6.01.2012

ethics of ghostwriting

ghost vines, NW Portland

While on the job hunt this week, I came across the following Craigslist posting:

I am looking for blog content writers. I do not have a specific category and it really doesn't matter as long as the content is interesting. I want each blog to be about 600-800 words and will need one per day for the next three months. (Reply to: dkcm3-3045730546@job.craigslist.org)

To me, this reads: Because I'm too lazy, uninterested, self-important, or incompetent to blog for myself, I'm going to pay someone to do it for me. Really, I'm just using the site as a placeholder for advertising or some other search engine optimization or URL-real-estate trick I won't bother mentioning since the money-making details are probably over your head as a writer. Write about toenail scrapings, for all I care, but be fascinating. I'll make all the profit; you'll do all the work.

Have I mentioned yet how unethical I find the practice of ghostwriting, writing in place of someone else who takes all the credit and most of the remuneration? How are the ethics of ghostwriting different from the plagiarism for which I fail students who have tried to pass off somebody else's paper as their own? Should we tell students as long as they pay the writer of their paper (and that's where all those pay-for-essay sites come in, filling a need in the capitalist market) or put the actual writer's name somewhere in fine print, it's all kosher? Why are we giving F's to students for something Gwyneth Paltrow and Rachael Ray sell books doing, their white teeth shining from the covers of their book jackets?

The New York Times published a confessions-of-a-cookbook-ghostwriter piece a couple months ago, the author claiming most of the cookbooks "written" by celebrity chefs are actually written by—wait for it—poorly paid ghostwriters. I still snicker over the Bobby Flay quote in the article about his knowing many chefs who, after writing their first books by themselves, say they're never going to do that again: "It's just not worth it." And this is said by professional cooks—when everybody knows restaurant work is hard work, standing for long days in hot, sweaty, short-tempered, fast-paced kitchens during hours that few others are working.

Even funnier, in researching for this post, I found a whole string of kickback surrounding the NYT's cookbook-ghostwriter article, with Gwyneth Paltrow, for example, tweeting ungrammatically in self-defense:

Love @nytimes dining section [sic] but this weeks [sic] facts need checking. No ghost writer [sic] on my cookbook, [sic] I wrote every word myself.

Poor Gwyneth. She can act and she can cook, but she doesn't know where the punctuation goes. But that's okay because that's where the ghostwriter comes in: to put the words and punctuation together to make a nice readerly meal. See? Professional cooking and professional writing require different skill sets.

Again and again as a writing instructor I bump up against the societal belief that because writing is a skill everyone literate can do, more or less—place in order subject, verb, and object to convey meaning—it isn't worth much. And yet, implied by Bobby Flay and the writer-chefs mentioned above, good writing is hard work, and good (or ghost) writers make it look easy. The issue is whether as a society we value the more or the less.

It seems we want both the cake and the eating of the cake. Those who rarely read much outside their Facebook pages still prefer good writing over bad, as long as the sentences aren't too long or the words too big ('cause then they might get confused and start feeling not-so-smart, and we wouldn't want that). Practiced, regular readers enjoy how solidly structured sentences slide down smoothly, like fine port, like Camembert and ripe figs, like dark-chocolate mousse and after-dinner espresso. But we don't want to pay for it—because everybody can do it, just as everybody can dribble a basketball, more or less.

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