Hillary Rodham Clinton has written a new book. Except maybe she hasn’t. It all depends on what the definition of “written” is.
The former first lady, US senator and secretary of state had some help on her memoir, Hard Choices. Clinton employed a phalanx of aides and associates in producing the just-released volume. But don’t expect to hear much about Clinton’s “book team”, as she calls those who helped her write the book, which carries her name alone on its cover.
Clinton’s acknowledgment of her three-man team – Dan Schwerin, a former senate and state department aide to Clinton; Ethan Gelber, another state department aide; and Ted Widmer, a Clinton adviser and Brown University historian – appears in just a few sentences on Page 597 of the 635-page book. Their exact contributions, however, aren’t spelled out. Such is the lot of the ghostwriter.
Actually, many ghostwriters get even less credit. The ghost behind Clinton’s 1996 bestseller, It Takes a Village, wasn’t credited at all. That prompted complaints from Barbara Feinman Todd, a Georgetown University lecturer and writer who reportedly laboured for seven months on the book (she declined to comment).
Given how frequently politicians use ghostwriters to churn out hagiographic campaign books, Feinman Todd’s complaint implicitly raised a question: is it ethical to pass off the work of someone else as your own?
Ghostwriters have been channelling the thoughts of politicians, business executives, celebrities and just plain folk with little or no credit since the days of Cyrano de Bergerac, the 17th-century dramatist who, as a fictionalised character in Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play, anonymously wrote poetry to help another woo his beloved Roxane. The practice has been controversial.
In 1957, then-senator John F Kennedy won the Pulitzer prize for the best-selling Profiles in Courage, a collection of stories about intrepid Americans throughout history. But questions about Kennedy’s authorship lingered for decades. In 2008, Ted Sorensen, Kennedy’s longtime aide and speechwriter, set the record straight in his autobiography, Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History. Sorensen wrote that he “did a first draft of most chapters” of Profiles and “helped choose the words of many of its sentences”.
While its title suggests otherwise, The Autobiography of Malcolm X was a collaboration between the civil rights activist and journalist Alex Haley, who later wrote Roots. Although the story was Malcolm’s, Haley was the researcher, organiser and author of the classic book. Under contractual agreement, however, Haley received an “as told to” cover credit on most, but not all, editions.
Using ghosts to produce self-serving political books is so common that the sitcom Veep” satirised it. The programme’s lead character, the vice president (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), can barely recognise anything mentioned in her book, which was written by a campaign aide and which she hasn’t read.
Since most ghostwriters sign non-disclosure agreements that prohibit them from revealing the extent of their involvement or their remuneration, it’s hard to know whether the putative author had assistance or even did any work. Given such secrecy, the author credits on many books are rarely a guide to who did the actual work. That is, you can’t judge who wrote a book by its cover.
Former US Treasury secretary Tim Geithner, for example, is listed as the author of Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crises, a recent bestseller. But this understates the role of Time magazine journalist Michael Grunwald, who spent months whipping Geithner’s narrative into readable form. Geithner calls Grunwald his “collaborator” in his acknowledgments, but Grunwald’s name doesn’t appear on the cover or the title page (Grunwald, a former Washington Post reporter, declined to comment).
Journalist and TV writer Nell Scovell gets somewhat higher-profile treatment from Sheryl Sandberg on Lean In, the best-selling manifesto about women in the workplace. In her acknowledgments, Sandberg calls Scovell her “writing partner”. And Scovell’s name appears on the title page of Lean In alongside Sandberg’s (“Sheryl Sandberg with Nell Scovell”). While Scovell is often described in profiles as the co-author of the book, her name is absent from its cover. Scovell doesn’t mind. “Lean In was Sheryl’s story and something she’d been writing in her head for 20 years,” she says. “I was thrilled to help her.”
For her 2010 memoir, Spoken From the Heart, former first lady Laura Bush pumped up her prose with the help of writer Lyric Winik, who, Bush wrote, “helped me put my story into words” but otherwise remained behind the scenes.
For the record, Clinton’s camp won’t discuss her use of ghostwriters. Initially, her spokesman, Nick Merrill, deferred the question to her publisher, Simon & Schuster, whose representative also punted. “I think all your questions will be answered when the book is out,” said Cary Goldstein, executive director of publicity for the imprint.
Pressed, Merrill said via email, “If I told you, you wouldn’t be as motivated to buy the book!”
Pressed again, he replied, “We just want the book to do the talking, that’s all.”
In fact, all three of Clinton’s memoirs have been written with the help of others, if not by others. Her second book, Living History, was ghosted by Maryanne Vollers, who has also collaborated on books with the actresses Sissy Spacek and Ashley Judd.
Citing confidentiality agreements, Vollers declined to offer specifics about her clients. But she said, “What I can tell you about Hillary is that she was a delight to work with, and we’ve kept in touch over the years. Although I have absolutely no knowledge of her intentions, I hope she runs again. I’d vote for her in a heartbeat.”
Professional ghostwriters say their clients turn to them for a key reason: writing a book is time-consuming and difficult.
“Books are a huge amount of work,” says Mark Sullivan, the owner-director of Manhattan Literary, a ghostwriting firm. “It takes a lot of experience. Some very capable people want books written but don’t have the time or the expertise to do it.”
Sullivan charges his clients – businesspeople promoting investment strategies and doctors with thoughts about the healthcare system, among others – fees starting at $15,000 per book. But the price can rise quickly depending on how long and complex a project is, he says.
Top ghostwriters, those contracted by publishing houses to produce, say, a celebrity bestseller, can earn as much as $500,000 for their work, says Kevin Anderson, who runs a self-named ghostwriting firm in New York. “I wish I was in that league,” says Anderson, who works with professional athletes, business executives and “people with incredible life stories but weak writing skills”.
While a student using a term-paper mill to ghostwrite his final exam would surely get a failing grade if exposed, book ghostwriters don’t see their work in the same way. Both Anderson and Sullivan see no ethical issue in permitting a client to take credit for work produced anonymously by someone else.
“A client who hires a ghostwriter is still the author of their book,” Anderson says. “With the exception of some research-based projects, the content, ideas and concepts for ghostwritten books come directly from the client … A ghostwriter is an interpreter and a translator, not an author, which is why our clients deserve full credit for authoring their books.”
Sullivan adds: “I think of this as a business. It’s not blood diamonds out of Sierra Leone.”
This article appeared in Guardian Weekly, which incorporates material from the Washington Post
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