Ghost-writing is a weird business. The boundaries of individual authorship and intellectual ownership aren’t in their usual places. The rules of the game can vary from one project to the next. The writers themselves often remain unknown, however famous their works.
Take the case of Rose Wilder Lane.
Little House in the Bookstore
Rose Wilder Lane is primarily remembered as the daughter of the more famous Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House on the Prairie books. The novels were based on Laura’s experiences of growing up in a pioneer family as the United States of America expanded to fill its continent.
What’s less well known, though no secret, is that Rose played an uncredited role in writing the books. The extent of her involvement is debated, and she seems to have played a less significant role over time. Unlike her mother, Rose was an experienced professional writer, and her part may have gone as far as massively re-writing the early books. Certainly, her mother’s literary success came in large part from Rose’s contribution.
Standing on the Shoulder of Relatives
Rose was a successful writer in her own right, as a journalist, travel writer and biographer. During the 1920s, she was one of the highest-paid female writers in America. She had collaborated with others as well as writing on her own and was a political thinker as well as a creative.
Yet the collaboration with Laura was beneficial to Rose as well as her mother. Her experience with the Little House novels led to some of her most successful writing in her own name. These later novels were commercially and critically successful. With the proceeds she paid off her debts and bought a house.
The Difficulty of Collaboration
My friend Joanna, who pointed Rose out to me, mentioned the extra feelings of obligation that must have weighed on Rose in collaborating with her mother. It’s a really interesting point.
Family relationships are always tangled. So many years of interaction pile up good and bad feelings, old memories and patterns. Artistic collaborations are usually tricky relationships as well. Something as apparently simple as editing a book can be a minefield of recrimination and bitterness, as the editor tries to take the rough edges off something the original author is extremely attached to. I know I’ve been in at least one editorial relationship that went sour.
Add to that the fact that Rose was not credited as co-author oofbooks she is alleged to have largely written, and you have a relationship that must have become fractious at times. Did Rose collaborate out of love or obligation? In truth, the two are not always separate, and we can’t know how much the project was a source of shared joy or of resentment.
And the Joys
On the other hand, Rose and Laura got to share a great deal through working together. The fun of creation and the sharing of family memories may have added to their closeness. I certainly hope so. I know that when I’ve collaborated on books with people I get on with we’ve had a great time and it’s made the work more enjoyable. It’s one of the things you gain from working in a creative business, even one where you aren’t credited.
Writing always emerges from relationships with others, all the more so when working for hire. Thinking about Rose is a good way of remembering that those relationships aren’t just functional but have an emotional place in writers’ lives.And it’s
And it’s good to see that, just occasionally, a ghost-writer can get the credit in the end. Good on you, Rose Wilder Lane.