Ghostwriting: Can't We Just Be Honest?

Slapping Hilary Duff's name on the cover, having her show up for signings and readings, going on morning talk shows and interviewing with David Letterman does not make her an author.
09/09/2010 06:52 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

I brought Hilary Duff's book Elixer with me to the beach this weekend. I had planned to give it a quick glance and read the first few chapters, enough time to see if I wanted to continue with it. What I found is that I spent a good portion of the day Saturday and Sunday reading and even woke up Monday morning to take my coffee outside and get in a few more chapters. One of my friends asked what I was doing up so early and I held out the book. "You've been reading that all weekend," he said, "I had no idea Hilary Duff was a writer, let alone a good one."

Hmm.

I've tried in the past to blog about ghostwriting and have failed. I have a lot of opinions on the whole issue and I'm constantly censoring myself to make sure I don't just sound like a bitter writer. It's a tough debate. On the one hand I understand that these books are extensions of personal celebrity brands. They have DVD's and television shows, magazine articles and action figures... why not put out books, too? But as my friend stood over me, peering at the cover, I couldn't bring myself to tell him Hilary Duff was a good writer. Because, you see, I don't believe she wrote the book.

Let me get something straight: I have no problem with ghostwriting as a thing unto itself. What bothers me is the way it's shrouded in secrecy, ignored to the point of straight-up lying. Why not be honest? What is the problem with saying, "Hey, I'm a movie star. I'm super busy. And while I'm totally into the idea of putting out a book, I'm not going to sit at my computer six hours a day for a year and a half, so I need a little help here." I'd respect that, because just slapping Hilary Duff's name on the cover, having her show up for signings and readings, going on morning talk shows and interviewing with David Letterman does not make her an author. It also (and this is more to my point) does not make her a writer.

Writing is hard. It takes commitment and determination and a good part talent. It's not an afterthought, and addendum, it's a career. So while I'm happy to tell my friend "this book is really good, and it's attached to Hilary Duff," what I can't tell him is: "Hilary Duff is a great writer."

To me, it's a bit like my calling up Julia Roberts and informing her I'm going to be starring in her next movie. "But you don't act," she might stutter (if Julia Roberts stuttered. Also, if Julia Roberts answered my phone calls). "Sure," I'd say, "but it's sort of a dream of mine to star in a movie. And I think it would be really good for my personal brand." "Right, but you don't act," she'd say, a little more clearly this time. "No worries," I'd say, "I'm a writer, people know me."

Um, wrong. It's more like: I'm a writer, people don't know me.

But the point stands: I don't act. I have no experience in it. I don't know how to get into character, the proper way to memorize lines. I have no idea about timing or rehearsal schedules or the protocol onset. It's not my profession.

I've often heard writers say that we get the short end of the stick glamour-wise. Most people don't know what we look like (which is good, considering the majority of our workday is spent in sweatpants). We don't have fancy gallery openings and we don't walk red carpets. Mostly we sit drinking copious amounts of coffee and struggle over the perfect words to use in the perfect order to reveal a truth that will make someone feel something. It's a very tricky thing to do but there are some of us who are called to do it and if we're lucky enough to heed that call, it's an incredibly rewarding life.

Tyra Banks wants to sell a trilogy? Wonderful. Lauren Conrad wants to have a New York Times bestseller? More power to her. But putting out books, coming up with a book concept, even editing books is not the same thing as writing them. Everyone has a story to tell and in a perfect world everyone would get the opportunity to tell it. Some of us have the stories, some of us have the words, and some of us have both. Let's honor the portions we bring to the table and give credit where credit is due.

Of course there are those who will argue that I have this all wrong. And who knows, maybe they're right. Maybe Ms. Duff has had dreams of becoming an author since she was six years old. Maybe every free moment she has is spent scribbling in notebooks and downloading new versions of word. Maybe the whole point of her entire career -- the television show, the movies, the stunt on Gossip Girl -- was so that eventually, someday, she would get to parlay it into writing a book.

I mean, that's certainly the point of mine.