Nearly every book you have read by a celebrity or politician has been written by someone else: the ghostwriter, whose name remains unknown (or else slyly inserted in the ‘acknowledgements’ section). At a moment’s thought we know this; many people would be quite offended, after all, if they thought that Barack Obama truly sat down and wrote the several(!) books under his name. Likewise, for a CEO to actually take the time to write a business book would be “widely perceived as an act both desperate and pathetic”—in a word, “it would have made him [or her] a schmuck” (Hitt, 1997). Yet, nobody thinks about this—we cling to the reified notion of The Author even as it becomes more and more separate from that of the Writer. The present essay addresses ghostwriting in all its apparitions, from celebrity ‘autobiographies’ to its increasing presence in music and online dating. We will trace out its phantasms in ancient and contemporary philosophy, from Aristotle to hauntology, underscoring its implications for both theory and anti-theory. And lastly, we will argue that increasing ‘spectrification’ of society (and the emergent spectra and spectralities arising in its wake) places deeply into question the method of ‘textual analysis’ of capitalism.
§1. “I care not who writes a nation’s laws, as long as I can write its op-eds”
In the film Ghostwriter, Ewan McGregor explains the process to a client: “I interview you and turn your answers into prose.” We might recall Molière’s bourgeois gentilhomme, who realized with pride that he had been speaking prose all his life—but writing prose is another matter entirely, as any modern ‘ink-stained wretch’ will tell you. Writing is hard, yes, but no one seems to care: surveys show that most authors earn less than $1,000 per year (D’Agnese, 2014). The task of writing is an increasingly precarious one in light of the looming prospect of speech recognition technology phasing out the writer’s role entirely (replaced by that of the editor), as well as the increasing prevalence of algorithmic journalism.
Furthermore, as of 2011 (the latest year for which data is available) the number of new books published in the US reached 292,014—the highest in the world, followed by 241,986 in China (as of 2012) and 149,800 in the UK (as of 2011). Adding up the latest data for each country yields a total of 2,200,000 (via; see also). These, moreover, are the best of the lot, the ones that managed to escape the ‘slush pile’—every publisher and agent has one—of “unsolicited manuscripts, synopses and letters of enquiry lying in wait for someone to pick them up and respond with glowing encouragement” (Crofts, 8). In short, it’s virtually impossible for an unknown writer to make themselves heard, even in the unlikely situation that they have something interesting to say.
The process of ghostwriting is disarmingly simple. Often only two or three days of intensive interviewing are needed—one interview for the synopsis, several more for the full-length manuscript (Crofts, 104, 116): maybe 50 hours in total, 20 if they’re especially concise. The ghostwriter Sally Collings gets by with 10 interviews, each an hour long, followed by about four months of writing (or up to a year for larger projects)—far less personal than one might expect (Mayyasi, 2013). In return, ghosts are able to make a steady living doing what they love. One of the more ‘famous’ ghostwriters, Andrew Crofts, quotes a passage from the narrator in The Great Gatsby: “I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life” (in Crofts, 4). This, he says, “sums up the attraction of ghostwriting.” One peculiar case is Janofsky (2013), who found himself ghostwriting blog posts for an Arabian sheikh in exile; he even wrote a series of reflections on Ramadan—despite being Jewish—that were published verbatim. Culture shock is a concrete problem, keeping ghostwriters on their toes: Crofts (2004: 114) recalls writing an autobiography for an African chief who was modest to the point of nearly obscuring his actual importance in his home country, “and indeed in the international business community.” Another of his examples is ghostwriting for the Chinese billionaire Tan Sri Loy, who flew Crofts to China to meet his relatives: “there were extraordinary things about his background that he would have taken for granted and not mentioned if I hadn’t seen them for myself” (ibid, 106).
“Ghosting a book for someone,” says Crofts, “is like being paid to be educated by the best teachers in the world.” The ghostwriter’s position also lets them query their subjects in ways that would otherwise be obnoxious: it’s part of the job to ask someone how much they earn, who they’re sleeping with, why on earth they married who they married—and the client is obliged to answer (ibid, 15). This joint venture of Writer and Author is often win/win: even if someone enjoys researching, there’s no guarantee of finding a publisher for their book after the months or even years required for its completion. Given that advances are at historic lows, and that in the absence of authorial cachet, work-for-hire and ghost gigs bring the highest advances (D’Agnese, 2014), the immediate appeal is clear. The process is even qualitatively easier than writing on one’s own, since the ghostwriter needn’t grapple with their own insecurities and daunting standards: ghostwriting an entire book may well be easier than writing several blog posts for oneself (Kihara, 2014). Another consideration is that it’s easier to elicit readers’ pathos through first person rather than third person narrative (Crofts, 9); evocative tropes such as dream sequences are awkward to write in a biography of someone else. For many struggling writers, the lack of a byline is a small price to pay.
These are D’Anglese’s self-reported gross revenues, paid in halves, thirds, & fourths. For the net value, subtract 15% agenting fees from each.
The author’s motivation is simple enough—namely, outsourcing. Many authors initially have a go at writing on their own, but find that the job involves far more work than anticipated; the opportunity cost is just too high. For a successful expert (and/or celebrity, CEO, etc.), the main appeal of hiring a ghost is saving countless hours of niggling with a pen that could be far better spent contributing to their enterprise. Ghostwriters often even perform the author’s email interviews and blog posts during the publicity run (Huff, 2013), letting the author focus on making contacts and enjoying the spotlight. In short, ghostwriting embodies the principle of comparative advantage. Ghosts are defined by the lack of opportunities on their part: their universe of possibilities is far smaller, and it is precisely this discrepancy in ‘potentiality capital’ (Guattari) that makes ghostwriting a worthwhile venture. The receipt of money from the author in turn opens up the ghostwriter’s ‘universe’ more than they could have done alone, so that both parties gain from trade. It is easy to show numerically that, provided ‘transaction costs’ are sufficiently low, there will be mutual gains even if the client is a better writer than the ghostwriter they hire, due simply to their differing relative costs. In a list of common misconceptions about ghostwriting, Deckers (2012) comments:
[People often] don’t think they have a high-enough position to need a ghost writer. They don’t think they’re that important to ‘deserve’ it. They think their company needs to be bigger, or they need to have a more prestigious position. I saw this a lot when I was doing speechwriting for a Congressional candidate in 2004. It’s not a matter of prestige, it’s a matter of having the time to do it.
Counterintuitively, it becomes clear upon researching the subject that most professional ghostwriters don’t write well. Articles on the subject are replete with gratuitous and absurd similes, purple prose, and even simple grammatical errors. Rather than a troupe of down-on-their-luck Joyces, Raphaels (or Hemingways, Dostoevskies…) without hands, and other poets manqué—many ghostwriters’ main comparative (and competitive) advantage lies in unapologetically producing dull writing. “Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers” (T.S. Eliot). In fact, this is often a selling point—as one successful academic ghostwriter boasts (Dante, 2010):
Over the years, I’ve refined ways of stretching papers. I can write a four-word sentence in 40 words. Just give me one phrase of quotable text, and I’ll produce two pages of ponderous explanation. I can say in 10 pages what most normal people could say in a paragraph. […] I think about how Dickens got paid per word and how, as a result, Bleak House is…well, let’s be diplomatic and say exhaustive. Dickens is a role model for me.
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