Harry's no Jean-Jacques Rousseau. (Credit: by Andy Stenning - WPA Pool/Getty)

May 12, 2023   6 mins

“The birth of the reader must be at the expense of the death of the author.” So announced the French literary critic Roland Barthes in 1967, indicating what he assumed was the total irrelevance of authorial identity to the appreciation of any literary work. Try telling that to Prince Harry’s ghostwriter though. This week, author J.R. Moehringer came out from behind the scenes and into the spotlight with a long read for the New Yorker, entertainingly describing some of the highs and lows of co-creating the memoir Spare with the Duke of Sussex, as well as outlining his own circuitous life journey towards a career of what basically amounts to ventriloquism on the page.

Along the way, the piece shed some interesting light on the psychology of a ghostwriter. As a promising young journalist, Moehringer was asked to write a gossip column for a colleague at the last minute. There he discovered the thrill of writing under a different name: “a kind of hiding and seeking” that liberated him to write more freely. Later, he accepted a commission from tennis star Andre Agassi to co-write what eventually would become the well-received autobiography Open — to be the ghost, if not in the machine then in the text.

Alchemically, through close collaboration with Agassi, a book slowly emerged. Moehringer was somehow both a presence and an absence within it:

“He made countless fixes, and I made fixes to his fixes, and together we made ten thousand more, and in time we arrived at a draft that satisfied us both. The collaboration was so close, so synchronous, you’d have to call the eventual voice of the memoir a hybrid — though it’s all Andre.”

Afterwards, watching Agassi receiving praise for the book’s writing in an interview, he found himself chafing at his anonymity and shouting at the television: “Say my name! Say my fucking name!” In a sense, his New Yorker piece can be read in the same spirit. In a world of great big show-offs, it’s hard for a ghost to stay invisible.

As I read his piece, I started to muse on the role of the autobiographical ghostwriter and felt more and more baffled. In reading an autobiography, there’s a fantasy of getting immediate and intimate access to the author’s mind, hot off the synapses. Sophisticated readers know that most people are unreliable narrators of their own lives. They also know that nearly all books have editors and so are to some extent co-created. Yet with an autobiography, they still expect relatively untrammelled access to the inner life of the book’s subject. After all, if you were interested only in the specific events of a person’s life as he or she very roughly saw them, you might just as well have waited for an authorised biography written by someone else.

Yet the felt presence of a ghostwriter undermines the fantasy of merging deliciously with a celebrity subject’s mind — for you know that someone else stands in your way, cutting you off from the coveted source. Someone else did the mind-merging first and it wasn’t you. And now you are not so much reading a celebrity’s thoughts directly, as reading the thoughts of someone else about those thoughts, no matter what it says on the cover.

In Spare, the presence of that someone else would always have been fairly obvious, even without his name having been leaked to the press. Despite the posh inflections, the book’s sentences are often reminiscent of Chandler or Hemingway — a well-polished American style, compressed and taut, muscular jaw trembling ever so slightly from the effort of pushing down emotional darkness (of which Harry apparently has quite a lot). Yet Hemingway is Moehringer’s literary hero, not Harry’s. In order to have literary heroes, Harry would have had to read some books.

Yet more implausible is the vision of Harry styled as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, at one point musing in Spare that “each new identity assumes the throne of Self, but takes us further from our original self, perhaps our core self — the child”; and adding that “there’s a purity to childhood, which is diluted with each iteration”. It’s a relief when, only a few pages later, he reverts to telling us about the plight of his frostbitten todger. “I went to the North Pole and now my South Pole is on the fritz”. Now that sounds more like our Hazza.

Moehringer seems a bit conflicted about what his role is, precisely. Early on, we learn of an argument he had with Harry about whether or not to include what the Prince assumed was a witty comeback to someone or other. Moehringer demurred, telling him: “You want the world to know that you did a good job, that you were smart. But, strange as it may seem, memoir isn’t about you. It’s not even the story of your life. It’s a story carved from your life, a particular series of events chosen because they have the greatest resonance for the widest range of people.”

