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Ghosts and Writers

Charlotte Slater explores how Prince Harry's best-selling memoir 'Spare' made an art out of ghostwriting, and looks at the practice as a whole.

The narrator of Robert Harris’s thriller, ‘The Ghost’, has no name. He is only ever referred to as ‘The Ghost’, and the narrative – an international conspiracy surrounding the manuscript for an ex-Prime Minister’s memoir – makes revealing his identity tantamount to a death sentence. 

Harris seriously glamorises the figure of the ghostwriter in his novel (and even more so in its 2010 film adaptation, starring Ewan MacGregor as a very sexy Ghost). Ghostwriters do not routinely face death every time they are contracted. Still, there does seem to be something inherently glamorous about the job: perhaps it’s in the high-stakes subterfuge, or maybe it’s a quality that rubs off from celebrity subjects as distinguished as Sir Alex Ferguson, Gwyneth Paltrow and Victoria Beckham, to name a few. Ghostwriting even kickstarted Nas’s career, which took off after he write Will Smith’s 1998 hit, Getting Jiggy Wit It

Subterfuge, however, doesn’t seem to be of much interest to J. R. Moehringer, Prince Harry’s unconventional ghostwriter. Moehringer confirmed his role in Spare on Twitter, where he retweets those praising his craft. His coy Twitter bio reads, ‘Author of The Tender Bar and Sutton and other stuff’. Having been profiled by everyone from Tatler to the Economist, this Ghost is evidently changing the criteria of what an effective ghostwriter is and does: much like Robert Harris’s invisible Ghost being played by a movie star, Moehringer gives a new meaning to the phrase ‘celebrity ghostwriter’. 

Amid allegations of slander in Spare, Moehringer has retweeted a slightly bizarre quote from Harry’s memoir: “Whatever the cause, my memory is my memory… there’s just as much truth in what I remember and how I remember it as there is in so-called objective facts.” Harry talks of his memoir with a sort of post-truth defensiveness which grew uncomfortably familiar during the Trump tenure. However, Harry’s disdain for “so-called objective facts” also reminds us of the ways in which a memoir is fiction. That’s not necessarily to accuse Harry of lying in his memoir, but to underscore the vital role of literary craft in wrestling the awkward shape of a human life into a coherent narrative. 

Spare occupies a contentious space between autobiography and biography – between fiction and nonfiction. The reader gets a real sense that Harry wants to use it to provide a counternarrative which will redress the fictions of the British press. Nevertheless, being public about employing a ghostwriter means that the reader is uncannily aware of Prince Harry’s voice in Spare as a manufactured persona which Moehringer adopts. This is a technique familiar from literary fiction, where we can never assume that a narrator is the author themselves. Narrators are instead characterised by their description of events – or rather, their version of events. As Moehringer’s Tweet emphasises, Harry has openly admitted his unreliability as a narrator. 

It’s tempting to read Spare in search of the ghostwriter, rather than Harry’s ‘truth’. Catching a glimpse of the author peeking out from behind the mask of character is an ‘Aha!’ moment that feels a lot like figuring out a magician’s trick or spotting a stage’s trapdoor. In Spare, Moehringer concerns himself with this kind of stage magic; he seems most visible in his references to Shakespeare. 

Harry readily admits that he’s “not really big on books” in the memoir: he gets confused on his first date with Meghan when she says she’s having an ‘Eat Pray Love’ summer. Spare is quick to capitalise on this early, pre-Meghan image of Harry as the millennial, rugby-playing prince who knew how to party, who calls his friends ‘mate’ and served in the army instead of going to university. The Harry which Spare gives us is once more the universal crush whose unparalleled eligibility spawned its own reality TV show, I Wanna Marry Harry, where twelve American women competed for the affections of a man they thought was the prince. Part of his appeal has always been his lack of academic pretentiousness: the country remembers how Harry only managed to scrape two A levels (a B in Art and a D in Geography, in case you were wondering). 

Harry confesses that he struggled to share his father’s love of Shakespeare. “I tried to change,” he insists. “I opened Hamlet. Hmm: Lonely prince, obsessed with dead parent, watches remaining parent fall in love with dead parent’s usurper . . . ? I slammed it shut. No, thank you.”

Harry makes a lot of Shakespearean references for someone who ostensibly slammed Hamlet shut. For starters, there’s the description of Charles’s appearance when he told his sons of Diana’s death: “His white dressing gown made him seem like a ghost in a play”. Ironically, it is Harry who seems most like the iconic ‘ghost in a play’ nowadays; for English readers, Spare works a lot like one of Old Hamlet’s cries of ‘Remember me!’ which echo, disembodied, from somewhere offstage. 

