Is ghostwriting right?

Ghostwriting is a common practice in the literature world’s underbelly, in which writers are commissioned to write novels, essays, and even ‘autobiographies’ to be published in someone else’s name. 

This practice is entirely legal and is often used for celebrity autobiographies and commercialised fiction. A more relatable manifestation of this practice to us as students, is the adverts and services which write student essays for a fee (unsurprisingly not allowed by universities). 

According to Paul Farhi writing for the Washington Post, famous examples include Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices , and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Goodreads also has a non-exclusive list of ghostwritten books, including many children’s and young adult novels.

Despite its prevalence, however, ghostwriting remains a controversial issue. Is it morally right or ethically sound to pass off someone else’s work as your own? 

Andrew Crofts writes in his book Confessions of a Ghostwriter that through his lengthy career as a ghostwriter, he got to probe into the lives of celebrities, rockstars, and more. In a true Hannah Montana fashion, Crofts reveals that he got to learn all the secrets, without any ramifications or a public personality as writers like Margaret Atwood do. This double life seems to have suited Crofts greatly, and although the process of ghostwriting had been frustrating at times, Crofts seems quite content with his role writing in the shadows. 

Regardless of whether ghostwriters like Crofts consent for their work to be sold under their clients name, there does seem to be an exploitative nature to this transaction

However, when interviewed by Robert McCrum for the Guardian, Crofts revealed a somewhat seedier side to this practice. Amidst a growing theme revealing Crofts indiscriminate ghostwriting, driven by money, Crofts says that “I have a horrible feeling that if I’d got the call from Germany in the 1930s I would have hopped on that plane like a Mitford”. 

Mitford refers to an English family, known for its six sisters who became pariahs in the lead up to the Second World War because of their ‘fascist’ political ideals. This reveals an arguable weakness in character in Crofts, who would compromise all morals and loyalty when faced with money and an interesting story. 

Alongside the moral integrity of the ghostwriters themselves, it must be questioned how ethical the ‘clients’ and manufacturers of ghostwriting are. Is it believable that such a secretive and duplicitous practice is always just and fair to its workers?

As Paul Farhi reveals, Barbara Feinman Todd disputed their lack of accreditation on Hilary Clinton’s It Takes A Village. It would be unsurprising if Todd was the only ghostwriter who felt hard done by the lack of recognition they receive for books that they produce. 

Robert McCrum writes that: “In France, ghosts are known as nègres, and there is a kind of slavery implicit in this transaction.” Is McCrum’s observation far from the truth about ghostwriting? Regardless of whether ghostwriters like Crofts consent for their work to be sold under their clients name, there does seem to be an exploitative nature to this transaction.

It is not the individual or celebrity that the reader feels is relatable, or a figure of sympathy or strength, but a concocted and controlled mechanism of ghostwriters and editors making the ‘autobiography’ feel real

On top of this, the relationship between ghostwriting and the reader must be questioned. Especially with autobiographies, the reader has a real relationship with the author, perceiving the emotions, language quirks, and anecdotes to be genuine insights into the author’s life and experiences. Is it then not almost cruel that, inspired by interviews with the ‘author’ a ghostwriter/s has then crafted these pseudo-recollections of someone else’s memories? It is not the individual or celebrity that the reader feels is relatable, or a figure of sympathy, or strength, but a concocted and controlled mechanism of ghostwriters and editors making the ‘autobiography’ feel real. 

On the one hand, with a growing awareness of ghostwriting in the media and in public consciousness because of books like Crofts’, a certain level of ‘duplicity’ or cutting corners can be expected. In all publications, editors, advertisers, and producers influence a text as well as the author.

However, it is hard to ignore the deception and manipulation involved in the practice. The ghostwriter and the reader are both manipulated on some level by the ‘author’ or company commissioning the ghostwriting. But, as ghostwriter and client often consent to the agreement, it remains a contentious and debated topic, which shows no signs of disappearing. 

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