Digital Culture

The Author and the Ghost

Chloe Lam

Have you ever considered hiring a professional ghost

No, not the supernatural kind – the literary kind. Splicing the word “ghostwriter” into two, this professional ghost entices prospective clients with the promise of its own invisibility. It increases its allure by marketing itself as a formless entity detached from its own literary labour. 

Such practices are not uncommon. United Ghostwriters similarly invites us to “Meet the Ghosts”, presenting us with rows of greyscale faces. With no colour to punctuate the monotony, these ghosts are as inconspicuous on the page as they will be in the final published work. They are further removed from their labour by virtue of the colourful typewriter heading the page, reasserting through its vibrancy the detachment of the “writer” from the “ghost”. 

But how exactly do we conceptualize the labour that ghostwriters undertake? German philosopher Hannah Arendt offers a useful framework. In her book The Human Condition, Arendt suggests that “action” is “the only activity that goes on directly between men with the intermediary of things or matter”. As an inherently collaborative process, ghostwriting exemplifies this “action”. 

It is important to note, however, that the ghostwriter is not the author of the work. That title belongs to their client. As Archangel Ink states, the author is “self-oriented”, whilst the writer is “service-oriented”. The word “author” was used in the past to refer to a “person with authority to take action or make a decision”, and this now obsolete definition is especially relevant to ghostwriting. The author essentially functions as the director, rather than the executor, of the process. It is the ghostwriter’s job to comply with these directions.

The authority of the author in turn necessitates the invisibility of the ghostwriter. This invisibility is again used as a marketing ploy. The homepage of Elite authors asks, “Ready to become a published author?” and “Happy Authors” pose for photos with their ghostwritten books on Your Memoir. Ian Shircore’s website boldly declares that “I will make you an author”. This emphasis on becoming an author rather than a writer draws attention to the authority that the client will have over the work, reassuring them that they will retain ultimate control over the project. 

It is clear, then, that the literary labour of the “writer” must be balanced out with the invisibility of the “ghost”. Ghostwriter Teena Lyons is frank about her role: “You are paid to keep quiet”. Seeming to almost privilege the silence expected of the ghostwriter over the demands on their literary labour, Lyons reinforces the importance of the “ghost” component of the “ghostwriter”. 

The necessary silence that accompanies ghostwriting encapsulates the essence of what it means to be a ghostwriter, something that seems at times to be even more important than their literary labour. The ghostwriter must be invisible, nothing more than a mere “ghost”.