BY DAWN FIELD | NOV. 7, 2016
I just found out that a scientist whom I greatly admire is writing his first book. Only he’s not. He’s hired a writer to do the heavy lifting. The hired writer’s name won’t appear on the cover. He’s signed on the dotted line in the invisible ink.
Ghostwriters don’t write about ghosts, but waft around in the background like them. Unlike real ghosts, such behind-the-scenes authors deal in reality, turning the ideas of ‘living’ authors into words for them to take credit for.
It’s a rapidly growing field. One that has the positive notions of bringing together disparate talents in an age of internet collaboration to create new projects, quicker, and the negative overtones of a scummy sense of dissimulation born of greed. Look at the debate over best-selling author James Patterson’s use of co-authors to fill his book publication queue more quickly.
The scientist author in this case had the idea for this book, and without this scientist, there would be no book, so his name should grace the cover. Yet, it feels questionable for readers to be sold an author’s name on the tin when there was a second chef doing all the stirring of the pot in the kitchen. Why not just put the other name in the small print, at least? For truth, if nothing else?
I’m certainly wondering now more than before how often this happens. If the use of ghostwriting is prevalent in the writing of science for the public, it seems to threaten the credibility of scientists known for their beautiful, profound, and inspiring words, of which there are now many. Might they be hiding ghosts?
The worst insult you can give a writer is to say their success was due to a ghostwriter, as recently happened to rapper Nicki Minaj. Just as her singing career is built on her lyrics, much of a career of a scientist can be built on the back of one or more prestigious books.
I really admire this scientist friend of mine. Love his science, love talking to him. So, with a distaste for ghosting in mind, imagine my surprise reaction to this news. My first thought when he said he was excited about hiring a writer was ‘why didn’t you pick me’! I shocked myself in thinking that. But the joy of being part of such a project really would be worth its weight in gold.
Of course, I’ve never thought about ghostwriting and he never thought of me that way, but the door was opened and I pushed on it and I suddenly got a very different view from the perspective of ghostwriters.
Maybe it can be a dream job.I would happily be his anonymous ghostwriter.
Getting good science out to the public is a noble cause and fun. He’s a terrific guy. Ah, to write about important things you believe in deeply.
But then my mind jumped beyond scientists.
GHOSTWRITING - THE ROLE OF THE GHOSTWRITER
What if the ‘author’ were someone exceptional from another walk of life? A great sportswoman? A politician? A socialite. A social worker who changed the world? A refugee who made it to the top against all odds?
Now the role of ghostwriter comes into very different focus.
Some people are born with the ability to write, but lack ‘the story’. They can bust a pen like nobody’s business, but they haven’t lived the ‘life amazing’. Many great writers just haven’t been in the place to experience the life of deprivation, terror, ecstasy, or sheer luck that others have. With war rampant at all levels, whether countries, religions, or family members, we can all imagine what deprivation and terror looks like. In terms of ecstasy I’m thinking of being born with the looks to make you a supermodel, the strength to be an Olympian, or the brains to be a genius inventor. In terms of luck, I’m thinking about people who get hit by a meteorite and live to tell the tale, win the billion-dollar lottery, or marry a prince. Someone like the beautiful actress who married the prince of Monaco, Grace Kelly, did more than one amazing thing.
So what if you are a great writer, looking for a super story? Ghostwriting might just then look attractive.
It’s a symbiosis more than a parasitism.
The issue of this type of ghosting most recently came to the fore with the admission by Tony Schwartz that he ghosted Donald Trump’s book The Art of the Deal. Yes, Schwartz had an all-access pass to the life of one of the richest people and should have been the posterchild of the ‘fun’ of ghosting, but his experience and subsequent guilt about taking the money has led him to decry Trump as a sociopath unfit for presidency. Schwartz regrets his role today in magnifying Trump’s position of influence in the world and helping to write a book that put a reality TV show personality on the path to the presidency.
Yet, back to the romantic notion of ghosting. What about when ghosters really do find the right person?
I have completely shifted my feelings towards the idea of ever ghostwriting. For the right story, it could be the adventure of a lifetime.
If you are the right person, you know where to find me.
Featured image credit: Student typing by StartupStockPhotos. CC0 public domain via Pixabay.
Dawn Field, PhD, is the author of Biocode: The New Age of Genomics (OUP, 2015). She is a Senior Research Fellow at the NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, a Research Associate of the Biodiversity Institute of Oxford at Oxford University and a Research Associate of the Smithsonian Institution. She is a founder of the Genomic Standards Consortium, the Genomic Observatories Network and Ocean Sampling Day.
Follow her on Twitter @fiedawn. You can view Dawn's other blog posts via her column.
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