From the Versace Vacuum to the Brand of Brothers
What do brainless and temperamental supermodel, Naomi Campbell, and certain leading figures in American evangelical Christianity have in common? No, I am not thinking of the obvious things: first-class air travel, tantrums, five star hotels, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and demands for absolute, unquestioning adulation and obedience from all staff members. I am thinking of something much more subtle and significant than that. Let me explain.
I forget the exact date - some time in the last decade but probably before 2001, when I arrived in the U.S.A - Ms. Campbell wrote a novel. To be precise, when I say `wrote,' I really mean `didn't write' because what actually happened was that somebody else wrote the book for her, with Campbell merely providing her name as the alleged author on the cover. How do I know this? Well, at the news conference to launch the book, Ms. Campbell was there in all her glory, a veritable vacuum dressed in Versace, to answer questions on her novel; but the answers were somewhat vague and faltering. The reason? She had only been briefed on the content of the book immediately prior to the press conference and thus her knowledge of what she had (not) written was limited entirely to the brief summary provided by her ghost writer. What was so ridiculous was that all the press present knew about this and, indeed, reported it; they made no attempt to cover up the situation at all; and yet the book was still sold.
Whether the book was any good, I know not, though the fact that Naomi Campbell was willing to have it issued in her name would seem to send strong hints regarding its overall literary quality. John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates should not, I suspect, give up their day jobs in the face of such fierce competition. What was fascinating was not that Campbell did not write it but that the book clearly represented the trumping of author as - well - author by author as brand. The book was not written by Her Vacuous Versaceness; but it had her imprimatur. Her name as author represented a kind of apotheosis of the jacket commendation or the Oprah Book Club seal, something that (apparently) made the book marketable.
What has all this to do with certain leading Christian figures? Much in every way. Let me explain. Some time ago a student brought to my attention a web review of a book I had written. Not recognizing the name of the reviewer, I asked the student who it was. Oh, the student replied that's (let's call him Rev. Brandon Meganame to protect the - ahem - guilty) Rev. Brandon Meganame's ghostwriter. What? I replied, Rev. Meganame has a ghost writer? Yes, the student answered, in fact Rev. Meganame has not written a book for at least a decade. Well, fancy that. Rev. Meganame is not so much an author - in fact, not an author at all in the last decade; he is rather a brand, a logo, the evangelical equivalent of the Lacoste alligator. He doesn't write books; he merely does the evangelical equivalent of lip-synching, more akin to Britney Spears than Martin Luther.
Before I switch my flamethrower to `Total Righteous Destruction' it is worth reflecting for a few moments on the nature of authorship. I am not thinking so much here of the various arguments about authorial intent and the `death of the author' but more about other, related matters. In the nineteenth century and before, it was not uncommon for essays and books to appear anonymously, sometimes identifying the author only by initials, sometimes by phrases which seem today rather quaint, such as `Written by a Gentleman of Quality.' The idea behind such authorial modesty would appear to be that the content of the work was of more significance than the one who wrote it. Of course, this is not the only reason why an author might use, say, a pseudonym. Mary Ann Evans wrote as George Eliot because she thought that a male name would mean that her work was taken more seriously; less significantly, perhaps, Eric Blair wrote as George Orwell for the simple reason that he hated the name `Eric.' More recently, two of my own favourite authors, Ruth Rendell and Ian Rankin, also write under the names of Barbara Vine and Jack Harvey respectively, though why they do so is a mystery to me, especially since the book covers usually make the necessary identification.
The idea of the ghost writer is, of course, scarcely unique to Ms. Campbell and the Rev. Meganame. At this time of year especially the shelves of bookstores are often full of the latest pulp biographies of sports stars and assorted ne'er-do-wells. Indeed, when I was growing up, Christmas didn't seem Christmas without some former gangster, such as the delightful `Mad' Frankie Fraser, producing another lurid volume cataloguing his random acts of violence against fellow villains and the occasional innocent member of the public. Now, `Mad' Frankie may have been useful when it comes to inflicting needless pain on other members of the human race, but whatever pain was inflicted through his tortuous prose was no doubt the fault of the person who ghost wrote his various crimes against English literature. That being said, even old East End villains usually marketed their literary wares by describing them on the cover as `written with' or `as told to' plus the name of the ghost writer.
But what of La Campbell and Rev. Brandon Meganame? Clearly, the use of the said names on the said books is that of a brand, pure and simple. Even `Mad' Frankie had actually to have roughed a few people up and then told his ghost writer what he had done; with Campbell, her connection to the book was so loose that she needed to be briefed on its content immediately prior to the press conference. One can only speculate about the relationship of anything Rev. Meganame may have said or done to that which occurs in the books bearing his monicker.
