Haunted literature: the debate surrounding ghostwriters

By Caitlin Ball

You may recall in recent years the backlash certain YouTubers and social media celebrities turned ‘authors’ have garnered for their alleged use of ghostwriters. More often than not, this criticism (and derision) stems from indignation towards inauthenticity- a belief that the piece of literature being sold is a cop-out and exploitation of the gullibility of young followers purely in the interests of lining the pockets of already wealthy people. 

The term ‘ghostwriter’, by its very name, continually forces those involved in its practice to confront connotations of shiftiness and dishonesty. A professional writer, it is often assumed, is hired under the cover of legally binding nondisclosure contracts and the pride of puffed-up public figures and made to do all the real work just so others can take full credit. 

While this view is not entirely false, the ease with which anyone, regardless of their intellectual capabilities, can nowadays claim to have authored bestselling works means it is increasingly becoming dominant. 

The reality is that attitudes to ghostwriting vary significantly across a multitude of industries and contexts, from academia and literature to medicine, music- even visual art. And in many cases, the use of a ghostwriter solves countless practical issues. 

In the music industry, a ghostwriter may be hired to write a new song in the style of the artist in question in order to meet demand and solve timing and scheduling issues. 

Similarly, it might seem slightly ludicrous to demand that an inexperienced celebrity of questionable intellectual ability find time in their busy schedule to write- singlehandedly and to a sellable standard- their entire life story as an autobiography. While the familiar personality of the author often serves as an initial hook for the individual browsing the bookshop shelf, if this personality is then barely detectable through excessively poor written expression then profits won’t be made. 

In this instance a ghostwriter would simply ease the transition from brain to paper, refining the ‘author’s’ ideas to ensure they make compelling reading. 

The argument persists, however, that overabundant use of a ghostwriter – especially for intensely personal projects such as autobiographies or memoirs – renders the whole thing a pretty much pointless exercise. 

To what extent do we sacrifice the sense of honesty and intimacy we would receive if we had read an autobiography written entirely in the subject’s own words? Surely vocabulary choices and sentence structures are much like fingerprints- uniquely crucial and invaluable keys to an individual’s identity (as well as their mindset and experiences). It is frustrating that with ghost-written works we can never really be certain of how much of the author’s own voice has been lost or altered during the writing process. 

‘It is frustrating that with ghost-written works we can never really be certain of how much the author’s own voice has been altered’

As the figure and culture of the ‘celebrity’ increasingly turn sour in this new era of morality and media scrutiny, it no longer seems ludicrous to question how much longer ghostwriters’ skills will be desirable at the same level as they have been throughout the past decade. 

In recent times the rise in popularity of works written by so-called ‘normal’ people is a testament to this notion – take the immense success of Adam Kay’s This Is Going To Hurt, for example – a collection of diary entries he made as a junior doctor. In an instance such as this, readers may feel more betrayed to learn of the presence of a ghostwriter than in some random 25-year-old celebrity’s autobiography due to the sheer level of intimacy the book promises to us. 

With this in mind I would argue that many of us have become somewhat desensitised to the use of ghostwriters in celebrity literature, and now will always read books in this strain with an underlying consciousness of their presence. 

However, I still can’t quite reconcile myself to the way in which many other readers are being pretty much misled, believing they are reading the genuine words of someone they admire when in reality they are reading the words of an impersonator. 

Of course, the use of ghostwriters in some contexts is objectively morally wrong, for example in student essays or personal statements. But in forms of literature where there is a greater level of moral obscurity, the debate is a tough and complicated one. 

Ultimately I think that if there is someone with a truly important story to tell who genuinely lacks skills as a scribe then the use of a ghostwriter is not necessarily a bad thing. I frown more upon the use of ghostwriters where the sole motivation is money and books are being written just for the sake of it. 

In order for genres such as novels, autobiographies and memoirs to retain their integrity, arguably more must be done to prevent them from being seen purely as merchandise. Perhaps not being so secretive about the contributions of others would help destigmatise the use of ghostwriters and do more to open up the relationship between reader and author. 

Image: Thomas Hawk via Unsplash

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