What Is a Ghostwriter?

[Los Angeles Times]

In today’s Los Angeles Times, I’ve got an op-ed that is, among other things, a quasi-defense of political ghostwriting. I start with an anecdote about Eleanor Roosevelt and her first lady memoir This I Remember (1949), and one point I want to make is that these issues have been with us for a while. After all, Bess Truman, Eleanor’s successor, told a reporter in 1952 that “everyone else connected with Washington has written a book. I am certainly not going to compound the felony!”

A few weeks back, I wrote a separate essay for The American Prospect arguing that most readers, historically, haven’t cared about ghostwriting. Even today, when a political book’s behind-the-scenes details get served up as news, ghostwriters matter only as an extension of their clients. (Sarah Palin’s ghostwriter was widely criticized, but who can name Joe Biden’s?) Still, there are a few people—usually professional writers—who get worked up about ghostwriting. The Times op-ed is aimed at them; I think it also works nicely as a counterpoint to my Prospect essay.

One other thing: in addition to her 20-plus books, Eleanor Roosevelt also wrote for magazines and newspapers. I highly recommend her “My Day” column, and, thanks to The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, you can read them all online. Just on the subject of This I Remember, you’ll find columns on Humphrey Bogart asking for an autographed copy and on Eleanor’s writing process (and note there her casual, authorial repetition of “I”). But one column in particular resonates with both the op-ed and my recent New York Times essay on the history of the first lady memoir. On November 11, 1949, Eleanor writes:

I have just been told that though the manuscript of my book as it appeared in McCall’s did not make a mistake, there is one in the book which I hope can be corrected in future editions. In some way a slip was made in referring to Mrs. Mary McLeod Bethune as “the late” Mrs. Bethune. Since she is now trying to raise large sums for her college and is most active, I am sure I could not have overlooked such a mistake. But one never can tell what one’s eyes will do when one had read a manuscript many, many times. I only wish here to apologize to her and assure her that it will be changed in the future editions.


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