This is a strange phenomenon, and not simply for its obvious fraudulence and absurdity. It is also surely one of the unnoticed ironies of the postmodern world, at the very point when we are being told that the author is dead and that meaning is in the eye of the beholder or the beholding community, that there is a veritable proliferation of intellectual property laws which define and protect the rights of authors; and also we find this strange phenomenon of the ghost writer who needs the celebrity author's name to guarantee quality, or at least massively enhance, sales. Authors may be dead for epistemological purposes, but their rights are well protected, even if they didn't actually write a word of the book that bears their name; and, indeed, the author's name on the spine seems today to be critical to making sure some books are successes, as witnessed by the difficulty of new authors breaking in to the publishing game; and this unholy rise of the ghost writer who is utterly separable from the author.
As to the first, the so-called `death of the author' in a time of intellectual property rights, I have often thought it would be an interesting experiment in the practical limits of postmodern epistemology for me to to plagiarise word-for-word one of the trendy evangelical books advocating postmodern communitarianism as the source of meaning and then see if the author or publisher dared sue. I can see my defence counsel making his speech now; `But, m'lud, the book says that the meaning of texts is entirely socially constructed; thus, that my client's work and that of Rev. Prof. Dave Trendy are word-for-word the same is neither here nor there; they are actually entirely different works, making two entirely different arguments. Indeed, m'lud, I have two discrete reading communities that I intend to call as witnesses whose testimony will prove beyond any reasonable doubt that my client's authorial intention is entirely different to that of Rev. Trendy and that, in fact, neither his authorial intention or that of my client are at all relevant to the meaning of said text.....' My guess is that the author might well be epistemologically dead; but said epistemological death would not prevent Dave Trendy from claiming the money, reputation, and status which he believes his self-written, self-referential ideological obituary to deserve.
On the second, the rise of author as brand name, I am concerned that this is clearly making its way into American evangelical culture, even that culture which declares itself to stand in opposition to so many of the exploitative sharp practices of the televangelists and prosperity peddlers. Now, I am the first to admit that some books I buy because of the author's name, particularly in fields that are not my own. I have a general idea of who the reliable evangelical scholars are, who is worth reading on this topic or that in, for example, biblical studies, ethics, and theology; and there is a sense in which, reading far outside of my field, I often rely on my knowledge of a particular writer's track record with past books, scholarly reviewers, other people in the field whose opinions I trust etc. My opinion is shaped not so much by my own expertise in the field but by drawing on what I might call public community resources to establish who is reliable, where weaknesses in arguments might be found, and where original contributions of real merit are made. Thus, there is a sense in which I buy and read the books by these people because I know the brand is reliable; but the brand is critically and inextricably linked to the person, their abilities, their track record, and their reputation for competence.
When the brand gets divorced from these things, when the leader does not just hand a roughly-hewn manuscript to an editor who smoothes it into a readable and stylish piece of work, then I believe we are moving away from the acceptable canons of literary practice and intellectual ownership into something more sinister, something which lacks integrity and which also capitulates to, or even capitalises on, one of the most insidious aspects of modern culture: the celebrity brand. I also believe it can involve clear intellectual theft, albeit a kind of ironic theft with permission. The hard work of one person is taken by another and passed off as their own. The writer does not receive the credit they deserve, while the brand name receives unmerited acclaim, and the customer is conned into buying something which is not what it seems to be. It is rather like buying a Pink Floyd album, only to find that the music and the singing has been done by a cover group; all the original band have done is lip synch. We would regard that as unacceptable in secular pop music, as witness the cases of the awful Milli Vanilli and the unthinkably bad Boney-M. Why should evangelical books be held to a lower standard? Indeed, why should they not be held to a much higher level? Or is this just one more area where Christians are actually in the vanguard of setting new levels of ethical and cultural mediocrity?
Of course, this ties in with one of my pet peeves: that the evangelical subculture simply replicates (usually in a more mediocre way) the practices, values, and behavioral patterns of the advanced consumerist societies in which we live. This is a place where style trumps, or even displaces, substance, and where aesthetic concerns are the real ultimate determinants of coherence, plausibility, and value. So much of the tragic impotence of the church today is embodied in the fact that, in her fight against worldliness, she has attacked the obvious enemies such as sexual immorality and public blasphemy, but has done so through cultural idioms that are as worldly as anything out there. The cult of celebrity, with its apotheosis in the arrival of the ghost writer and the evangelical leader brand name, is not simply an embarrassment to the evangelical world; it also speaks of a movement that has sold out to the cult of personality.
Tragically, the step from the Versace vacuum to the brand of evangelical brotherhood seems to have been but a small one. Indeed, all this malarkey is enough to make me want to write a book about it; but what's the point? Unless I can get a really big name to claim it as his own and put his name on the spine, it's unlikely that anyone in the evangelical constituency will bother to read it.
Preaching through John's gospel, I have paused to meditate upon the person and work of John the Baptist. Here was one who came as a "witness, to bear witness about the Light" (Jn 1:6). Consistently (1:7, 14, 20) we are told that the Baptist was not the Light but a witness to the Light.
One of the amusing things I have noticed in the last twelve months or so has been a shift in the rhetoric used by members of the older generation (40 plus) surrounding what twenty- and thirty-somethings will believe. Five years...