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June 12, 2003

The Stupidest Criticism of a Clinton, This Week

Gregg Easterbrook, an ESPN2 columnist and senior editor at the New Republic, takes a whack at Hillary Clinton and her bookwriting prowess, presenting some interesting evidence that she's a "liar" in his column (you'll have to scroll down to find it):

"Living History" is a 562-page book. A work of that length would take an average writer perhaps four years to produce; a highly proficient writer might finish in two years, if working on nothing else. Clinton signed the contract to 'write' the book about two years ago. About the same time, she also was sworn in as a member of the United States Senate. Clinton took an oath to protect the Constitution and to serve the citizens of New York. So in the last two years Clinton has either been neglecting her duties as a United States Senator -- that is, violating her oath -- in order to be the true author of 'Living History,' or she is claiming authorship of someone else's work. Considering that Clinton has made almost daily public appearances during the period when she was supposedly feverishly 'writing' her book, let's make a wild guess which explanation pertains."

What Easterbrook ultimately appears to be wound up about is that it's probably very likely Clinton used a ghostwriter for some or all of the book and yet she's taking all of the credit. Well, this is a stupid argument. I don't think anyone's terribly shocked that politicians and celebrities use ghostwriters for their books. It's unlikely that Easterbrook will find much traction for this outrage up on the Hill, since just about every politician up there who has published a book has used a ghostwriter for it.

And if Easterbrook wants to get exercised about Clinton, he'll also need to get exercised about JFK, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage was probably written by Theodore Sorenson, and Ronald Reagan, who reportedly said of his own autobiography that he had heard it was a great book and that he should read it sometime.

With politicians there's the accepted fact that their words are written for them all the time -- they have speechwriters. When a president goes up and gives a State of the Union address, no one in his right mind believes that he's written that speech himself (this is particularly the case with the current resident of the White House). However, news reports don't say "Tonight, President Bush, as written by David Frum, announced sweeping new tax proposals." The words are attributed to Bush. The same thing happens with columns and articles produced by politicians for newspapers and magazines. Be that as it may, most of us accept the words as the politicians. I don't see the nation rising up to contest this apparent theft of work. We get the concept.

Also, it's not as if ghostwriters are typically abused by the agreement. By and large, ghostwriters for prominent celebs and politicians get a hefty upfront payment and some cut of the royalties. And of course the ghostwriter him or herself is known to the publishers, which positions the writer nicely for another profitable ghostwriting assignment or for his or her own works. If Clinton used a ghostwriter, it's unlikely you'll hear the ghostwriter complain about the arrangement. By and large, it's a good deal for the writer.

(Well, this time, anyway -- the ghostwriter for Clinton's It Takes a Village got into an argument with her about credit and complained to the media. Presumably Clinton and her publisher made it clear with whatever ghostwriter they might have used this time what the situation would be.)

Probably the best way to look at the ghostwritten works of politicians and celebrities is to approach them like you would "solo" albums by musicians. Solo albums are anything but -- usually there are songwriters, producers, engineers and other musicians who contribute to the effort. When you think about solo albums by celebrities, usually soap stars, the "solo" aspect of it becomes even less accurate. No one expects the singer to do every single thing on the album, unless they are Prince.

Well, you say, at least these people sing on their albums. True enough. But it's not as if Clinton, if she did use a ghostwriter, was totally uninvolved. First off, it is her story, and whatever part of the book she did not write herself she had direct supervision of its writing; rest assured that nothing in that book got past her without her approval. Clinton may have not scribbled out every word of it herself, but the book says exactly what she wants it to say. It's undoubtedly her book. She's the producer. So, I suppose, you could think of it as the literary equivalent of an Alan Parsons Project album.

