Ghosting, a memoir by Andrew O’Hagan in the London Review of Books: a response from a ghost of another kind
09/08/2015 § Leave a comment
This blog was written as a letter to the editor of the LRB on 29 March 2014, but not published.
I read Andrew O’Hagan’s memoir “Ghosting” in the London Review of Books, 6 March 2014, about his experience of ghostwriting the unauthorised autobiography of Julian Assange, with great discomfort. His reasons for writing it appeared only very near the end, by which time I had already decided this was a professional betrayal of the worst sort, which should never have been published.
Near the end of the piece, O’Hagan’s reasons for writing it finally became clear. He said: “He [Assange] would only ever see me as a servant, and in that moment the account I’m writing here became a reality.” By that point, I felt more than a modicum of sympathy with him personally, that he needed to get it off his chest. But I still cannot accept that the piece should have been published. By his own admission, O’Hagan makes Assange into a “character” in this piece, turning him into a fiction, when he is not a fiction, while creating no value. The bottom line is, it will surely do Julian Assange’s work a good deal of harm, intended or not, as Assange’s work is belittled by making him look bad personally.
I am an editor and a writer. The main thing I learned from O’Hagan’s piece, was that it must be even harder to be a ghostwriter than it is to be an editor. Everyone knows that most excellent writing has been edited by someone other than the writer(s), even if the editor is given no more than a line of credit in an acknowledgement. Ghostwriters, in contrast, are employed to be invisible. Indeed, O’Hagan made his own invisibility a condition of accepting the contract. Now, he has decided to violate his own anonymity, because what he went through as a ghostwriter was difficult and he wanted revenge. Worse, O’Hagan blamed Julian Assange for his own need to have his experience seen and heard on the grounds that he is a writer.
Editors accept that they do not control the content of someone else’s writing, even though they can have a big influence. The same should surely hold true for ghostwriters also. In my experience, editors are servants ‒ by definition. Andrew O’Hagan does not seem to have liked or accepted this condition. That has nothing whatsoever to do with the personality of Julian Assange, who believed the book was written for him and was intended to be seen to be by him and about him. What Assange learned to his great upset was that this book was never for him, nor by him, and that by accepting money for it, it belonged to his publishers. That’s a hard lesson when you are unhappy about the content, and when the book is not only about you but was supposed to be by you.
What is appalling is that Assange’s inability to edit the text was seen by everyone else ‒ and specifically a cartload of editors and a writer, who should have known better ‒ to be entirely his failing. What is ignored is that he has been imprisoned for a number of years already, even if it was in a country mansion and is now in an embassy. Surely no one can ignore the desperation and effect on behaviour that this engenders, after Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton.
If Assange betrayed O’Hagan and the book’s publishers, they in turn also betrayed Assange. If O’Hagan actually believed that Assange would be able to realise, after many many months of talking with him with a tape recorder on, never seeing anything on paper, what this book was or was not likely to contain, then O’Hagan’s judgement in this instance, and the judgement of the publishers, was deeply flawed.
Most people who are not wordsmiths have no idea how things get written. Very few people who write things know how to edit them on their own or how they get edited. If they did, the world wouldn’t need editors, let alone ghostwriters.