This is a vision of the ghostwriter as puppet-master, overriding the communicative wishes of the subject in order to craft an aesthetically satisfying object for the readership. As Julian Assange once percipiently said to Andrew O’Hagan, contracted to be the ghost author of a book about Assange that never came off: “People think you’re helping me write my book, but actually I’m helping you write your novel.”

Elsewhere though, Moehringer seems more sympathetic to the idea of the ghost author as a releaser of trapped celebrity wind, helping inarticulate public figures achieve psychological relief through the telling of their own versions of events. Agassi “wanted to tell his story but didn’t know how”. Moehringer wanted to “cure” him — to give him “grace”. Desperate to set the record straight after thousands of lurid press distortions, on the publication of Spare Harry thanked his ghost in tears, saying how “it felt incredible to have the truth out there”.

Moehringer even indicates that he too has suffered from an inability to tell his own “story” until now — unable, that is, to answer the many critics of Spare who uncharitably have accused him of sloppiness, inaccuracy, or flat-out lying. He portentously concludes: “If you don’t tell your story you lose it — or, what might be worse, you get lost inside it. Telling is how we cement details, preserve continuity, stay sane. We say ourselves into being every day, or else.”

This sort of thought, firmly in the grand American tradition of loquacity in the name of authenticity, is hardly new — but in the current landscape it strikes me as very old-fashioned. Maybe there once was a more innocent time, when an autobiography or memoir could set out a new version of the facts in a way that silenced previous critics and brought sceptics round. If so, that time seems to have passed. For that sort of world to still exist, the critics and sceptics would have to have open minds, and to feel some sort of responsibility towards the truth as a value in its own right. Or at least, they would have to fear the consequences of getting things wrong in public. This is not the world we live in now.

Instead, we have a world where nearly everyone is online to offer endless comment, where bad news travels fastest, and where there is barely any social cost to getting something wrong about another person. Quite the contrary — there is a lot of low-level social capital to be made about being judgemental about a public figure or just plain vicious. In that case, others who share your dislike for the hapless figure in question will swarm round like flies to honey, and you will all bolster each other in the search for new ways to shore up your initial interpretation. And the first-personal idiom of autobiography won’t help. There is something about the sight of someone trying to personally defend herself from critics that drives those critics wild with renewed savagery. Take it from me.

In this context, public figures already polarising enough to have developed a burning sense of injustice about misrepresentation of themselves in the past are unlikely to be able to change anyone’s mind about them in the future, no matter what new material they put out there. The fans, if any, will remain fans, the detractors will remain detractors, and those on the fence won’t know who to believe either way.

At most, in writing your “story” you will just provide a whole lot of new material for your enemies to plunder for ammunition. Moehringer himself gives a good example of this, recounting how, stung by accusations of inaccuracy in the book (about a TK Maxx sale, of all things), he put out a series of veiled but meaningful tweets about the partial way memory sometimes works. “My tweets were seized upon, deliberately misinterpreted by trolls, and turned into headlines by real news outlets. Harry’s ghostwriter admits the book is all lies.”

It would be a mistake to think that this only could happen to veiled subtweets — that, if Moehringer had said more, the ambiguity would have somehow dissipated. Misinterpretation can happen to any sentence of yours; any paragraph; any chapter; any book. There is nothing you could ever say in print, or indeed out loud, that couldn’t be misrepresented by interested others as evil, stupid, or risible in a way that will seem believable to many. The trick is to know this, and not to go mad in the knowledge.

Moehringer tells us that as “Borges dreamed of endless libraries, Harry dreams of endless retractions”. It is not in the publishing industry’s interests to tell him, and any others in a similar situation, to stop dreaming. Given he signed a four-book deal, I predict there will be at least one more memoir from Harry in our lifetimes, attempting to set the record straight yet again post-Spare and the latest round of interpretative indignities. And perhaps there will be others too after that. It’s a good time to be a ghostwriter to the famous and misunderstood.

Kathleen Stock is an UnHerd columnist and a co-director of The Lesbian Project.