THE GHOSTWRITER’S LAMENT

This morning I read the article “Trump’s Boswell Speaks” by Jane Mayer in the July 25, 2016 issue of The New Yorker. I’m not in the slightest fraction a Donald Trump supporter, but something about the story of Trump’s The Art of the Deal co-author . . . or is it ghostwriter, or is it PR copywriter . . . Tony Schwartz coming forward to throw Trump under the bus left me somehow unsettled.

I’ve done some ghostwriting myself and I’m happy to report that none of the books I’ve worked on in that capacity could ever be seen as assisting a dangerously unstable demagogue in his quest for power. I’m equally happy to report that when I have functioned as a proper ghostwriter, which is to say, an uncredited writer of someone else’s ideas, I have never “outed” anyone, much less fired off public attacks.

This all gives me a really icky feeling. Since Donald Trump is so overwhelmingly horrible I’d never want to be seen as in any way supporting him, or even feeling the least but sorry for him, I need to think about this whole ghostwriting thing from the perspective of professional ethics.

A bit of background from that New Yorker article:

Schwartz had ghostwritten Trump’s 1987 breakthrough memoir, earning a joint byline on the cover, half of the book’s five-hundred-thousand-dollar advance, and half of the royalties. The book was a phenomenal success, spending forty-eight weeks on the Times best-seller list, thirteen of them at No. 1. More than a million copies have been bought, generating several million dollars in royalties. The book expanded Trump’s renown far beyond New York City, making him an emblem of the successful tycoon. Edward Kosner, the former editor and publisher of New York, where Schwartz worked as a writer at the time, says, “Tony created Trump. He’s Dr. Frankenstein.”

For what it’s worth I’ve never been offered anything like that money, but it’s fair that we keep that payday in mind as we proceed.

The first question we have to answer in terms of ghostwriting in general: Why hire a ghostwriter at all, or why do ghostwriters even exist, is, I think, clearly answered in the freelancewriting.com post “Why Ghost Writing is Ethical”:

Not every company CEO got to where he or she is because of writing skills. Often that position was earned through people skill, business sense and financial skills. When someone like this turns to a ghostwriter, they should not be labeled unethical.

If you were to tell me that Donald Trump had neither the ability nor the time to write a book, I’m perfectly willing to believe you, and in 1987 I might even have agreed that he had something of value to say about business negotiations, the commercial real estate business, and so on.

Okay, so a publisher hired Tony Schwartz to do the writing, and Donald Trump to do the thinking.

Fair enough.

Richard L. Johannesen’s “Ethical Guidelines for Ghostwriting” really brings into suspicion the ethics behind the person who hires the ghostwriter, much more than the ethical responsibilities of the ghostwriter himself:

If we assume, as most do, that presidential speeches are ghostwritten, then the only unethical act would be for the President to claim to author his own speeches.

Did Donald Trump do that? Claim to author this book?

From The New Yorker:

In my phone interview with Trump, he initially said of Schwartz, “Tony was very good. He was the co-author.” But he dismissed Schwartz’s account of the writing process. “He didn’t write the book,” Trump told me. “I wrote the book. I wrote the book. It was my book. And it was a No. 1 best-seller, and one of the best-selling business books of all time. Some say it was the best-selling business book ever.” (It is not.) Howard Kaminsky, the former Random House head, laughed and said, “Trump didn’t write a postcard for us!”

This is tough, since we’re dealing with someone as nuts as Donald Trump. He said here that Tony Schwartz was the co-author but then said he wrote the book, not Schwartz. In case you needed another example of Donald Trump’s situational ethics.

Johannesen continued:

Obviously, the more input a communicator has in his or her own writing, the more ethical will be the resultant image. We really don’t expect the President to write his own speeches, but we do expect that the sentiments expressed in them will be his own.

And back to the freelancewriting.com post “Why Ghost Writing is Ethical”:

The real question of ethics lies in whether the message being transmitted by the ghostwriter is authentic. Does it accurately reflect the message the non-writer wants to transmit through the ghostwriter? Then the basic requirement to remaining ethical has not been violated.

