[Paleopsych] NYTBR: Ghosts in the Machine

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Sunday Book Review > Essay: Ghosts in the Machine
March 20, 2005


    Ever since I started reading Charles de Gaulle's memoirs as a young
    man, I have been fascinated by ghostwritten books. Though it was never
    definitely proved that the celebrated novelist Andre Malraux had
    collaborated on these works with the equally great French statesman, I
    was more than willing to believe rumors spread by his detractors, both
    young and old, because the writing was electrifyingly entertaining,
    and de Gaulle did not seem like an electrifyingly entertaining kind of
    guy. By farming out his life's story to a titan of French literature,
    de Gaulle seemed to be saying, ''I've got the dinero; go fetch the

    The de Gaulle-Malraux literary liaison, if it ever existed, is an
    illustration of ghostwriting at its very best. One dashing figure, who
    has the brains but not the leisure to write a book, secures the
    services of a genius with time on his hands. The nominal author
    provides the relevant facts, figures and anecdotes about those gay old
    times at L'Ecole Normale Superieure; the ghostwriter does the heavy
    lifting. But nobody ever officially admits that a ghostwriter is
    involved because that gets up the public's nose. This was also the
    template for the manufacture of John F. Kennedy's ''Profiles in
    Courage,'' which won the callow young senator an image-enhancing
    Pulitzer Prize for a book that he almost certainly did not write, at
    least by himself. The underlying philosophy here was clear: Get the
    book written; let the sticklers worry about who wrote it.

    But in recent times a cloud has begun to hang over the deliciously
    vaporous world of ghostwriting. This is because greater transparency
    about the collaborative process has inadvertently led to greater
    confusion. Things started to take a bad turn when the basketball
    legend Charles Barkley complained that he had been misquoted in his
    own autobiography. This gave rise to a niggling suspicion in some
    quarters that ghostwriters were churning out books with only minimal
    input from their nominal authors. Shocking! Then, two years ago,
    Hillary Rodham Clinton put her name on a vast, unprecedentedly
    uninteresting [1]autobiography, waiting until page 529 before
    disclosing that her speechwriter was responsible for many of the words
    in the book, which, coincidentally, read like the world's longest
    speech. Newt Gingrich has used all sorts of collaborators, most
    recently referred to as a team, over the years, including a history
    professor with whom he has concocted a series of Civil War novels in
    which he tries to reimagine the past, as if reimagining the present
    weren't bad enough. This leaves the reader impossibly confused. How
    much of these books did you write, Mr. Gingrich? Does your sidekick
    handle the cunning narrative, riveting subplots and nimble prose, and
    you the jesuitically subtle ideas? Or does he merely write about the
    North and you about the South?

    It was precisely to avoid this kind of confusion that de Gaulle
    probably hired Malraux in the first place -- or at least that's what
    his enemies say.

    A perfect example of the shadow looming over the
    ghostwriting-industrial complex is Tim Russert's memoir, [2]''Big Russ
    and Me.'' This is the heartwarming 2004 best seller in which the
    distinguished newsman pays tribute to his wonderful father, a man of
    great character, grace and common decency who taught Russert all the
    important things in life -- like how to hire Lee Iacocca's ghost to
    write a book about how graceful and decent your dad is, but not to put
    the ghostwriter's name right there on the cover, because that might
    make it seem less heartwarming.

    When I read Russert's book, I found his easygoing, straight-talking
    style entirely irresistible -- and not just because the dust jacket
    said that his style was easygoing, straight-talking and irresistible.
    But then, when I got to the very end of the book and found out that
    Bill Novak was Russert's ''full partner in writing this book,'' I
    recalled that Novak was also the author of Iacocca's easygoing,
    straight-talking, heartwarmingly irresistible book. Not to mention the
    easygoing memoirs of Nancy Reagan. And the Mayflower Madam. This got
    me to wondering whether the irresistibly heartwarming sentiments
    expressed in the book were Russert's, Novak's or perhaps some
    heartwarmingly straight-talking sentiments left over from Iacocca's
    even more irresistible book. Or, God forbid, the Mayflower Madam's.

