To Be a Ghost


in Archive


When It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us was published in 1996, the book was met with the kind of response that a serious nonfiction writer dreams about. The ideas presented in the book became the topic of conversation across the land, politicians and commentators felt obligated to respond to it, it won awards, including a Grammy for its audio book edition, and it became so ubiquitous, both in sales numbers and in impact, that it started to become heavily parodied.

Any writer would be thrilled. Moved, even. And yet this particular writer also has to watch while someone else, taking credit for her work, takes all of the credit.

Hillary Rodham Clinton may have won the title page and the cover image (and the Grammy), but at best she was just one of many voices filtered through the actual writer. It Takes a Village was, of course, ghost written. The of course is the same “of course” attached to any book by a politician, major celebrity, or woman credited with one of those young adult series about pretty, wealthy white girls and their adventures that spits out 15 books a year. But it’s a delayed “of course.” It takes us a moment to look at the book, the author’s name, and come out with “but probably not.” Otherwise it would not have caused a minor controversy when Rodham Clinton admitted she did not do the actual writing per se and Barbara Feinman Todd stepped forward to take some of the credit.

People played at being shocked that Rodham Clinton did not sit down in the wee hours of the night over a cup of coffee, mercilessly pouring her heart and soul into a typewriter. But there have always been people willing to buy the right to take credit for another person’s work, ever since Count Franz von Walsegg bought Mozart-penned compositions and slapped his name on them, or, hell, since Homer signed epics that had been worked through orally for generations. The modern audience is savvy. We do not truly expect UK reality star/topless model Jordan to write the YA novels and books for children that she’s credited with. The ghosted writer is a prominent figure, filling the stacks of celebrity memoir, books by politicians, and novels by reality star/pop singer/whatever-turned-writers. This year we’ll see a new (ghostwritten) Hillary Rodham Clinton book as she gears up for her campaign, a new (ghostwritten) Tim Geithner image rehabilitation project, and probably five or six (ghostwritten) alternate history novels by Newt Gingrich. And thereby an entire squadron of underpaid, underemployed writers will be able to pay their rent but not necessarily make their name.

What’s interesting, because the books themselves so rarely are, is what everyone gets out of this shell game: ghostwriter, ghosted writer, and audience.

“The only reason I can think of to participate in such an endeavor would be either to score some relatively easy cash and/or ingratiate one’s self to a publishing house.” After profiling him in GQ, Robert Draper was commissioned to write John Edwards’ 2003 book Four Trials. But after he turned in the manuscript, he saw his work almost entirely rewritten by John Auchard and Edwards’s wife Elizabeth and his own named removed. “She and I fell out over the first draft. Most of all because the very premise of the book (i.e. that Edwards had this deep emotional investment in these trials and clients) was untrue.”

We can only guess what dark thoughts leaped into the mind of Theodore Sorenson when it was John F. Kennedy’s name attached to Profiles in Courage at the Pulitzer Prize ceremony, and not his own. Todd, who has worked with many politicians and other faux writers and spoke to me like all of the ghostwriters through the filter of many confidentiality agreements and intricately worded publishing contracts, admits that ego concerns can creep up for an uncredited writer. It’s not always a concern for her, as, she told me, “sometimes you wouldn’t want your name on this stuff.” But when the book sticks and has real power, it can be harder to let others take the applause. After all, Sorenson may have claimed idealism as his reasons for his uncredited work on Profiles, but he still used the opportunity of his own autobiography, written after Kennedy’s death, to lay claim to the book.

Since the nation’s beginning, American politicians have looked to others to give a written form to their ideas, and since the beginning the writers have had a complicated time letting their words go. Alexander Hamilton wrote for George Washington, and when his audience praised Washington as being so thoughtful, so erudite, Hamilton’s wife fought for years for her husband to be credited. It was so shocking, so hurtful for early Americans to learn Washington did not write every word he spoke. Now, however, we come to every publication, every speech and press release knowing that every celebrity and politician has a team to manage and control the public perception. President Obama may have written his own books, but the second, written in campaign mode, may as well have been ghostwritten, as managed and bloodless as it feels. The Audacity of Hope lacks the passion and bite of Dreams from My Father. But then maybe the politician Obama was ghosting for the man the second time around.

