The Illustrious History of Ghostwriting
I’m reading a nonfiction book entitled The Mark Inside: A Perfect Swindle, A Cunning Revenge, and A Small History of The Big Con by Amy Reading. It’s the more-or-less true story of a 20th-century Texas rancher name of J. Frank Norfleet, who was fleeted – er, fleeced – out of a sizable chunk of money by some wily confidence (“con”) men. Reading’s bona fides highlight a Ph.D. in American Studies; her scholarly ways are apparent throughout the book and its detailed end matter.
Norfleet wrote his own story of the con perpetrated upon him and how he dealt with the crooks. My eyebrows went up when I read that he had a ghostwriter – perhaps more than one – assist him. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that people with an interesting story to tell, lacking the ability to write it, would turn to a professional to help them. Reading writes in the notes on page 250:
“I became less interested in precisely what happened and more intrigued with how Norfleet chose to represent his tale. Even his distortions are telling, though we have to step into the realm of speculation in order to draw meaning from them. He wrote from within a set of literary codes learned by reading dime novels, detective fiction, and true-life stories serialized in monthly magazines. Norfleet worked with several ghostwriters in the course of his long attempt to capitalize on his story, and those writers were surely more versed than he in such literary conventions.”
I conclude from this comment that Norfleet knew the kind of story he wanted to tell, and how he wanted it told – a true-crime thriller – and sought a ghostwriter who was skilled in the genre, even to the point of taking liberties with the truth in order to make it into a rousing tale.
Times have changed since Norfleet’s 1924 “autobiography,” Norfleet: The Actual Experiences of a Texas Rancher’s 30,000-Mile Transcontinental Chase After Five Confidence Men. Today, veracity and truthfulness are held in high value in nonfiction, and utterly essential in business books. The slightest divergence from truthfulness can be the downfall of business executives. Still, the tale well told is in the telling, and it’s quite possible to make a story interesting without changing the facts. The ability to accomplish this is why we ghostwriters are still in demand.