Sunday, March 09, 2014

The ethics of ghostwriting

i) Lately, the practice of celebrity megachurch pastors using ghostwriters has come under scrutiny. Is ghostwriting unethical? There are two parties to the transaction. As a rule, I think it's unethical for the client not to credit his ghostwriter or collaborator. 
Ghostwriting is sometimes defended where there's no expectation that the speaker or the named author is the actual author. For instance, we don't expect airhead movie stars to write their own biographies. We don't expect presidents to write their own speeches. We don't expect famous comedians to write all their material.  
ii) However, this isn't quite analogous to ghostwriters. We often know who presidential speechwriters are, viz. Ben Stein, Peggy Noonan, Ted Sorensen, William Safire. Likewise, Woody Allen wrote material for Sid Caesar. 
iii) Debates over the ethics of ghostwriting tend to focus on the ethics of using a ghostwriter rather than being a ghostwriter. What about the moral status of the ghostwriter himself? Is his line of work  dishonest? 
From what I've read, ghostwriting can sometimes serve the same purpose as pseudonymity, in cases where a writer must conceal his identity for his own safety. Take political dissidents writing in a closed society. 
iv) However, in cases where it's unethical to use a ghostwriter, is it unethical to be a ghostwriter? Doesn't his cooperation make the ghostwriter morally complicit in the misconduct of his client?
That depends. There's a difference between doing wrong and being wronged. Now, cooperation can involve complicity in wrongdoing–if I'm helping someone wrong others. Say I'm the getaway driver for a bank heist.

But let's take a different comparison. I'm a coal miner. I live in a company town. I have to shop at the company store, which overcharges the customers–adding to the company's profit margin. Say it makes customers buy on credit, which comes out of their paycheck. They never get ahead. 

I'm not doing wrong by shopping there. rather, I'm being wronged by shopping there.

But I don't have a real choice because I can't afford to quit my job. 

By shopping there, I participate in the company's exploitation. I'm complicit in wrongdoing in that convoluted sense. But that doesn't make me the wrongdoer. Rather, I've been forced into an untenable position. The company left me with no better options. So that's what I'm stuck with. 

v) Likewise, ghostwriting can be a career-booster. It looks good on your resume to be a presidential speechwriter. Likewise, Nicholas Perrin was one of N. T. Wright's "research assistants." Perrin has since gone on to author two of his own books, and I think it's safe to say his work for Wright made it easier for Perrin to become a published author in his own right. It helps to break the ice. So it's not necessarily an exploitative relationship. 
That assumes the ghostwriter doesn't have to sign a confidentiality agreement keeping his identity a secret. 

1 comment:

  1. The flip side situation is work-for-hire where we can all look up who writes what Batman and Superman comics but DC owns the trademark on the characters and licensing rights. If ghostwriting is where you write X and get paid but don't get credit for it, work-for-hire is where you have credit for it, and get paid, but so doing waive the right to consider it yours. A veteran musician once told me that a lot of younger generations don't realize that work-for-hire is still work, and that it doesn't do you any good to retain all the publishing and licensing rights to music nobody's actually buying. So ghostwriting is more a gray area than, say, plagiarism.

    And I don't know if you've read Terry Teachout but he's been fielding debates about Duke Ellington and whether or not he should be considered a plagiarist for using riffs from his sidemen and paying flat fees or not crediting them in published works. I think a lot of us can, legitimately, view the process of ghostwriting or work-for-hire differently for fiction and music than for non-fiction or reporting. The genres may be more or less forgiving depending on what level of veracity we expect to get from the product we invest in.