried a few times and said some revealing and quite beautiful things – but he later wanted them taken out, and we gave full credit to the boys far too often.”
The late English cricket journalist Frank Keating swore off ghostwriting. He complained that his subjects were either garrulous bores, or as cold and reticent as stone. Almost a century before, the ghostwriter for the great English batsman W. G. Grace, Arthur Porritt, had similarly complained about his subject’s reticence – Grace told him that his achievements were self-evident and he had nothing to add. This was not Boswell and Johnson.
“In certain cases, it’s probably a job for starfuckers, I suppose,” the ghostwriter says. “Or to really love it, you’d have to be a bit of a starfucker. Or just unimaginative. It’s rare to see a sports book ghosted by an actually talented writer who isn’t completely in love with their subject. Some competent writers do it because it pays twice as well (sometimes more) as writing your own opus, and it’s pretty bloody easy work to be honest. It certainly beats manual labour.”
In my view, this ghostwriter is especially thoughtful, without being pretentiously solemn about writing. And they wouldn’t rush to do the job again. That said, they found some value in the process. “Even though I was paid [a sliver]of his fee, and all he had to do was answer questions, ironically, ghosting a book gave me more empathy for the plight of the millionaire athlete,” they said. “They probably don’t put the bins out or do the 3am bottle feed, but they have to perform under constant and sometimes unhealthy pressure, live blamelessly, and deal with a whole heap of uniquely difficult shit that you or I will never have to worry about. It was a reminder of all the drawbacks. I’d honestly prefer my life.”
The second ghostwriter has penned a few books. I asked mostly about one – about a legend whose life was marked almost as much by scandal as their athletic brilliance. “With a lot of athletes, there’s not much to say,” they tell me. “There’s not much of interest about their character. But with [this subject] he didn’t want to bask in the glory of his career, he just wanted to talk about how he’d stuffed his life up. He was happy to be pretty candid, and that appealed to me. I think it was a big exercise to purge himself. And the book was a big mea culpa.”
I asked if they thought they were laundering the reputation of their subject. “Well, others might have thought that,” they say. “But from the outset I told him that I was going to ask some very uncomfortable questions. And while I quite liked the guy – he was easy to talk to if a slightly unusual character – you can’t suspend your journalistic lines of inquiry. Your job is to tease out the truth. You can’t gloss over things either or the book won’t have any credibility.”
They tell me they suspect their subject never read the book.
In all of my conversations, no Aussie ghostwriter could commend a ghostwritten memoir of an Australian athlete. In fact, only one could commend any ghostwritten memoir at all – Andre Agassi’s Open. This is very far from a scientific survey, but the results aren’t flattering. I can’t commend any either. One ghostwriter told me that we should accept that most athletes just aren’t terribly interesting off the field.
“If you’re ghosting, I think you’re really working for (1) the publisher, who is stumping up the money, and (2) the person whose name is on the book,” another ghostwriter says. “You’re their slave. You want them to be honest, articulate, to have a flawless memory and an eye for the telling anecdote, but let’s be honest, if they were like that, they’d just write it themselves.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 4, 2021 as "Ghost stories".
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