Ghostwriters: Authorship, Ethics, and Spectral Labour in the Digital Age
Ghostwriting would seem to be an unfulfilling career. Relinquishing rights to one’s creative work; knowing others might receive accolades for accomplishments they did not in fact achieve; selling one’s skillset on the informal market after being forced out of a salaried job and into the gig economy – this is the stuff of neoliberal nightmares. My ethnography of ghostwriters – focused, for the moment, in the United States – finds former small-town newspaper reporters, abortive academics, chronically ill creatives, and would-be retirees tweeting as business people, blogging as moms, penning memoirs for self-declared influencers, scripting Christian testimony, and yes, drafting student term papers. Many are bound by non-disclosure agreements that prevent them from ever revealing they, and not the named author, wrote a text. Some ghosts are resentful, but many find ghostwriting spiritual in more ways than one.
Why would people be willing to sell authorship – or even give it away for free? And how could they even find doing so satisfying, even righteous? My current project on ghostwriters aims to be both a historically-anchored study of what we now think of as outsourcing as well as an anticipatory analysis of labour and ethics in the digital age. I am particularly interested in how ghostwriters’ willingness to forego credit might force us to rethink what we presume both authorship and alienation look like, whether in the ‘new’ economy or the old one. What factors go into determining whether a text is bound property or free-floating copy that can be picked up and reassembled at will? When and where is single authorship insisted upon, and what conceptions of the self underpin such insistence? Might ghostwriting, which my ethnography suggests is overwhelmingly performed by women, be considered a form of care work? How is it that business leaders can hype on collaboration in the workplace but then be afraid to share credit for ghostwritten treatise? What does all this tell us about understandings of creativity, where its genesis is presumed to be located, and how it might be commodified?
My approach is informed by my disciplinary training in linguistic anthropology, long-standing interest in anthropological approaches to property, and, as part of the Max Planck – Cambridge (“Max-Cam”) group, conversations about ethics, economy, and social change.
Data collection for this project is ongoing. I am always interested in meeting more people who have worked as a ghostwriter. If you have written as someone else for pay, please do get in touch.