Thereby, I don't think it's especially dishonest of her to present it as her own, with her name solely on the cover. Easterbrook is merely being intentionally obtuse about how politicians write their books in order to take a whack at Clinton. Easterbrook mentions that some politicians include their ghostwriter's names on the cover. Sure. And some don't. Clinton's not the first, and she won't be the last, from either side of the aisle. And unless she specifically comes right out and says "Yes, I wrote every single word in my book with no help from anyone else whatsoever" -- which I'm unaware that she has done -- she's not lying.

Speaking of obtuseness on the part of Easterbrook, his comment that it would take the average writer four years to write a 562-page book is complete and total crap. In four years (1999 through 2002) I wrote three books under my own name (each about 90,000 words, or roughly 300 pages each), and contributed to another three books to the tune of about 60,000 words, or another 200 pages. Currently I'm working on two additional books, one due in September and one in October, both of which will also come out to about 90,000 words, or yet another 300 pages each.

So, in five years, I will have produced five books under my own name and contributed to three other books for a grand total of about 510,000 words and about 1,700 pages. Note this is on top of writing newspaper and magazine columns and articles, corporate writing assignments and writing untold thousands of words here on this site. To put it simply, if I could only produce 560 pages of writing in four years, I would starve. I'm glad the "average" writer can only write that much. It means more work for me. But in fact the "average" writer can write substantially more than Easterbrook (himself an author of three books) claims -- as could a working senator, I'm sure, if she put her mind to it.

No matter how you slice it, Easterbrook's moral outrage concerning Clinton's book is pretty much bogus. Either he's obtuse about how publishing works, or he's misrepresenting what he knows. I'll assume the former. I would hate to think Mr. Easterbrook has a problem with honesty.

Posted by john at June 12, 2003 11:31 AM

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John Scalzi calls Gregg Easterbrook's comments about Hillary Clinton the "stupidest criticism of a Clinton, this week." Not sure I [Read More]

Tracked on June 12, 2003 01:19 PM

Comments

John Edwards | June 12, 2003 11:43 AM

I usually find Gregg Easterbrook close to infallible (his brilliant Tuesday Morning Quarterback columns, not to mention generally sharp takes on defense issues, etc.). But you're absolutely right, he's being silly about HRC's book. Interestingly, though, I just read a New York Magazine story about the Clintons' life in Chappaqua (mostly Bill's), and Bill said he's writing every word of his memoirs himself. He wasn't asked whether Hillary had done the same, and didn't volunteer anything. But again, I agree that if she didn't, so what?

John Scalzi | June 12, 2003 11:50 AM

Heh. I don't doubt Bill's doing his own writing. He's got time on his hands.

Kafkaesquí | June 12, 2003 01:03 PM

Not being a particular fan of Easterbrook, I am allowed to say the following:

Gregg must assume it takes four years for an author to finish a book because it takes him four years to read one.

Jaquandor | June 12, 2003 01:22 PM

Wow....not only is my post on this topic frighteningly similar to yours, but my thoughts on the VH1 Top 100 Songs list are close to your own as well....and those thoughts, like yours, immediately precede my post on Easterbrook....where's my tinfoil hat?!

Excellent posts, both. I can't believe that Easterbrook is being this obtuse -- or that he's lying.

Ken L | June 12, 2003 03:24 PM

Yes, I also am a fan of his TMQ, and many of his columns for the New Republic. Gregg E has an engaging style and is always fun to read. But he does have a tendancy to get all stubborn and stone-headed about certain topics. WRT to football, it's usually about the blitz. WRT to basketball, it's about the deplorable state of modern-day offenses. WRT to politics, it's clearly the Clintons. :)

_Jon | June 12, 2003 03:24 PM


I'm sure bill is keeping his hands busy in other ways...

Captain Button | June 12, 2003 04:29 PM

Is there any kind of sneaky indication of who the ghost writer was? I'm told that you often see a ghostwriter mentioned in the dedication or the acknowledgements.

"My heartfelt thanks to Casper G. Writer, without whose help this book would not have been possible."

