You might be surprised. Although the best know examples of ghostwritten works may be nonfiction, both fiction and nonfiction books can be ghostwritten. This seems like deception, and in some cases, it is. The term “ghostwriter” was coined in 1921 by writer, cartoonist, and ad man Walter “Christy” Walsh. He did not invent ghostwriting but began writing newspaper columns for famous sports stars beginning with Babe Ruth. Walsh was paid, but he gave all the credit for the writing to the famous athletes. Undoubtedly, arrangements where the writer receives no credit for his or her work still exists, but often, the division of labor is not so one-sided.
The relationship between a client and a ghostwriter is often called a “collaboration.” Ghostwriters’ names sometimes even appear on the copyright pages or right on the cover. In this way, the ghostwriter receives some credit, but no breakdown exists as to how much work each person did. Deception in ghostwriting comes when the client pretends the work was produced by him- or herself alone when it was written entirely by another person. Fans may feel cheated when they find out the best-selling memoir of their favorite band’s lead singer was written by someone they never heard of.
It may seem like the whole enterprise is cheating, but there are a number of legitimate reasons to hire a ghostwriter. Some successful authors hire help to keep up with demand like the best-seller R.L. Stine of the popular Goosebumps series and the prolific James Patterson, who has in recent years expanded his success to include children’s books. Ghostwriters also assist people with serious barriers to writing. A disability like blindness, dyslexia, or ADHD can make compiling and publishing a book near impossible. Able writers can help disadvantaged people realize their dreams of getting ideas or unique experiences on paper and to a larger audience. They can also work around the greatest cause of writer’s block: death.
At times, ghostwriters are put in charge of resurrection. When a popular author dies, a writer may be contracted to continue writing in his or her name and style. The line of Gothic horrors created by V.C. Andrews was picked up after her death by Andrew Niederman, author of The Devil’s Advocate. Pirate Latitudes and Micro were posthumously written by Michael Crichton, and Ernest Hemingway may have died in 1961, but for decades, his estate has continued to produce books in his name. These extensions of authorship are often based on ideas, notes, or even unfinished manuscripts left behind by the authors. In these cases, the famous name is on the book cover regardless of the author’s inability to create new work because there is value in the name.
Simple lack of time or talent can also hold back a person’s ability to produce the books they want to write. For example, Harry Houdini’s talent rested in his business of literal escapism not literary prowess, so he hired famous fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft to help him write The Cancer of Superstition. For the same reasons, political figures have long used ghostwriters to publish their autobiographies and memoirs. Mark Twain helped General Ulysses S. Grant write his Memoirs of the Civil War. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged that Maryann Vollers helped write Clinton’s memoir Living High, and journalist Tony Schwartz reported he wrote The Art of the Deal entirely based on interviews with President Donald Trump. President Ronald Reagan’s An American Life and former Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue: An American Life both relied on the contributions of ghostwriters.
Without these writers, Hemingway’s unpolished manuscripts could grace only the inside of a museum instead of the bookshelves of fans and academics. Whole chunks of history and personal experience found in ghostwritten books would have been washed out into legends, rumors, or nothing at all. The sensibleness of Houdini’s treatise on the fraud of mediums and psychics, and Grant’s unique and irreplaceable viewpoint on the civil war era are only here and available in this century because someone with a passion and talent for writing held a pen for them. Deception or not, our society benefits from the tradition of ghostwriting. So, who needs ghostwriters? We do.