The Elusive Ghostwriter

About four months ago, I was chatting with the young woman cutting my hair and I asked her how she got into the hair business. She told me she was tired of her previous job working at a firm that matched their clients with in-house ghostwriters. We all know the dirty secret of political memoirs or when Nicole Richie chooses to pen a novelghostwriters. According to Merriam Webster, the term was first used in 1927 but history tells us that the concept pre-dates that.


intransitive verb: to write for and in the name of another

transitive verb: to write (as a speech) for another who is the presumed author

I found our chat to be super fascinating. She didn’t name names about specific clients, but she shared anecdotes of tumultuous relationships between the pseudo-famous clients and the poor writers that had been assigned to them. The whole business seemed sleazy and I could see how she chose to leave the biz and try her hand at hair.

Recently, I had been thinking of ghostwriters because a fellow writerly friend had been assigned to review Newt Gingrich’s Gettysburg: A Novel of the Civil War. He was understandably skeptical but ultimately enjoyed it. Newt shares the front cover with his co-writer, William R. Forstchen. I’m definitely not the first person in line to defend Gingrich, but I feel that his method was much more reasonable than slapping just his own name on the final product. At least, there is an image of co-authorship and a team effort.

The way the woman at the salon described her former profession was in my shadier terms–one person taking ownership of another’s work by producing a non-disclosure agreement and a modest payola. This whole business conjures up images of unscrupulous dealings and unethical behavior (maybe a bit of a stretch but still).

But in the grander scheme of things, do we ever criticize a politician for using a speech writer or do we poo-poo an unfunny and stilted Oscar presenter for their pre-scripted lines? The answer is no, but I can’t seem to shake this feeling of intellectual inauthenticity.



  1. I’ve no doubt of the validity of what she told you. Many years ago, a beloved English professor gave an impromptu lecture to our class about the woes of falling into the Ghostwriter “profession”; she’d not done any ghostwriting herself, but a number of her former students (who had gone on to be young-and-struggling-writers) over the years had done so and deeply, deeply regretted it.

    And then, there’s the film “The Ghost Writer” with Ewan McGregor and Pierce Brosnan – a fiction that hints at the true sinister nature of the beast!

  2. I haven’t seen the film but I’ll definitely look into it. A friend of mine was working on a ghostwritten novel about two years ago. It was for a socialite daughter of some mogul (name escapes me) but it seemed like hell. Needless to say, I don’t think the book ever came to fruition and my friend was having a miserable time dealing with the woman. I think she billed her for a few months work and severed ties.

  3. I think it’s all about intent. Most politicians, when asked, do not deny a speech-writer. Some even go on to be famous in their own right. I see them like script-writers for TV. EVENTUALLY they get credit (or blame as the case may be). The ghostwriter by definition though, gets nothing but the aforementioned hassle and payola. They can’t list their work on a CV, or in the front of anything later published under the “also by:” tagline. They lose years of professional credit. and a bit of their souls, it sounds like.

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