John Scalzi | June 12, 2003 04:37 PM

Hillary thanks a speechwriter, a well known ghostwriter and a researcher in her acknowledgements. They probably pitched in.

Bill Peschel | June 12, 2003 05:03 PM

Another point: It's not as if Hillary needs to do a lot of research to write this. It is her life, after all.

Back in my youth, reading the Conan stories, the writer would talk about the "red curtain" of rage falling just before the Cimmerian would whip out his broadsword and have at it. The names "Clinton" and "Bush" tend to have the same effect on their critics.

Good slam, Kafkaesquí. Worthy of Dottie Parker.

Jim Valvis | June 12, 2003 06:21 PM

I don't know. Maybe Easterbrook has a point. If I supervised over a story, even if it were my own story, then called it my own, would it be? This is probably no big deal except that Hillary is a political figure and it's deceptive to let an audience think you're more aticulate and intellectually ambitious than you really are. I agree that Easterbrook should know about ghostwriters and the publishing of celebrity books, but can we expect the same thing from people outside the writing biz, John? I'm not sure we can, and that makes her taking full credit a bit false.

Mind you, I'm not a Clinton basher. I've been a Democrat a long time. (I was one of the three people to vote for Mondale, along with Old Fritz himself and his wife.) I just think that if you didn't write it all, if it was a collaboration, then you should be clear about that.

Easterbrook's number of pages is another matter. I don't know how he came up with that many pages in that period of time. Maybe he just took himself as an example. I've certainly beaten that number and so have you and a lot of other writers. What would Easterbrook think of Asimov and his 700+ books? Or Joyce Carol Oates, banging out epic after epic, short story after short story, all the while holding down a teaching post at Princeton? Some people can just produce a lot of work fast.

But I guess it would be easier to produce more if we didn't really have to write anything...

John Scalzi | June 12, 2003 07:04 PM

Jim Valvis writes:

"This is probably no big deal except that Hillary is a political figure and it's deceptive to let an audience think you're more aticulate and intellectually ambitious than you really are."

Heh heh. Maybe so. Although I don't think anyone would suggest Hillary is not on some level both of those things you mention. It would be interesting for someone to do a poll on whether the public knows/cares about ghostwriters -- my assumption is that the generally literate public is aware they exist and are used, but I'm willing to be proven wrong.

I think maybe Easterbrook is thinking about the amount of research required for a major historical book -- we all know of historians who research for years, or even decades, before finishing up the books. Of course, in this particular case, it's debatable as to how much research Hillary needed to do in her own life.

The right answer for how long it should take to write a book, in my opinion, is "until it's as good as you can make it." For some people it takes longer than others.

Hell, *I* don't know what to make of Asimov, myself. He was a freak, no doubt. I bet you'd've been a hell of a blogger.

RON | June 13, 2003 06:06 AM

Easterbrook shows all the symtoms of a plain disdain for Hillary, although he would never need a ghostwriter, himself, to write a tome as large as even a google pages in just two weeks if the topic was on criticising Hillary. "Living History" just sold 200,000 copies for the Senator's IPO and Easterbrook wants to diminish any positive public opinion Hillary is receiving by haunting her with lying about using a ghostwriter. Hillary isn't the (arguably) president yet and Easterbrook is already trying to impeach her with the perjury charge. He'll just have to wait until 2008 to play Kenneth Starr.

Guy Matthews | June 13, 2003 07:16 AM

Bias bias bias, bleh. Bloke's off his rocker. I can only see having a problem with ghostwriters when fiction is involved, and even then it'd depend just how much the story was rewritten to suit the ghostwriter. Take HP Lovercraft's work, most of the ghostwriting jobs he did still read like pure authentic Lovercraft, it's very unclear (except where his letters add information) just how much of the final story's premise was ever part of the client's vision, these stories are now mostly attributed directly to Lovecraft. It's one thing to ask someone to take your thoughts and story and put them in words that won't give the readers a headache after 2 pages, it's entirely another matter to get someone to put together an entire book with minimal input then slap your name at the top.