In an ideal arrangement, a ghostwriter gets paid well enough to let someone else lipsync to their voice, and that writer disappears completely. No lingering vapors or shrouded figures lingering in the background to distract the audience. That was the intent of Andrew O’Hagan’s arrangement when he agreed to ghostwrite Julian Assange’s memoir. It was only when the whole thing went sideways that he made a full confession in the much-discussed London Review of Books essay. In this particular case it was the ghosted who was only interested in the money rather than the ghostwriter himself. Assange had no real intention of facilitating the writing of his own book. The disowned-by-all-involved-but-Canongate scraps of a manuscript that were put between two covers and sold as the “unauthorized autobiography” of Julian Assange limped onto the marketplace. Instead of dominating the conversation, the conversation became all about how disappointing it all was.

For celebrities and politicians who need to maintain a particular image in order to stay employed, or, like Assange, need to restore an already damaged image, the ghostwritten biography is an important tool. They are allowed to shape their story to their liking. (Or, almost always. Actress Hedy Lamarr sued her own publisher for libel over the kiss-and-tell book that carried her name.) They can present a simpler, less muddled version of themselves to the public, offering an alternative to the predatory biographers who feel free to reveal anything they damn well please without a thought to how it could possibly hurt their subject.

Just compare the autobiography of Ulysses S. Grant, luckily for him conceived, shaped, edited, and published by Mark Twain, versus any of the biographies written after his death. In one, dignity and courage. In the other, a boozy man and, despite good intentions, not a very good president. And yet what a great read the autobio is, Twain-inflected as it is, and it gives us permission to see uncomplicated greatness in a complicated era.

Certainly, the sales and advances for a ghostwritten memoir are going to be higher than a thorough biography, unless the subject was really naughty and unwilling to fess up to it. (We may love simplicity, but never as much as we are going to love scandal.) And certainly a policy or history book carrying a recognizable name and face is going to sell more than writers and scholars who have been studying and writing about the same topics for years. It’s not simply the public’s credulity at play here, but also our need to think our politicians have thoughts, possess an understandable logic behind their actions, and can express these things in sentences.

We want to see our politicians and public figures as writers, in the same way that politicians and public figures want to be seen as writers. The archetype of the writer, unsullied by the reality of a contemporary writer’s life, is still seen as being a figure of great importance and influence. There is a prestige to having a book under your name that not even reality show money can satisfy the longing for. The writer possesses intellect, possesses dignity. People who can’t write still like to play imaginary dress up in writer’s clothing. And if they have the money and the audience to sell their book to, they can buy a writer’s clothes to parade around in.

A ghostwriter who spoke with me only under the condition of anonymity lists her recent clients as a business CEO, a celebrity writing a young adult novel, a psychologist writing for a lay audience, and a former child star working on her memoir. Each had a different motivation for wanting a book in their name, and yet all the reasons had a common denominator: they had an idea they wanted expressed, and a book seemed like the best vehicle for that idea. She, the ghostwriter, sees each project as a a new world to delve into and research and understand. No matter how big a leap moving from one project to the next requires, the act is still the same: “mirroring” the person with the idea, finding the form to convey the idea, “and protect[ing] them from themselves if necessary.” She does not struggle for credit; on the contrary, she jealously guards her own name. She fights for stricter confidentiality agreements, and certainly wouldn’t allow me to name her here. “I want to keep my name to myself, for my own writing.”

But then the compromise of content is part of the struggle of the ghostwriter, being hired for work that they might otherwise think is beneath them. Like Thomas Mallon, acclaimed American novelist, tasked with getting the thoughts and ideas of Vice President Dan Quayle down on paper. A main part of the job of the ghostwriter seems to be the ability to keep these things separate, the work you do for the ghosted and the work you do for yourself. As Draper said, “You enter into the bargain finding virtue in being emotionally divested and knowing the property is in no way yours.”

I wonder, though, what it does to the ghosted souls, all of those basking in the paid-for glory, all of those taking bows for someone else’s applause. Todd, who has given up ghostwriting and now runs the undergraduate program at Georgetown University, explained away my concerns for the late night moments, trying to chase away worries about being a fraud with whiskey. “They usually believe they wrote every word, that ghosts are expensive typists. Amnesia is a common affliction of the ghosted.” • 19 May 2014