The practice of ghostwriting has been around for centuries—even before the official term’s coining. Back when the primary mode of communication was oral storytelling, people used ghostwriting to scribe Bible passages and transfer religious schools of thought onto paper. Today, the most common cultural association with ghostwriting involves celebrity memoirs, leading to the debate on the authenticity of modern ghostwritten books. While the ingenuity of the texts is open to interpretation, the act of ghostwriting is so deeply embedded in popular culture and academic fronts rendering it practically inescapable for the modern reader.
Ghostwriting, the employment of an individual who writes material on behalf of someone else, in the majority of cases involves active participation from the named author. Celebrities often hire ghostwriters to pen their life stories and creative ambitions. This includes household names such as Keith Richards and Prince Harry, whose own biographies were ghostwritten. Most recently, actress Millie Bobby Brown is facing backlash from the general public for employing a ghostwriter to write her debut novel Nineteen Steps. The central argument against Brown and other authors using a ghostwriter is that the process takes away shelf room from other authors—debut authors, in Brown’s case—who compose their own work.
Ghostwriting has philosophical implications in the relationship between writer and reader. Naturally, there is a level of falsity when you put your own name as the primary author on a book which you actually paid someone else to write. Ghostwriting can be a humiliating revelation for readers who perceive the act of purchasing and reading a novel to be a sacred exchange between the writer and themselves. While it may seem melodramatic, the concept of ghostwriting breaks the connection between the reader’s perception of the author and the inscription of their words and thoughts onto the page.
However, even books written by the advertised author, regardless of their fame and status, are never entirely the work of that one person. The publishing process includes a multitude of diverse roles, from the authors and editors to the publishers and marketers; therefore, it is fundamentally impossible to consider a celebrity memoir or novel a scam. This thinking translates beyond literature to other aspects of the arts including writing for television, film, and theatre. There is never one sole ‘author’ who can claim one hundred percent intellectual ownership when the services of so many other individuals are involved.
Genre choices create a palpable difference in the reception to ghostwriting. The concept of a ghostwritten celebrity memoir is easier to support because the name on the cover still plays an indisputable role in the book’s creation. Even with an unadvertised writer behind the novel, celebrity memoirs are still rooted in the truth of their lives. The celebrity novel, however, is much easier to rebuke as the contents and stories in the novel do not belong to the celebrity and are works of fiction composed by an unnamed pen.
Despite the varied opinions surrounding ghostwriting, at its core, ghostwriting has strong ties to economic functions such as business transactions between the celebrity and the physical author. With ghostwritten celebrity books (both fiction and non-fiction), the celebrity’s name and status are explicitly used to sell copies and make money for the various parties involved: Publishers, editors, celebrities, and ghostwriters. Also in line with the concept of ghostwriting as a business, companies like The Ghostwriters Agency function as a talent agency, recruiting authors and matching them with the named individuals who intend on producing the books.
Ghostwriters are the silent force behind many of the world’s most famous works of literature. While the ethics of the concept continue to be debated, without a clear violation or cons to the business world, ghostwriting (including the discourse that accompanies it) will remain in the business of writing for the foreseeable future.