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Does ghostwriting diminish a book’s authenticity?

  |   Books

John F. Kennedy is the only man in history who won a Pulitzer Prize for a book that was ghostwritten for him! His book ‘Profiles in Courage’ (a study of heroic US senators) was published on January 1, 1956, to lavish praise. It became a bestseller and in 1957 was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for biography. It established Kennedy, till then considered promising but lacking in gravitas, as one of the Democratic party’s leading lights, setting the stage for his presidential nomination in 1960.

Kennedy made no secret of his chief assistant on the project and speechwriter Ted Sorensen’s involvement in ‘Profiles in Courage’, crediting him in the preface as “my research associate”. But he insisted that he was the book’s author and bristled even at teasing suggestions to the contrary. Sorensen and other Kennedy loyalists backed him up then and have done so since.

Of the recent books, Prince Harry’s memoir ‘Spare’ was ghostwritten by Pulitzer Prize winner J R Moehringer, author of ‘The Tender Bar’ (2005). His ghost-writing credo echoes William Blake’s quote, “Opposition is true friendship” – you need to keep questioning and pushing back, else you become a glorified stenographer. ‘Spare’ has gone on to enter the Guinness Book as the fastest-selling non-fiction book.

After retired tennis star Andre Agassi read ‘The Tender Bar’, he asked Moehringer to collaborate with him on his own memoir. The resulting book, ‘Open: An Autobiography’, was published in 2009. Other ghostwritten celebrity memoirs include Malala Yousafzai’s ‘I Am Malala’ by Christiana Lamb, Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’ by Nell Scovell and Hillary Clinton’s ‘It Takes a Village’ by Barbara Feinman Todd. When Boria Majumdar, who wrote Sachin Tendulkar’s biography ‘Playing it My Way’, was asked about the process of writing the book, he said that the book was Sachin’s book in his own language, and he was just the medium of expression. Most celebrities use ghostwriters as they don’t have the time or the necessary expertise to write it themselves.

So, what exactly is ghostwriting and is it even ethical? Ghostwriting is the practice of writing content for other people, who will then post it as if it was their own. It’s a common practice in many industries, and it can be an excellent way to get high-quality content without having to write the content yourself. In the digital world, ghostwriting has gone beyond books to blogs, LinkedIn posts, white papers, podcasts, scripts etc. I’m all for giving the ghostwriter some explicit acknowledgement on the book jacket or the title page and certainly in the Acknowledgments section.

When it comes to the question of whether ghostwriting is ethical, it largely depends on the context. I for one believe that if someone else has written it, they should be duly credited. My friend who is writing her memoir was upfront about the fact that it was being ghostwritten and that increased my respect for her and did not diminish my desire to read her.

Sometimes a person simply doesn’t have the talent to bring their powerful story to life, and that’s when a ghostwriter might be useful. Many people argue that ghostwriting is an outsourced service, and it does not matter who wrote the book as long as it is well written. The purists however would say that literary ghostwriting is fraudulent!

I loved Michelle Obama’s ‘Becoming’. But recently, I got to know it might have been ghostwritten. Does that change anything? What if Gandhi’s autobiography had been ghostwritten? Wouldn’t that diminish its authenticity? I am not sure.

This is what Moehringer said in a recent New Yorker article, “Ghostwriting is an art and ghostwriters are providing a vital public service, helping to shore up the publishing industry, since most of the titles on this week’s best-seller list were written by someone besides the named author.”

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