The ghost in the keyboard


I’m reading a novel, The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles, by Katherine Pancol. It’s the story of a single mother in Paris who sort of ghostwrites herself out of poverty by penning best-selling fiction about what she knows, medieval Europe (she’s a Ph.D.) and allowing her sister to take the fame but none of the cash (she’s rich but needy). The story reminds me of another book I enjoyed, Author From a Savage People,  by Bette Pesetsky, also about a woman ghostwriter.  In both cases, the secret authors use their talents to wreak revenge on the men who use them.

I’m drawn to these stories because I, too, am a ghostwriter, although only for the money and not to get even with anyone.  I write mostly trade journal articles about science and technology for a corporation on a work-for-hire basis.  Someone in the company gets the byline, and I get the check.

This sort of writing-just-for-the-money arrangement that cedes authorship to a non-writer bothers some people.  They see it, I think, as a fraud or an insult to the art of writing.

A couple things about what I do.  I work closely with subject matter experts who become the “authors” of the articles whose content they provide and vet, and sometimes write in part.  If anyone wants more information on the topic, he or she will contact the expert, not me, which is exactly how it should be.  This sort of arrangement is rather commonplace in organizations, which hire writers to do the writing, others to be the authorities.  When an Op-Ed article by a CEO appears in the newspaper, odds are the CEO did not write it.  What  titan of business has time for that sort of thing?

This is not to argue that corporate ghosting is right because it takes place often.  It is to point out that in some settings writing is part of the division of labor and not something accomplished by a struggling artist.  That someone else takes credit is part of the deal.

Is it a fraud?  Well, think of how often we receive messages from someone who is not the author–for instance, practically every speech by a President.  The ideas are his (we certainly hope) but the phrasing and form come from ghosts.

In fact, it’s no stretch to imagine all manner of writing haunted by ghosts:  they’re called editors.


One thought on “The ghost in the keyboard

  1. I really like this writer’s willingness to discuss people ghostwriting for mercenary ends. It certainly is damaging when someone writes under a professional’s name; it’s like stealing a rubber stamp and using it to sign company checks over to yourself. That’s definitely fraud. Writing under a pen name is not the same as ghostwriting.

    Pen names are around and people have used them for years. Famous writers including Stephen King and JK Rowling have used pen names as an experiment, to see if readers will buy their books not knowing who the author is beforehand. There are valid reasons for using pen names, including those in witness protection, the exiled and women. People in social exile have worthwhile experiences to describe, and pen names give them the opportunity to increase social awareness of grievous injustices.

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