As Rebecca Mead’s recent review for The New Yorker points out, it seems that Moehringer has lent Harry the very Shakespearean reference library which he lacks, to great literary effect. Moehringer makes Shakespeare a focal point in Spare; an extended metaphor around which Harry’s difficulties with his father cluster. English cultural heritage and the questions of succession raised by Hamlet morph into Harry’s own uncomfortable inheritance of a royal role which never quite fit him. A visit to Frogmore Gardens in which Harry tries to justify his choice to abandon England and his royal duties is framed in these tragic terms: Harry, William and Charles “were now smack in the middle of the Royal Burial Ground,” Harry describes, “more up to our ankles in bodies than Prince Hamlet.”

Spare casts the drama of monarchy as a Shakespearean tragedy: in the wake of a matriarch’s death, Moehringer draws his reader’s attention, however morbidly, to the fear that monarchy might be a dark system which continues as a direct result of repeating patterns of death and succession. The pages of Spare are thick with ghosts, literary and otherwise.  

Like Hamlet, Spare is punctuated by howls of raw grief, even in its most bizarre moments. Harry recalls the very smell of his mother in the Elizabeth Arden cream he uses to treat an unfortunate case of frostbite on his ‘todger’. As ghostwriter, Moehringer ensures that the spectre of Diana casts a long shadow over every page of his memoir. In all earnestness, it is a very moving way to paint a sympathetic portrait of the prince as a boy who never recovered from the loss of his mother. How could he have?

‘Spare’, unfortunately, has more ghosts to offer. However, the narrative spends far more time with the memory of Diana than with the 25 Afghans who Harry admits to killing. It breaks an unspoken military code of conduct to publicly own up to the number of lives one has taken during service; moreover, it betrays a certain callousness about death which has previously been documented in Harry’s 2008 interview with the Press Association, when he compared his military duties to playing PlayStation. Harry is quick to deny the “dangerous lie” that he was boasting about these kills, and protests that his words have been taken out of context. The words are: ‘“So, my number is 25. It’s not a number that fills me with satisfaction, but nor does it embarrass me”. Veterans have argued that he should never have disclosed the number of people he has killed; others may suggest that he never should have killed to begin with. 

Moehringer must have foreseen the PR disaster this disclosure would trigger, and the fact that it for many, it stands in the way of a sympathetic reading of Harry’s life. In this, and in several other cases in the book, Moheringer seems to be building up an emphatically warts-and-all portrait of Harry. Perhaps he was following Shakespeare’s guidance: as Hamlet puts it, “He was a man, take him for all in all, / I shall not look upon his like again.” Though imagery of ‘Spare’ is ghostwritten, the confessions, after all, must be Harry’s own. The most polemical moments of ‘Spare’ prompt us to question the ghostwriter’s loyalties, and royalties; as ghostwriter, Moehringer is not acting as Harry’s loyal subject, but instead seems to have prioritised making the book as controversial (and therefore commercially successful) as possible. Again, Moeheringer is carving out a new, less submissive role for the ghostwriter: one who is visible in his text and exploits the gap between author and narrator for his own ends. 

It is hard to tell whether Moehringer is part of a growing trend in visibility and remuneration for ghostwriters, and for literary labourers in general. It’s not easy to measure the evolution of a trade where the mark of a job well done is typically the fact that there are no marks left at all. Traditionally, a ghostwriter receives around 33% of a book’s advance, plus royalties; I wonder whether publishing houses would prefer to pay a premium for a ghost’s discretion, or for the services of a public ghost like Moehringer, whose reputation precedes him.The literary translator finds themselves in a similar predicament. The proportion of the market made up of translated books has nearly doubled in 2022, illustrating shifting attitudes to translation and authorship. Perhaps readers are starting to care less about feeling a sense of proximity to the original author’s voice. Take a celebrity translator like Ann Goldstein: her sensitive translations of Elena Ferrante, Primo Levi and Jhumpa Lahiri make up a body of work worth reading in its own right. Goldstein’s prose is a creative achievement just as valuable, you could argue, as the original author’s text.

Moehringer is bringing the profession of ghostwriting out of the shadows, following the model provided by translation, where both collaborators are upfront about their involvement. Like Goldstein, Moehringer is building a personal oeuvre and a literary identity which is separate from his celebrity subjects. The striking similarities between the covers of Spare and Open – Andre Agassi’s memoir, which Moehringer also ghostwrote – demonstrate that Moehringer intends to leave a signature of his own personal style on his works, as a celebrity ghostwriter who is famous in his own right. His Twitter account only confirms this: @JRMoehringer has 13.3K followers and counting. In turning the habitual invisibility of the ghostwriter inside out, Moehringer is a reminder of the literary craft that goes into life-writing; by filling Spare with ghosts and writers, Moehringer gestures towards his craft and ensures the success of his work.

Harry has not quite managed to reclaim his narrative with Spare: all anyone wants to talk about seems to be his frostbitten penis. He has, however, made a lot of people – including himself – considerably wealthier. I’m sure Moehringer has been compensated handsomely.

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