Wilbur Smith. Photo by Ron Hogan
Wilbur Smith – he isn't actually dead yet. The Oscar Niemeyer of novels about people being hard in the African bush is still around and still doing his thing.
Smith is the rugged author of rugged novels with titles like A Sparrow Falls, A Falcon Flies, The Sound of Thunder, Where the Lion Feeds, Where the Rhino Gets the Best Mobile Phone Reception and How the Kudu Lost 20 Pounds in 16 Days and How You Can Too, who – over the past 40 years – has sold over 120 million copies of these books to the sort of people who find Jeffrey Deaver a bit too challenging.
Now, though, with a little help, Smith has decided that, at age 79, it's probably time to give himself a rest. So he's signed a £15 million contract to produce another six books. Obviously that sounds like a lot of work, but only if it's you who is required to produce the books. Happily for Wilbur, it isn't – it's other people. He is the latest literary big name to "go ghost", thus freeing up more time for him to do what he does best: his 39-year-old wife.
From now on, Wilbur Smith's role in Wilbur Smith novels will be to "establish plots", "give guidance" and pass "character sketches" to his chosen ghost-writers. Characters who, for Wilb, will probably all just conform to the four basic types of human there are in the world anyway: "man, tall, brooding", "man, short, brooding", "woman, fruity", and "woman, hard bitch but turns out fruity". It'll make it easier on his ghost-writers at least, and then he can put down the phone and get back to the Tajikistani gal – fruity, who he married five months after the death of wife number three.
Soon everyone will be happy. Well, perhaps not his previous publishers – Pan McMillan, who decided that getting someone else to write the books for you was a good way to destroy their whole industry – but certainly his new publishers HarperCollins, who have long since come to the conclusion that people don't care about these sorts of authenticity issues any more anyway.
Tom Clancy kicked it all off. The composer of breeze-blocks in which men in navy suits whisper the entire Wikipedia entry for The RAND Corporation to each other in Istanbul cafes has been chopping himself up and packaging his talents off to ever-finer degrees for the past decade. He's gone from giving brief, inner-page acknowledgements to the ghosts who've turned his neocon ideologuing into short sentences describing makes of handguns into giving them proper co-billing. Although the words "TOM CLANCY" are generally 128pt bold and the words "with Grant Blackwood" are often 8pt italics, matte finish.
He's no slouch, Clancy. The guy who famously predicted 9/11 seems to have also predicted about ten years ago that the public would soon cease to give a damn about who actually wrote what they were reading. That, if you stare at it long enough, the question of authorship would dissolve like a puddle on a hot day and, in the crater, all you'd find would be brand, brand, brand. Telescopic night-sights, crazy wars against Japan – Clancy is a brand you can know and love. Smith is a brand, too: Africa, people shagging, someone's killed a gemsbok, etc., etc. What's to stop them simply extending their umbrellas?
Via his probing, intel mind, Clancy seems to have worked out that writing is a solitary, difficult activity – one that studies consistently show involves being alone and silent in a room for hundreds of hours until your eyes bleed and you want to stab yourself in the thorax with a split infinitive. In the modern media age, no one can do that while popping up as a talking head on a series of neocon news channels and generally maintaining the sort of media profile that comes from being Tom Clancy.
Someone needs to be out there jawing with Bill O'Reilly about why Guantanamo is for wimps. And someone needs to be out there locked in a small room fact-shitting into a word processor about the tribal regions of West Pakistan. And it's quite obvious to see how the delineation-of-roles would go within that setup.
Clancy soon found he wasn't alone in his determination to do for novels what Duchamp did for having a piss. Arthur C Clarke saw out his twilight years with just one. Clive Cussler quite openly dabbles. Even Jeffrey Archer's long been rumoured to have teams of eager young things who put all of his latter stuff together, while he just comes in every now and then and tells them to make it more wooden. Though he has always denied this. And, of course, there's the counterfactual that if he didn't physically write, what would he actually do with his days, given that he's now banned or shunned by most of British public life?
But the general shape of the future is clear, and I for one welcome our new ghost overlords.
People are always trying to re-make literature or otherwise save it from itself, constantly bemoaning the end of history, that we've been stuck in the same semantic tumble-dryer for 40 years. Well, the easiest way to kickstart a brash new age would simply be to redefine it as a director's medium – where the watchful aesthetic eye of a Coppola or a Scorsese is the important thing, not whichever well-paid, creatively-dead MS Word monkey flung the script together. I want to live in a world where writing-as-managerialism moves rapidly up the food chain. Where JM Coetzee is the Andy Warhol of bleak social commentary on latter-day South Africa, only emerging from his cokey party life to sprinkle a little bit of fairy dust over the final copy and throwing in a few additional references to disposing of the corpses of destroyed dogs.
Take a mooch like Jonathan Franzen – a big, flubby jellyfish of pain; a man so terminally sad and depressively committed to his art that he spent large patches of writing Freedom in a darkened room, wearing earmuffs, attempting to cut out any sort of stimulation that might distract from the mind-bendingly difficult task of synthesising the life of an American family into a universal tale of the way we live now. When really he should be out there having fun, telling Oprah about all the orgasms he's been having since he started reiki. He needs someone who can do the heavy lifting for him, then just pass on a few notes from his hotel room.
"Okay. Family, kinda middle American. Hate each other. Get through it. Throw in some stuff about Iraq and other pop culty sherbet - dunno, maybe a reference to the Kanye and Taylor Swift thing? Everyone's quite angry – that's the key. Motiveless angriness should be the crescendo you're reaching for, but easy on the gas, fella: remember this is literary, not like that shit you were churning out for Grisham last month. Ok, gotta go – Ellen Degeneres wants me to make crab cakes on her show next week and I need to look up the recipe. K, bye."
The reason so much great literature is so depressing is that by the time it arrives, it's taken hundreds of hours of greyly staring at a misplaced adjective, fusing a spliced sentence then splicing a fused one and generally trying to think of a name for the guy that owns the bar where the band plays every second Thursday.
No wonder the Russians were so dark. History would have been much more airy had Tolstoy been able to pick up the phone and go: "Listen, I've got two words for you. War. Peace. Think about it. K, gotta go become a religious zealot, but just put down about a thousand pages on that and I'll tidy it up next year."
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