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Anatomy of a ghost

A ghostwriter’s history of ghostwriting

The only persons who make no secrecy about their ghosts are American millionaires, one of whom in advertising once for a private secretary stated that the chief duties of the post would be to issue all his invitations and write all his speeches.

-The Pall Mall Gazette, January 12, 1889

Get that book out of your soul ... and into your wallet ... with the help of a world-class professional writer ...

-Dan Shafer, Ghostwriting and Writer Coaching Service

Whose book is this?

-Malcolm X to Alex Haley, ghostwriter of The Autobiography of Malcolm X

Recent literary scandals and scrums have animated some old discussions about what it means to be an author. Traditionally, we think of a person's writing as being somehow of that person-as personal and as individual as a fingerprint or a snippet of DNA. That's why copying another person's printed words and claiming them as your own, even if you agree entirely with the position they express, is seen as theft. But what, exactly, is being stolen and what is owned? The ideas? The choice and order of words? The identity of the writer? And if someone hires a ghostwriter to write his/her autobiography, whose story is it and to whom do the words belong?

Ghostwriters and editors who do salaried rewrite jobs and then fade into the wainscotting sometimes re-emerge and stake a claim to the published work. In England, Jennie Erdal (who has stated that ghostwriting would be the oldest profession if prostitution hadn't made a prior claim to the honour) divulged that she spent an entire career breathing life into a successful London publisher and literary personality. She wrote novels, reviews and even interview questions for a man she calls "Tiger." In the US, Gordon Lish, who was the fiction editor at Esquire, claims to have had a critically important hand in Raymond Carver's stories and to have pencilled in some now-famous lines.

In Canada, not long after Ethiopian-Canadian Nega Mezlekia's memoir, Notes from the Hyena's Belly, (which won the Governor General's Award for English language non-fiction in 2000) was published, accusations that the memoir had been ghostwritten turned into a nasty public battle, which slowly settled into the mire of legal contest. The ghostwriter in question-Canadian novelist Anne Stone, whom Mezlekia refers to as his "editor"-is white; Mezlekia is black and African. As a result, identity politics got tangled up with ideas of authorship.

Mezlekia's publisher felt that his authorship claim was unassailable because the book spoke so convincingly of Mezlekia's life in Ethiopia during the civil war. A Toronto newspaper, however, published letters from Mezlekia intended to demonstrate his weak grasp of English and, hence, the impossibility of his being the author of his own memoir. But Mezlekia linked his authorship of the text to his individuality, writing to Stone, "A person like me comes along with the rarity of a six-legged mouse." (He was also apparently anxious to help Stone make her transition back to the spirit world, threatening to "bury" her.) At one point in the public debate, Anne Stone explained, somewhat confusingly, "Authorship is an industry concept ... It doesn't identify or see the communities from which a work comes-and it doesn't have to be a writer's community. It's the community that informs the work." Yet, the lack of attribution for her alleged contribution to a manuscript that came from a particular community made her feel, she said, like "a ghost."

The dispute caused concerned parties to build a fragile house of cards; everyone paced its rooms with exaggerated care. On the one hand, if a white woman could author a book by a black man, what did that say about identity-usually defined along the lines of race, gender and nation? On the other hand, don't the author and the ghostwriter have the language of composition and the cultural references it contains in common? If an editor changes a sentence and the nominal author agrees with the change, to whom does that sentence then belong, whom does it express?

Throughout this tempest, commentators, critics and authors alike put the word "author" in scare quotes, nervously acknowledging their own anxieties about authorship, identity and ownership. Everyone stood to lose: those who believed in the politics of identity, those who claimed the glory of artistic production and those who made money from it.

Autobiographies and memoirs are special cases of authorship, because they package the idea of identity in a story before sending it off to market. The idea that words carry identity is such a powerful one for readers that they may be bitterly disappointed to discover an autobiography was ghosted. In a similar vein, people who commission an autobiography from a ghostwriter often come to feel that the text has created such an appealing version of themselves that they claim both that version andits authorship.

At the turn of the twentieth century, famed actress Sarah Bernhardt published her memoir Noel, which had in fact been ghostwritten by American journalist Vance Thompson. When years later Thompson visited Bernhardt in Paris, he was surprised to discover she had forgotten not only him, but also his authorship. She is reported to have asked him, "Have you read [Noel]? A little thing, but so real-it haunted me until I had to write it."

