Going Ghost: When Celebrities "Write" Books

Illustration for article titled Going Ghost: When Celebrities "Write" Books

Blogger Mark Barrett wonders why, amid all the coverage of Sarah Palin's book, nobody's really talking about the fact that she didn't actually write it.


Writing on Ditchwalk, Barrett quotes several news sources implying that Sarah Palin knuckled down and wrote her very own 400-page book in four months. Perhaps the most ridiculous is her publisher's statement, repeated without criticism by ABC:

Gov. Palin has been unbelievably conscientious and hands-on at every stage, investing herself deeply and passionately in this project," Jonathan Burnham of HarperCollins told the Associated Press. "It's her words, her life and it's all there in full and fascinating detail."

ABC also mentions that Palin worked with "collaborator" Lynn Vincent, but what no one's really saying is that in all likelihood Vincent wrote the whole fucking thing. Barrett is especially critical of this line from the ABC piece: "Once the manuscript was complete, Palin then reportedly spent several intense days in New York working with her editors at HarperCollins." Barrett writes,

First, the intent of that graph is to get readers to believe that Palin was ‘intensely working on the manuscript', when what she was probably intensely working on was a double-secret plan to combine PR-driven hype with a juicy talk-show-circuit revelation just as the book is getting ready to hit store shelves.

Second, note the inclusion of the word ‘editors' in the quote: as if an actual editor was working on the manuscript with Palin herself in the room. Because I'm betting nothing like that actually happened, or came close to happening. In fact, if Palin, anyone with content-editing experience, and a copy of her manuscript were all in the same room at any one time I would be shocked.

Palin may have had a little bit more involvement in her book than, say, Paris Hilton had in designing her fragrance, but to hear Barrett tell it, the endeavors are actually pretty similar. He writes,

[T]he publishing world is not genuinely concerned with ideas and authors, it's concerned with selling objects (books, magazines, etc.). To the extent that hyping specific authors is done at all, it's done to create bankable stars in the same way that Hollywood wants, needs and hates bankable stars because they attract customers. In the publishing biz these stars might be literary stars (proving the industry cares about artistic authors), or genre stars (proving the publishing industry cares about entertainment authors), but in all cases the caring is ultimately sales-based, not author-based. Proof of this, if it's needed, is found in the simple fact that when it makes sense to lie about authorship in order to increase sales, the entire publishing industry eagerly turns a blind eye.


Simply put, Sarah Palin is a brand, and HarperCollins knows that brand will sell books. So that's what goes on the cover of Going Rogue, even though Lynn Vincent did the actual writing. As Barrett points out, it's interesting that the publishing industry, the snootiest arm of the entertainment business, is the one that's cool with this type of lying. Pop stars don't get songwriting credits unless they actually write songs, and when celebrities direct films, they do actually have to show up on set. Perhaps the reason ghostwriting is so accepted is that prose isn't particularly valued just now, and audiences are very interested in books written by people famous for things other than writing. This is especially problematic when the celebrity in question is famous for things that are basically the antithesis of good writing — like relying on bizarre metaphors, not reading the newspaper, and being generally inarticulate.

It's certainly no surprise that Sarah Palin needed a ghostwriter, but just because it's expected that doesn't mean it shouldn't be condemned. Barrett points out that failing to acknowledge "collaborators" like Vincent — she's not on the cover, and she's not on HarperCollins's webpage for the book — ignores the work of the actual author in favor of the big name that gets slapped on the book when work is done. If we want the felicitous use of the English language to be respected again (and Sarah Palin has certainly worked hard against this), we need to honor the people who actually know how to use it. As Barrett says, "ghostwriting is lying, and it's the kind of lying that devalues every author. It's time to give up the ghost."


Giving Up The Ghost [Ditchwalk]



You know, when an actor or musician uses a ghostwriter, I'm not offended. But shouldn't politicians — people deciding public policy and writing laws — be made responsible to pen their own memoirs? If you can't write down your life story, how are you going to write my health care bill? (okay, I know Palin isn't going to write my health care bill — or hopefully no other bill ever — but you know what I mean).

Did Obama write his own books? I'm honestly asking because I don't know.