Is a Book Still an Autobiography if Written by a Ghostwriter?

18 Jun 2020

IS A BOOK STILL AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY IF WRITTEN BY A GHOSTWRITER?

Why do so many celebrities, politicians, and executives turn to ghostwriters to help them write their autobiographies and memoirs?

It’s simple: writing a book is hard, time-consuming work.

Plus, just because someone holds a position of authority or fame doesn’t mean they are skilled at writing. It makes sense to enlist the help of an expert to get a book written, especially within a tight timeframe.

Some estimates place the percentage of autobiographies written with a ghostwriter as high as 100 percent, particularly if the subject is a person of influence.  

But if a ghostwriter writes it, how can it still be an autobiography?

Start With Some Definitions

The terms “autobiography” and “memoir” are often used interchangeably. This makes sense because there is a fair amount of overlap between the two genres. For both types, the subject of the book is also the author.

So what’s the difference between the two?

Autobiography

The Institute for Writers describes autobiographies as more focused on giving a factual account of a person’s life, from the time of their birth until the present day. They tend to be organized in a chronological fashion, and provide a more objective depiction of the events from a person’s life.

Memoir

Memoirs, on the other hand, target a particular aspect of someone’s life. This could be a significant life event, or it could focus on a theme that was important throughout the person’s life.  

Memoirs are less concerned with providing every detail of the author’s life. The focus is more on emotions and it is more introspective. A memoir invites readers into the author’s head. This approach gives memoirs a more intimate feel than an autobiography.

Biography

Biographies, are clearly distinct from autobiographies and memoirs. They are accounts of a person’s life written by a third party other than the subject.

There are similarities in that a biography includes factual information about a person’s life. They are often written in chronological order, and tend to be more descriptive, rather than introspective and emotional, much like many autobiographies.

There is more distance between the reader and subject with a biography because the author cannot speculate about what emotions and thoughts the subject experienced. These things can be illustrated through actual quotes spoken or written by the subject, but the author cannot fully present the subject’s internal life.

Why Isn’t a Ghostwritten Autobiography or Memoir Actually a Biography?

An author is defined as either “the writer of a literary work (such as a book)” or “one that originates or creates something.”

Under the second definition, a ghostwriter is simply taking what the author has originally conceptualized and helps put it into form.

It’s this second definition that applies here. The person who hires the ghostwriter is the author because it is their ideas and concepts that form the basis for the book. You could say the ghostwriter acts as an interpreter for their client, who remains the actual author.

Professors have assistants to carry out their research ideas and business executives rely on their staff to take care of the details of implementing their projects, but still receive credit as the author or originator of the final product.

In this same vein, ghostwriters write under the direction of the subject, carrying out their vision for the story of their life. The ghostwriter essentially acts as the author’s scribe.

Acceptance by the Audience

There is a kind of tacit understanding that any memoir or autobiography written by a celebrity or other famous public figure was likely done with help. Whether that help remains completely unnamed, shares credit as a co-author, or something in-between is largely up to the publisher and subject/author.

How much the public cares about the involvement of a ghostwriter can depend somewhat on the profession of the author. Political and business leaders need to maintain a higher level of credibility than, for example, a social media star of relatively short-lived fame.

In one extreme example, ghostwriter Zara Lisbon was assigned to write the memoir of a teenaged Instagram star. Lisbon never actually got to meet her subject, and had to make up scenes and characters from what she could gather from the star’s Instagram life.

Lisbon asserts this wasn’t a deceitful practice, because the book was based on the subject’s Instagram persona, which was not necessarily one based on her actual life. “It was a fictional memoir of the girl her fans knew her to be,” Lisbon explained. “Her caricature on Instagram is who I wrote about.”

The Ethical Question of Ghostwriting Autobiographies

Because an autobiography is by its definition an account written by the subject about their own life, some feel this can be misleading to readers.

In the case of Zara Lisbon’s social media star, the facts may have been stretched a bit too far. But for most legitimate subjects, this is not the practice.

John Doppler of the Alliance of Independent Authors believes the ghostwriter has a responsibility to ensure the writing accurately reflects the thoughts and feelings of the book’s subject. “A work manufactured almost entirely by the ghostwriter, which imparts wit and insight that doesn’t belong to the client, is a fraud committed against the reader,” he writes.

The ghostwriter’s job is to gather the facts of the author’s life and present them in an engaging way while sticking to the truth. One could even argue ghostwriters make for a more truthful account because they take the time to fact check their subject’s stories.

Ghostwriter Jonathan Campbell (a pseudonym) wrote in the Independent how he was unable to verify many of the stories told to him by an actress whose autobiography he was helping to write. “Every anecdote I checked out just didn’t stand up to scrutiny. Either she was in a different country at the time, they weren’t famous then – or on one occasion the person she was supposed to have met hadn’t yet been born.”

Many authors handle the question of ethics by being more transparent about how the book was written. Political and business leaders such as former first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state Hillary Clinton, Former Treasury secretary Timothy F. Geithner, and former first lady Laura Bush are all examples of people who give credit in their acknowledgements to their ghostwriters. Some authors will even give their ghostwriter credit as a co-author, such as “Lee Ioacca with William Novak” and “Malcolm X. with Alex Haley.”

How to Make Your Ghostwritten Autobiography Authentic

The Author and Ghostwriter Need to Work Closely Together

The process of creating an autobiography or memoir with a ghostwriter requires a high level of collaboration between the author and writer. Trust is an important factor: the author is entrusting the story of their life to another person. They will need to feel comfortable sharing personal details about their life with the ghostwriter.

This means the author will need to spend a significant amount of time sharing their story with the ghostwriter. Ideally this should involve conversations in person or over the phone, and not just written correspondence.

To achieve a book that is an authentic account of the author’s life, the more comfortable the author is with sharing personal details and their thoughts and emotions with their ghostwriter, the more real the final manuscript can be.

The Book Should Capture the Author’s “Voice”

Every individual has their own unique voice. For some, their voice is very distinct and recognizable. The ghostwriter needs to capture their style of speaking, the way they tell stories, and convey their personality.

When reading the autobiography or memoir, the reader needs to hear the author’s voice in their head. The task of the ghostwriter is to study the author’s voice so they can replicate it when writing their story.

Authors Should Review the Material

Ronald Reagan famously joked about his presidential memoir, An American Life: “I hear it’s a terrific book. One of these days I’m going to read it myself.”

Whether or not Reagan actually read his book, for an autobiography to be an authentic representation of the author and their life, they should certainly read the book before it is published.

More importantly, the author should review drafts of the manuscript during the writing process. This is the best way to ensure the ghostwriter is capturing the author’s voice and sharing their life story the way they want it to be told.

Thinking About Writing Your Autobiography or Memoir?

If you are interested in trying your hand at writing your own memoir or autobiography, you can start by exploring the process in general. This will help you decide if you want to try it on your own or with the help of a ghostwriter.

If you decide you would like to enlist the help of a ghostwriter, check out our tips here on how to find one that is the best fit for you.

Author
Carol Kim 

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