Writing as Collaboration

“To win book of the year after being a kid who had issues with reading and writing means maybe I’m not so bad at it,” Anh Do told ABC radio Tuesday. It was a quote reprinted in a report in The Age yesterday claiming that Do, author of the bestselling memoir The Happiest Refugee, wrote the book with the help of ghostwriter Michael Visontay. The memoir won three awards at the Australian Book Industry Awards earlier this week, including book of the year. Marie McCaskill, CEO of the Australian Publishers Association, is cited in the report as saying that ghostwritten books are eligible to win the awards.

In the report, Do explained the process of writing the memoir. Visontay conducted a series of interviews, the transcripts of which became the basis of the final manuscript, which was written by Do. Visontay wasn’t given an author credit but is listed in the book’s acknowledgments and is receiving a percentage of the royalties. The Age ran an editorial in the same issue citing Do’s story, among others, as a credit to the contribution refugees can make to society.

It isn’t often that an award-winning book is credited to more than one writer. There’s something about writing, perhaps convention or reader expectation, that demands a single creative source - even when it’s demonstrably not the case. In the case of autobiography, the lines between writer and subject have long been blurred. But it occurs in fiction too - in general fiction and in literary fiction (to borrow the distinction the Australian Booksellers Association makes in its award categories). Perhaps the most famous example is that of Lolita author Vladimir Nabokov and his wife Vera. In her biography, Vera, Stacy Schiff argued that there is strong evidence to conclude that Vera deserves some co-authoring credit for the work of her husband. Needless to say, she didn’t get it, but Vladimir did dedicate every book he published to her, and his preoccupation with duality, Schiff argues, may be attributable to Vera’s constant guiding presence.

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