I write today wearing the hat of self-appointed spokesperson for the international league of ghost writers. Unlike proper writers - the ones who produce cookbooks and colouring books and other genres that dominate the publishing market - we don't get a lot of publicity. That's rather the point.
So it was with horrified fascination that I read ghost writer Tony Schwartz's account of composing Donald Trump's magnum opus The Art of the Deal. The 7000-word New Yorker story revealed a lot about a shameless individual. We also learned a bit about Donald Trump.
The Art of the Deal appeared in 1987. If the phrase "greed is good" had its own year, that year would be 1987, in which the heights of hubris were scaled and suddenly brought down in the October stock market crash. It was the perfect time to celebrate the life and career of the man Spy magazine famously and accurately described as a "short-fingered vulgarian".
Schwartz had much to celebrate.
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His deal gave him half of the half-million dollar advance and half of the royalties. In the nearly 30 years since, this has earned him many millions of dollars. And he feels terrible about it. He feels responsible for the mess that is Trump's presidential candidacy. So now, when it will garner most attention, he speaks up.
It turns out Schwartz, who came to Trump's notice after writing a highly critical article of the alleged tycoon, had Trump's measure from the start. "He's a living black hole!" he told his wife. But he had a family to care for so swallowed his scruples, which apparently slipped down remarkably easily, and took on the job.
Aware that so much of what Trump said was lies, he devised the phrase "truthful hyperbole" to cover it. Nice bit of writing, that. He covered up that so much of his business empire was a sham and a failure. He glossed over "the absolute lack of interest in anything beyond power and money". He worked hard to make Trump sound less an obnoxious blowhard and more a puckish funster.
I've ghost written about a dozen autobiographies and never had to write about a person I despised. Nor have I had, using Schwartz's phrase, to "put lipstick on a pig". There have been plenty of subjects with whom I disagreed. But in the writing I learned two invaluable lessons: you don't have to agree with people to like them, and you don't have to like the people you agree with.
I always held to the view it was a ghost writer's job to tell their subject's story as they would themselves if they could. It was my job to show only as much of them as they wanted to reveal. Effectively, a ghost writer is a ventriloquist being controlled by the dummy. That has meant turning jobs down. I drew the line recently when approached about ghosting a business biography for subjects who didn't meet even my admittedly quite low standards. I didn't have that much truthful hyperbole in me.
But Schwartz says he is trying to make some amends for what he has wrought. With his by now familiar cute ingenuity, he will donate all his royalties from The Art of the Deal this year to charities Trump would loathe. He's keeping the other 28 years' worth. When he told the New Yorker "I'll carry this to until the end of my life," he was obviously referring to the money. For letting greed overtake decency, for taking an opportunity with no heed for the consequences, Schwartz showed himself to be the perfect ghost writer for Donald Trump.