The Help Desk: I ain't afraid of no ghost writers

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to

Dear Cienna,

I know this is an advice column, not a gossip column, so I’ll keep this very vague. I’ve recently heard some (very credentialed) rumors that a prominent writer — you’d know their name — no longer writes their own work anymore. Instead, they secretly employ a ghost writer.

What’s surprising to me is how shocked and betrayed I felt when I found out, though in retrospect it makes total sense: their writing has gotten more and more formulaic over the years.

Do I have any ethical responsibility to other readers of this person’s work? Many of them, after all, would likely share the same feelings of disappointment and betrayal that I felt. Should I alert the writer somehow that I’ve heard this gossip? Or should I just wait for the rumor mills to eventually do their work? If I’ve heard it, the news is probably everywhere already.


Dear Anonymous,

Would it shock and disappoint you to know that I occasionally cede control of this very column to a literate prepper named White Kevin so I can spend more time concentrating on my latest passion: becoming a Scott Pruitt impersonator?

I've had to beef up my sense of unearned entitlement and get some scalp work done – and convert my home from electricity to energy-efficient oil lamps and trash fires – but he and I both are naturally gifted with weak goblin chins and beady eyes that sink into our faces like twin pissholes in the sand, and the market for Scott Pruitt impersonators is pretty niche, so I feel like I have a real shot at fame. At the very least, I'll be popular at auto conventions, polar bear funerals, and whatever the opposite of Earth Day is.

I hope my confession won't alter your enjoyment of this column, which has always strived to offer sound advice from an untrustworthy source. Similarly, in this case I think you should take a deep breath and as Scott Pruitt would say, "don't let your opinions get derailed by the facts."

Regardless of who's actually behind the pen (or keyboard), you enjoyed this author's work, correct? There is nothing stopping you from continuing to enjoy it. Purists like yourself could argue that signing your name to someone else's work is unethical, but where do you draw that line? Put another way, where would Raymond Carver be without a brutally sparse editor?

And as much as I hate using the "F" word, the fact is the author is not plagiarizing – if they hire a ghostwriter, that individual is an employee who is being compensated for their work.

To employ another Pruittism, "it shouldn't matter how the oil is fracked, it's how you use it to cook the earth that counts."