In recent weeks a great deal of buzz has been made over “ghostwriter” Tony Schwartz’ tell-all New Yorker article revealing some rather illuminating aspects of his collaboration with Donald Trump in co-authoring the Republican candidate’s bestselling book, The Art on the Deal. Most of that attention has naturally centered on the political aspects, in reaction to the author’s allegation, in effect, that Mr. Trump is unfit to lead as President of the United States. Among the writing and journalism communities, a different sort of discussion has surrounded the question of the legality of Mr. Schwartz’ published comments (e.g., was he not bound by a signed non-disclosure agreement, or NDA), or perhaps more fundamentally, was it unethical or even immoral for him to publish the article at all, particularly—in the minds of some—since he profited mightily from an unusually favorable royalty sharing agreement.
As a citizen and as a ghostwriter, from the moments I first read the article I was keenly interested in both debates. Yet what most struck me was a single, eye-blinking phrase, wherein Mr. Schwartz refers to ghostwriting as “hack work.” It wasn’t that I was particularly offended by the remark, at least not at first. After all, there are plenty of people who simply don’t understand what ghostwriters do, and there is a whole galaxy of ignorance (of every stripe) that is spewed out over the internet daily that one must simply ignore. However, hearing it from someone within the writing field was a little shocking. Whatever the case, I let the comment pass at the time. Now however, having witnessed the unfolding debate and with the benefit of time and thoughtful consideration, I think that in the phrase “hack work” lies the crux of the controversy that Mr. Schwartz wound up getting himself into.
Because in my view that phrase belies a truly unfortunate lack of professional integrity and respect, not only for the craft of ghostwriting, but also and more crucially, a deplorable lack of respect for the author-client, to whom in fact, it represents a direct, flat-out insult. I can’t imagine what a potential client who comes to me sincerely seeking constructive help in writing his or her story would think if I said, “Well you know, ghostwriting is really hack work.” Such a cavalier attitude clearly represents no basis for a mutually productive and respectful working relationship. His use of the phrase underscores the fact that Schwartz so appallingly failed to take this work seriously enough that he was able, by his own admission, to irresponsibly and shamefully fabricate a realm of mythology within which to cloak his famous client.
I take very seriously my responsibility in writing someone’s story, of adhering as much as possible to the truthful facts and events to the extent they are known or documented, as I know most of my ghostwriting colleagues do as well. There is a purely journalistic component to this work, which is my responsibility to maintain in my client’s best interests In point of fact, I have successfully encouraged some author-clients to talk (write) openly about the darker, more sinister aspects of their stories; the things they did in their business dealings or their personal lives that they are not proud of, that they regret, or that they now recognize were just plainly the wrong thing to do (and likely also knew that at the time). That’s usually where the really important lessons for the rest of us usually lie anyway, and why would you read any book—nonfiction or fiction—if you didn’t expect to learn something from it?
Some people have called the New Yorker article Mr. Schwartz’ apology for the part he believes he played in creating the now larger-than-life myth that Mr. Trump appears to be enjoying as a “charming business genius,” and expressing his deep regret for having done so.
But I come away from all this hubbub with one thought: Had Mr. Schwartz taken his role more seriously to heart in the first place, and had he had due respect for his author-client, he wouldn’t have gotten himself into this mess. Maybe he would have surmised, early on, that he would be creating a fabrication and thus declined to ghostwrite the book—though I can certainly understand the lure of the dollars. Alternatively, once he decided to do it, he might have tactically declined the co-authorship status, his name on the cover and title page, and then prudently and quietly signed an airtight NDA as inducement to forever hold his own peace. The latter, of course, is a matter of his own professional ethics that he alone would have to decide.
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