18th September 2014

Opinion: Is Ghostwriting a Problem?

After discovering that “My Booky Wook” was written by someone other than Russell Brand, Alister Pearson asks whether ghostwriting is a bad thing or not.

This summer I read Russell Brand’s first autobiography, the childishly but humorously named My Booky Wook. It was great—it was laugh-out-loud hilarious, as outrageous as one would imagine an autobiography would be by a man who dressed as Osama Bin Laden the day after 9/11, heartening at times but most of all it was a deeply personal account from one of Britain’s most notorious comedians. It went into detail about his drug addiction and sex addiction as well as some disastrous relationship stories and his fragmented childhood.

It was roughly twenty pages before I finished the book when my mum caught me reading it and informed me that the Guardian had published an article that week about ghostwriting and that My Booky Wook was actually written by someone else. A ghostwriter is essentially someone who writes for someone else and allows him or her the credit. This amazed me as My Booky Wook seemed so typically Brand to the extent that if I were to read you any page without telling you who it was written by, you would almost definitely tell it is Brand’s writing.

Two obvious dilemmas sprung into my mind upon finishing the article. The first was how sales and royalties were divided between the two parties. Robert McCrum reports that the standard used to be one third of the advance for the ghost plus royalties but due to recession and I expect the rising number of ghostwriters leading to a more competitive market that figure has dropped to as low as ten per cent. At first I didn’t think these numbers were justified, as surely it should be a fifty-fifty split as the success of the autobiography is contingent on both parties. But then I decided to abstract parts of the process of how the book is made and thought that both the stories and style of writing is done in the manner of the celebrity and the ghost only does the writing so it appears fair that the celebrity receives more as they are the more quintessential members of the agreement.

The second problem I had was whether the autobiography would lack honesty and realness due to it being written by a third-party, despite the fact that it is the ghost’s job to get inside their subjects’ lives to such an extent that the reader doesn’t realise the book isn’t autobiographical. But there are things that you cannot just discover from just following people around for a while. Still, the ghost has to find out about the childhood of their specimen, things that have occurred away from the public eye and some innermost feelings to make the autobiography a success. The ghost has to earn trust from their subject in order to acquire these things and thus, as the reader, we can never be sure of whether this trust and honesty was formed or if the celebrity was taking the ghost for a comical ride. However, I think that as the reader we have this problem for any autobiography ghostwritten or not. Till this day I have no idea whether Bob Dylan’s Chronicles is just another piece by him that has a meaning none of us can ever grasp correctly or is genuinely honest. Ultimately the autobiography is going to be released to the public so there is no reason why it is going to be any more honest if it is ghostwritten or not.

As far as I can see there are no fundamental problems with ghostwriting. As long as the ghostwriter is rewarded suitably for his or her efforts and tries their best to produce the most honest and true-to-life piece about their subjects’ life, I have no problem with reading the autobiography.

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