This says it was perfectly ethical for Schwartz to write The Art of the Deal, and the final product is without ethical question in that Trump approved the text, clearly gleefully signed on to the content, tirelessly promoted the book as his own—the message within, at least, even if the precise language was Schwartz’s and even, honestly, if some of the ideas were Schwartz’s. As long as Trump, like anyone who employs a speechwriter or publicist—in the language of political TV commercials—“approves this message” then neither Trump nor Schwartz has done anything particularly wrong.

Johannesen once again:

Does the communicator accept responsibility for the message he or she presents? When former president Ronald Reagan’s press secretary, Larry Speakes, disclosed in his book that many of the quotes attributed to the president were, in fact, either made up or “borrowed” from someone else, he caused quite an ethical uproar. Part of the problem with the Larry Speakes revelation was that the President denied the accusations. In other words, he claimed he never approved Speakes’ work. Most communicators simply assume that whatever they say or whatever they sign their names to is theirs, whether written by someone else or not. This is obviously the most ethical position to take.

Read at your own risk.

Read at your own risk.

Then from the New Yorker article:

It took Schwartz a little more than a year to write “The Art of the Deal.” In the spring of 1987, he sent the manuscript to Trump, who returned it to him shortly afterward. There were a few red marks made with a fat-tipped Magic Marker, most of which deleted criticisms that Trump had made of powerful individuals he no longer wanted to offend, such as Lee Iacocca. Otherwise, Schwartz says, Trump changed almost nothing.

“Ghostwriter” Tony Schwartz is clearly identified on the cover of the book, and as an author on the book’s Amazon landing page. To my mind, that would make him a co-author, a collaborator, and not a ghostwriter. But where that term “ghostwriter” seems to be applicable to Schwartz is in the revelation that he actually wrote all of the book, with little if any input from Trump himself.

Schwartz went to his room, called his literary agent, Kathy Robbins, and told her that he couldn’t do the book. (Robbins confirms this.) As Schwartz headed back to New York, though, he came up with another plan. He would propose eavesdropping on Trump’s life by following him around on the job and, more important, by listening in on his office phone calls. That way, extracting extended reflections from Trump would not be required. When Schwartz presented the idea to Trump, he loved it.

That last from the New Yorker article. So the fundamental “lie” at the heart of the book was actually Schwartz’s idea, approved by his lazy, disinterested subject.

Should you have the unfortunate feeling that any memoir or autobiography is the pure, complete, and unadulterated truth, please allow me to disabuse you of that notion now and forevermore. Of course, there are more honest books than this one, books much more revealing or heartfelt, but the people who bought this book bought it for advice on how to manipulate the business world for their own gain, and they got that. And it was signed by both authors, both of whom got paid.

Trying to walk that back almost thirty years later is more ethically suspect, frankly, than having written it in the first place. Tony Schwartz agreed to write the book, Tony Schwartz got paid, and when Trump revealed himself a fraud Tony Schwartz passed through his moment of doubt and pain and constructed a way to keep working. And then, again from the New Yorker article:

. . . Trump approached Schwartz about writing a sequel, for which Trump had been offered a seven-figure advance. This time, however, he offered Schwartz only a third of the profits. He pointed out that, because the advance was much bigger, the payout would be, too. But Schwartz said no. Feeling deeply alienated, he instead wrote a book called “What Really Matters,” about the search for meaning in life. After working with Trump, Schwartz writes, he felt a “gnawing emptiness” and became a “seeker,” longing to “be connected to something timeless and essential, more real.

If, since 1987, Tony Schwartz has rededicated himself to better people and better causes, and used his ill-gotten gains to do good works, I applaud that, but if there’s a Ghostwriter’s Code I think he broke it, and that sucks.

Even if it further embarrasses a truly dangerous man.

 

—Philip Athans

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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2 Responses to THE GHOSTWRITER’S LAMENT

  1. Jennifer C says:

    Is Schwartz truly a ghostwriter? I have always viewed ghostwriters as anonymous talents, working behind the scenes to shape another person’s ideas and concepts into legible content. If you are listed as author or co-author, then you added more to the materials than just organizing thoughts onto paper. That leads to a whole other debate on credits and breech of contract.
    But other than the ethics debate of ghostwriters outing their subjects, would Schwartz’s role in this even be a topic for discussion if Trump wasn’t running for office?

    • Philip Athans says:

      It’s clear that Schwartz only made these statements because of Trump’s presidential campaign. He seems to have been okay staying quiet while his “Frankenstein’s monster” was just another reality TV star.

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