    In saying this, I am not criticizing Russert's decision to hire a
    ghostwriter, as I understand the time constraints on busy newsmen.
    Moreover, having written eight books myself, I realize that any idiot
    can do this kind of work, that there is no disgrace in having a book
    cranked out for you, that any time needlessly wasted writing a book
    could be better spent playing checkers. What bothers me is that when I
    am having the cockles of my heart warmed by the irresistible prose in
    ''Big Russ and Me,'' I would desperately like to know whether Russert
    or Novak is doing the cockle-warming. Since Russert is a phenomenally
    busy man who probably did not have time to write a heartwarming paean
    to his lovable father all by himself, my suspicion is that Novak wrote
    most of the difficult sentences during the week and Russert wrote the
    easy ones on the weekend. Here's an example:

    ''Baseball. If there's a more beautiful word in the English language,
    I have yet to hear it.''

    I hope for Russert's sake that he wrote that sentence. Otherwise, he

    In calling attention to the literary obstetrics involved in the
    gestation of ''Big Russ and Me,'' let me confess to a personal bias.
    As a book reviewer, I find that the current ghostwriting imbroglio
    puts me in a hopelessly difficult situation. Consider the novel
    ''1945,'' written by Newt Gingrich, then the speaker of the House, and
    William R. Forstchen, now a professor of history at Montreat College.
    This predictably juvenile affair posits an imaginary past in which the
    Nazis have slaughtered the Russians, Britain has accepted a dictated
    armistice, and the embattled United States must figure out what to do
    next. Quite a predicament! Here is a typical passage:

    ''Donovan maintained a beatific silence. There would be some sore
    butts in Bureau-land, after Hoover recovered from his own personal

    Here is another:

    ''The sense of the demonic was further enhanced by streamers of the
    new jellied gasoline smearing across the landscape in long arcs of
    white-hot annihilation.''

    I do not think I am being overcritical by saying that such prose lacks
    the epic grandeur of a Tolstoy or a Norman Mailer. But what is
    particularly irksome for the reviewer is that he has no way of knowing
    who is to blame for these hideous passages. Newt Gingrich is still a
    powerful voice in the American political community and still young
    enough to run again for high public office. If William R. Forstchen is
    the one responsible for the lunkheaded plot and comic-book dialogue of
    this infantile novel or the more recent ''Gettysburg'' (''He thought
    of Elizabeth, sweet Elizabeth, wondering what she would say of him if
    he ever confessed his terror''), that is one thing. But if Gingrich
    himself is the one firing off these fusillades of malarkey, it could
    be a portent of some very unnerving stump speeches in years to come.
    Either way, I think the American people need to know. More to the
    point, many of us would have greater respect for Gingrich as an author
    and a public figure if he stepped forward and said: ''Yes, I did write
    that the sense of the demonic was further enhanced by streamers of the
    new jellied gasoline smearing across the landscape in long arcs of
    white-hot annihilation. But I promise not to do it again.''

    Mundus ghostwritibus sometimes results in odd bedfellows. Back during
    the first Bush administration, unidentified éminences grises arranged
    for the novelist Thomas Mallon to collaborate on Vice President Dan
    Quayle's autobiography. Mallon is a truly gifted writer known for his
    adept turn of phrase. Quayle is not. This unlikely collaboration put
    the vice president in the awkward situation of having his book written
    by a man whose literary talents far outstripped his own, while forcing
    Mallon to write in the voice of a man widely perceived to be a
    nincompoop. If Mallon wrote a book that was too lofty and cerebral, it
    would make Quayle seem like a cheater and a fake. But if he wrote a
    book that was indefatigably dopey, it would make it seem like he was
    merely cashing a big paycheck and phoning it in. Wisely, Mallon chose
    to adopt a fundamentally stenographic function, arranging Quayle's
    banalities in a lucid, plausible sequence that made the author seem
    neither terribly smart nor terribly dumb, which is almost certainly
    what he is. In this sense, Mallon probably achieved the ghostwriter's
    overarching objective: producing a book that sounds like something the
    author could conceivably have written if he'd only had the time. Say
    400 years.