The people for whom I have ghosted autobiographies have all looked on words as simple tools-words give thanks and make demands, keep records and contain human and divine laws. The first draft of the records of these people's days most often took the form of lists, organized by event, year, profit and loss. When I transformed these lists into stories, I added dramatized scenes, sharpened the characters' sense of themselves, cut off some loose ends and tied up others. The poor boy who woke at four every morning during the Depression to muck out stables became a character in a story. Unlike daily life, stories are portentous, and always lean toward the future, toward their own ends. A man reading the story of himself as a stable boy is that future, a fact that powerfully validates his past. All of which is to say that the erstwhile stable boy came to claim both the past I had rendered for him and the language in which it was rendered. His story, his identity, his sentences. My role, as ghost, was to dematerialize when the job was done-that's what I got paid for.

Of course, there can be more selfless reasons for a ghostwriter's full fade, but the machinery that produces authorial identity and its ownership is the same. Thus, Thomas Pringle, author of the 1831 memoir of former slave Mary Prince, turned down all credit for the text. "The narrative," according to his introductory disclaimer, "was taken down from Mary's own lips ... and afterwards pruned into its present shape." For Pringle's purposes, the authority of text and story grew from Mary's rooted self. The writing was mere topiary; he wished to establish the idea that a former slave could own a name and the authorship of a story and thus "own" herself. Here, authorship could help confer full civil status.

Although the term "ghostwriter" (as well as "ghost sculptor" and "ghost artist") has been around since the late nineteenth century, it first appeared in the New York Times in 1927. In a peculiar article about the exiled kaiser Wilhelm, whose imperial policies were among the causes of the First World War, the Times writer assures us that the kaiser spends his productive hours "astride a saddle mounted upon the base of a plain swivel chair ... writing in longhand with his indelible pencil." From that astonishing position (the Times writer fails to mention that the kaiser was born with a withered arm and must have found it difficult to maintain his balance), the author appears to command ineradicable legions of words into battle. In a final spasm of reassurance that the ex-kaiser's book is genuine in both authorship andauthority, the writer says, "I have seen pages of manuscript in the kaiser's handwriting. They are not the products of 'ghost writers.' They are his own work."

The First World War and the advent of modernity liberated a host of anxieties about how people should invest their belief in people and institutions-they felt betrayed when the idea of "author" and "authority" became disconnected. In the same year that the Times defended the kaiser's authorship, the Authors' League held a meeting in New York to confront the problem of "the ghost." They noted that the public would soon come to question the word of "athletes, singers or politicians who break out in print." The meeting also discussed a "confession ... by a ghostwriter who has now come out of his cabinet," and wrestling with the problems of honesty and ethics this revelation produced. Publishers' advertisements in the nineteen-twenties and thirties regularly assured readers that their books (particularly the autobiographies) were not ghosted, though we have reason to doubt the veracity of the claims. After all, we know that Charles Lindbergh's publisher ordered up a ghosted autobiography of the aviator that appeared only a few months after Lindbergh's transatlantic flight. Sports columns were filled with jokes about athletes and their ghostwritten works, making straight-faced references to figures such as "author and baseball player Babe Ruth." Groucho Marx even wrote a small feature for the Times in which he claimed that his "departed grandfather" had offered to be his ghostwriter for the piece.

In the thirties and forties, ghostwriting accrued another kind of notoriety. Educators were alarmed to see the appearance of businesses dedicated to writing students' essays and theses. When the courts were given the task of discerning the real author of academic essays, they were perplexed by their inability to tell the ersatz from the real. The ads for paper-writing services took these difficulties into account, claiming that their academic ghosts could mimic not only the student's usual level of accomplishment and prose style but their handwriting (which was well established as a forensic means to prove identity) as well.

The second half of the century brought the ghost a new measure of acceptance and even celebrity. Ghosting of political and business speeches is now the norm, as is the "as-told-to" memoir. Editors are conferred ghost status for works of autobiography and fiction. Writers now credit researchers, friends and the Canada Council as indispensable colleagues in the production of literature. The Stone-Mezlekia dogfight underscored that "communities" can have an authorial role. The writing of scientific papers is regularly assigned to junior researchers while authorship is claimed by senior grant-holders. Essay-writing services for students, though universally condemned, sell countless papers to undergraduates each year.

It's a somewhat pallid irony that scholarly writing, which questions the common understanding of authorship, originality and ownership, is so insistent about its own standards. In the academy, words still stand for the individual mind that produces them and, by dint of that individuality, the author lays absolute claim to them. The publishing industry, alert to consumers' needs to feel that they are in touch with genuine authorial expression, also protect the idea of the singular, genuine author.

Amidst the apologism, self-interest and intelligent criticism of authorship, a few ordinary facts remain. Words can't grasp experience nor are they the equivalent of experience. Communities can't pick up a pen. When one writer attempts to write like another, it sounds like mimicry, because the thousand habits of mind and gesture that produce a sentence are inimitable. In the end, the ghostwriter of an autobiography exists only as long as it is possible to inhabit the facts of another person's life.