It’s a cutthroat world in the publishing industry, with big house publishing agencies pressuring authors to reach deadlines, and have their books on the stalls as soon as possible. It’s even more selective for the authors who want the financial backing of these agencies to see their ideas to the end. When the competition is rampant to stake your claim as a renowned author, is it a fair practise to use ghost-writers and pseudonyms in this industry?
To be clear, there is a difference between ghost-writers, people who are employed to create a work of literature that someone else will receive credit for, and authors who use fake names when publishing their own works.
In the case of authors using pseudonyms, many have justified their decision to remain anonymous as a way of tackling the sexism within the industry. Charlotte Bronte, author of Jane Eyre, adopted the name Currer Bell and published the coming-of-age novel to much acclaim. In more recent years, City of Dark Magic and City of Lost Dreams was authored by Christina Lynch and Meg Howrey under the pseudonym Magnus Flyte. Although one might find it hard to believe that someone’s sex would negatively impact their ability to tell a compelling story, literature was not considered a medium suitable for woman in the past. In her book Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell, published in 1850, Bronte described the reason behind adopting the pseudonyms as “without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called 'feminine' — we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.” This unfortunate tradition has been carried forward to modern times, with such examples as those mentioned above.
“As King had built his brand around the horror genre in literature, having already published Cujo, Firestarter and The Shining to both critical and fan acclaim, the pseudonym allowed King to venture across genres without having to face the disdain from his more purist fanbase.”
Sexism is not the only reason an author may choose to hide their identity when publishing their works. Such as the case with renowned horror author Stephen King, who assumed the identity of Richard Bachman when publishing titles such as Rage and The Running Man. As King had built his brand around the horror genre in literature, having already published Cujo, Firestarter and The Shining to both critical and fan acclaim, the pseudonym allowed King to venture across genres without having to face the disdain from his more purist fanbase. In this respect, pseudonyms provide an opportunity to experiment and develop their writing styles in other genres with the safety of anonymity, until such a time that they choose to reveal themselves.
The world of a ghostwriter is a different side of the coin, with “authors” hiring writers to produce works such as autobiographies, speeches and fiction for a fee agreed between the writer and the “author”. This form of freelance writing has many negative connotations when discussed in literary circles. For example, if you purchase a book written by someone other than the supposed author, is this not a form of false advertising, or worse, fraud? With some much secrecy associated with the profession, is ghostwriting just to be considered another job for a writer, or are both parties contributing to a culture of deceit?
If the finished product is of high quality, does it really matter who wrote it? Ghostwriters are employed for their work and operate under a contract that they had a hand in creating, and if the customer is happy, is it really hurting anyone? There may not seem to be an issue in cases such as celebrity autobiographies, where it is clearly known the writer was unnamed, a ghostwriter assists the subject to create a compelling flow in the story and add structure to the overall novel. While the more skeptical of consumers would see that the prose of the final product is different from how the subject is known to conduct themselves in interviews and television appearances, younger readers would still believe that the subjects authored their own autobiography or would simply disregard the notion in favour of reading about the subject.
“‘Write about what you know’ is a popular piece of advice given to young authors when starting out, but when people take advantage of political or social discourse and profit from it, it is hard to justify the reasoning behind dishonestly putting your name on someone else’s work.”
When discussing ghostwriters who create public speeches or fiction, the conversation becomes more divided. There is a concern over the subject of authenticity when people take credit for other people’s words and experiences and claim them as their own in either of these cases. “Write about what you know” is a popular piece of advice given to young authors when starting out, but when people take advantage of political or social discourse and profit from it, it is hard to justify the reasoning behind dishonestly putting your name on someone else’s work. In the worst case scenario, the “author” has profited from, both financially and in name recognition, from a poorly researched piece of fiction, that results in misrepresenting another person’s real life experience. And how culpable is the ghostwriter, who would have also profited and is complicit, in selling this falsehood?
In the scenario of public speaking, how would you feel if the person you voted for didn’t believe a word they said, but instead used someone to come up with a key message that they then repeated to further their own ends? Yes, you may benefit from electing them, but you’d also feel like they deceived you and lied their way into power.
While it may seem like a simple variation on freelance writing, ghostwriting as a profession carries with it its own occupational hazards that can lead to disastrous effects, for the writer, the “author” and the publishing agency. Misleading the public is a very precarious action to undertake and could spell ruin for all parties involved if discovered, so it begs the question, should authors step into the light and claim what is theirs or should the final product justify the means?