    Cynics may object that ghostwriters perform a valuable civic function
    by shielding the public from the authentically dimwitted voices of
    those they channel. To their way of thinking, no one would actually
    want to read a book written in Charles Barkley's own words; no one
    would want to read the unedited David Lee Roth; no one could possibly
    machete all the way through an unghosted Rush Limbaugh book. I
    disagree. Had Limbaugh written ''The Way Things Ought to Be'' start to
    finish, instead of collaborating with the sober John Fund, he might
    have been just feisty enough to print his unenlightened views on
    African-American football players years ago and laid all his race
    cards right on the table. Similarly, by writing his autobiography
    himself, the madcap Central European actor Klaus Kinski produced the
    most brutally honest book about the motion picture industry ever. Here
    is a typical passage:

    ''No outsider can imagine the stupidity, blustering, hysteria,
    authoritarianism and paralyzing boredom of shooting a flick for Billy

    No ghostwriter would ever have written a passage like that, because
    ghostwriters are by nature timid, diplomatic, gun-shy. A ghostwriter
    would almost certainly have persuaded Kinski to leave out the part
    about puking in someone's face or seducing high school girls, and
    would probably have deleted the passage about Kinski's wanting to see
    the director Werner Herzog slowly strangled by an anaconda or bitten
    by a poisonous spider that would ''paralyze his lungs.'' It is by
    saddling celebrities with such sober professionals that agents,
    editors and book packagers come to stand between the public and some
    truly unforgettable reading experiences; I personally would welcome
    the unghosted autobiography of Keanu Reeves or Paris Hilton or the
    unghosted memoirs of Michael Jackson. And, without the mediating force
    of a ghostwriter, Geraldo Rivera's ''Exposing Myself'' might have been
    really disgusting, not merely nauseating. By strategically positioning
    a goodnatured hack between the celebrity and the public, the
    publishing industry is doing fans of the joyously cretinous a terrible
    disservice. Let us never forget: by their words ye shall know them.
    Not by their ghostwriters' words.

    One of the few ''authors'' who have succeeded in avoiding the pitfalls
    that increasingly ensnare ghostwritees is Donald Trump. In the past 18
    years, Trump has put his name on a steady stream of classics, while
    using various collaborators. Yet throughout this long literary
    interlude he has managed to maintain tight quality control. For
    example, in the seminal ''Trump: The Art of the Deal,'' which appeared
    in 1987, the ghostwriter Tony Schwartz delivered the Trumpian goods in
    a clipped, staccato, tough-guy style, opening the book with the words:

    ''I don't do it for the money. I've got enough, much more than I'll
    ever need. I do it to do it.''

    Seventeen years later, Trump's new book, ''Trump: Think Like a
    Billionaire,'' written with Meredith McIver, kicks off:

    ''In a world of more than six billion people, there are only 587
    billionaires. It's an exclusive club. Would you like to join us?''

    It has been said that Thomas Mann began writing ''The Confessions of
    Felix Krull'' as a young man, put it aside for decades, then picked up
    the narrative exactly where he left off. Similar stylistic
    seamlessness typifies Trump's work. The intermediaries may come and
    go, but the Donaldian voice never wavers. This is a truly astonishing
    achievement. My only criticism is that Trump is at least partly
    responsible for one of the more extraneous innovations in modern
    letters: the ghostwriter's acknowledgments. Thus, at the end of
    ''Think Like a Billionaire,'' after Trump has thanked all the
    pertinent people, McIver thanks her family, her friends, her minions,
    the Trump Organization and even Tassos of Patmos. If we have reached
    the point in our history where ghostwriters find it necessary to thank
    Tassos of Patmos for his contribution to the making of ''Think Like a
    Billionaire,'' I shudder to think what is coming next. Whoever Tassos
    of Patmos is.

    Joe Queenan's most recent book is ''Queenan Country: A Reluctant
    Anglophile's Pilgrimage to the Mother Country.''


    1. http://www.nytimes.com/2003/06/29/books/review/29DOWDOT.html
    2. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9D05E0D81739F934A15755C0A9629C8B63

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