alkali | June 13, 2003 09:31 AM

If I were HRC and I had a big advance to hire a researcher, typist and ghost, I would:

-- sit down with the researcher and ghost and figure out roughly what I thought the various chapters of the book ought to cover (probably chronological, with some topical chapters),

-- have the researcher put together a 3-ring binder for each chapter with copies of relevant documents (e.g. White House records including HRC's personal schedule, relevant newspaper articles),

-- have the ghost put together a list of interview-type questions about the subject matter of each chapter,

-- take a binder a week, dictate answers to the questions and anything else that seems relevant relating to that binder (I note that 2-3 hours of dictation is about a hundred pages of typescript), and

-- have the ghost reorder the typescript of the dictation into something that looks like a chapter of a book (basically add paragraph breaks and reorder; no significant rewriting, insert flags in text where additional writing seems appropriate).

If you did something like that, in about six to nine months you could generate about 1000-1500 pages of typescript, all of which were your own words, with only a couple hours a week of actual work on your part. That would be the very rough draft of the book, which you could edit and rewrite at leisure. Two-and-a-half years seems like plenty of time to write a book by this method which runs 500+ pages in print.

I am sure that people who ghost regularly have their own methods, but this would be one way of approaching the problem. It is certainly several steps away from writing on a topic other than one's own life without the assistance of a ghost, which is what most authors do, but one would be hard-pressed to say that the true author of a book written in that way was anyone other than HRC.

Craig Senatore | June 13, 2003 09:41 AM

"...only see having a problem with ghostwriters when fiction is involved"

I think most books written by politicians about their live could be classified as fiction. This one probably more than most, but that's my own dislike of Hillary talking.

All that aside, virtually every celebrity, politician, or public figure uses a ghost writer. Everyone gives them the benefit of the doubt that the words in the book are theirs, and the ghost writer just put them in a form more interesting to read than, say, a tax bill. It's a bit hypocritical to give every other politician a pass and then slam Hillary for it. (And I say that even though I find it physically painful to give Hillary credit for anything)

Mark Musante | June 13, 2003 12:29 PM

I just want to point out that there is NO WAY that Mr Scalzi could possibly write (a) a guide to the universe, (b) a bathroom reader, (c) prep Old Man's War for publication, (d) maintain a web log, and (e) be part of a happy family, and *still have time to take pictures of Ghlaghghee*.

ADMIT IT MR SCALZI: THOSE SNAPSHOTS ARE GHOSTTAKEN!

RON | June 13, 2003 03:18 PM

I can't recall any president's autobiograpy ever being among the classics of modern literature at Barnes and Noble. Hillary, of course, was not the president but the first lady. Now that she's a senator, she may well be remembered as being (arguably) the first woman president of the United States. I mean she ain't about to quit her day job and start a second career to become the next J. K. Rowling. Her fame from now on sure looks like it's in politics and not pulp or modeling pill-box hats. On the other hand, if Hillary wrote a biography about Gennifer Flowers, I would expect the story to be in the biographer's own handwriting, but I was under the impression that all autobiographies on Hillary's celebrity level were ghosted. It just would be unrealistic and about as much as expecting Moby Dick to write his own autobiography without Ishmael or Gregory Peck. I haven't read "Living History," yet, but if I do, I would never "expect" it to be the greatest work of prose ever recorded. Presidential life, is exciting in its own celebrity, but the greatest president's life pales next to Quazimodo. Hillary's autobiography sold very well so far but that doesn't mean her legacy will be in literature. Madonna can sell well. Jayson Blair might sell well. But they ain't going to win a stick of dynamite in Stockholm. Easterbrook, meanwhile is swinging a broad-sword instead of a pen, foaming at the mouth and denouncing Hillary for commiting the most vile sin to the greatest-writers-guild, that she will never ever belong to. As I said in a previous post, Easterbrook champions the perjury junkies.