Donald Trump has disrupted the world in so many ways that it is understandable his impact on the literary arts has been overshadowed. And fair enough too given that his actions have taken the world closer to nuclear war than at any time since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
An impact he has undoubtedly had, though, as his rise to the American presidency prompted Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter of Trump’s 1987 memoir The Art of the Deal, to step forward and reveal just how much art was required to make Trump look like a consummate deal-maker. An experienced journalist before becoming Trump’s ghostwriter, Schwartz watched with growing horror as Trump the ridiculed candidate became the Republican Party’s nominee for the presidency in 2016. Schwartz gave an interview to Jane Mayer of The New Yorker in which he said: ‘I put lipstick on a pig. I created a character far more winning than Trump actually is.’ If he had been writing the book in 2016, he would have titled it ‘The Sociopath’.
After spending 18 months working with Trump on the memoir, Schwartz felt he knew him better than anyone except his family. Trump spruiked his life as a Horatio Alger–style story of great success from humble beginnings, but Schwartz soon found it was false. His father was a wealthy property developer who lent Trump US$7.5 million to get started as a casino operator in Atlantic City and used his political muscle to pave the way for his son’s property deals.
Schwartz found kernels of truth in stories Trump liked telling about himself, but they were exaggerated to make him seem cleverer than he was. After almost abandoning the project, Schwartz hit upon the idea of sitting with Trump while he conducted his business on the phone. Such a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ strategy is common among journalists writing profile pieces, but as a ghost Schwartz could not write what he saw and felt about Trump, which was loathing his insatiable hunger for ‘money, praise and celebrity’. Instead, he realised that for the ghostwritten memoir to work, Trump needed to be seen as a ‘weirdly sympathetic character’. Armed with his extensive firsthand observation of Trump, Schwartz created a voice for him, as this passage from the memoir shows:
I play to people’s fantasies … People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration—and it’s a very effective form of promotion.
Schwartz regretted that the myth he created of ‘a charmingly brash entrepreneur with an unfailing knack for business’ resonated with so many voters, who, he predicted, ‘will learn what anyone who deals closely with him already knows—that he couldn’t care less about them’.
The bestselling success of The Art of the Deal is by no means the main reason Trump was elected president, but it clearly played a role in creating an image that appealed to many. The story behind the story of The Art of the Deal is perhaps the most salutary reminder of the consequences of a ghost-written memoir that is a piece of myth-making.
I’ve used the term ‘ghostwritten memoir’ as if it is common parlance but it isn’t, and that is not surprising. Most people work on the entirely reasonable assumption that a memoir will have been written by the memoirist. It’s not a history of the Peloponnesian War—you just need to write about yourself. And yet when, after reading Schwartz’s account, I began looking more closely at memoirs, surprising facts and themes emerged. The first is the galloping popularity of memoirs. It is well known in publishing circles that memoir and biography have been among the most popular nonfiction genres for many years. Of these genres, biography has been taken more seriously, probably because of the amount of research required for a comprehensive biography, but you would not want to overstate the genre’s acceptance among academics. Many of them are scathing about biography, seeing it either as second-rate history or dumbed-down philosophy or irredeemably prurient.
In recent years, however, the popularity of memoir and autobiography has far outstripped that of biography. In Memoir: A History, Ben Yagoda records that between 2004 and 2008 in the United States total sales in the categories of ‘Personal Memoirs, Childhood Memoirs, and Parental Memoirs’ increased more than 400 per cent. In Britain, memoirs filled seven of the top ten best-selling nonfiction hardcover places in 2007 and 2008.
In Australia since 2002, Nielsen BookScan has published annual bestseller lists that account for around 85 per cent of all books sold here. I analysed the top 50 bestselling nonfiction books whether, Australian or overseas, for the period 2002 to 2018 and found 186 memoirs or autobiographies and 22 biographies among the 800 bestsellers. Between them, memoir or autobiography and biography comprised one in four nonfiction bestsellers, but, as the figures show, the overwhelming majority of them were memoirs or autobiographies. What is less visible—and this is the second surprising fact—is the number of ghostwritten memoirs. By my count ghostwriters were involved in 51 of the 186 bestselling memoirs; but it is hard to be definitive.
In some, the ghostwriter’s role was made explicit, as in Major General John Cantwell’s 2012 memoir Exit Wounds: One Australian’s War on Terror where journalist Greg Bearup was named on the cover as a co-author, while in others, such as former Australian test cricket captain Michael Clarke’s 2016 My Story, Malcolm Knox’s role was confined to the acknowledgements (on page 456). In some, the ghostwriter may not be mentioned at all.
This is understandable; ghostwriters, as the term suggests, are meant to be invisible. Their role is to put into pleasing words the deeds and thoughts of a person skilled in, say, science or sport but not in storytelling. But what if the ghostwriter’s involvement extends beyond wordsmithing to creating an authorial voice for the memoirist that is integral to the book’s success? And what if that voice is fundamentally at odds with the memoirist’s, as Tony Schwartz asserted? Given that an authentic voice is central to the popularity and influence of memoir, shouldn’t we pause to consider the role of these unheralded toilers in the literary vineyard, especially when for so many readers a memoir or autobiography represents their most extensive, meaningful exposure to a person?
The rise of the invisible art of ghostwriting
When we read memoirs, we need a keener sense of what is at stake and a mind attuned to how much more widely we should read to understand a particular person’s life story. This is especially true given the proliferation of ghostwritten memoirs. If there is a spectrum along which the telling of true life stories sits, with an independent investigative biography at one end and a memoir or autobiography written solely by the subject at the other end, the ghostwriter sits adjacent to the latter. The ghostwriter’s job, according to Andrew Crofts’ 2004 handbook Ghostwriting, is to act as a literary handmaiden to the subject. ‘Your job is to produce the books that the authors would have written themselves if they had been able and willing.’ Crofts is alive to the role’s tensions, citing Sue Norris’s arch comments in the Financial Times:
The cult of celebrity has spawned a lucrative niche market for the writer with no ego and limitless discretion. Someone who is content to see the autobiography of the pop star, the footballer or the actor sell by the cartload, knowing that they wrote every word, but who is not going to gnash their teeth in resentment or dish the unpublished dirt drunkenly revealed as the tape recorder, forgotten, spun on.
Crofts extols the professionalism required of ghostwriters, but more commonly ghosting is seen as hack work; search the website of prize-winning Australian novelist and journalist Malcolm Knox’s literary agent, Lyn Tranter (http://austlit.com/archives/283), and you won’t find references to the several books he has ghostwritten. Yet the ghostwriter performs many of the same research and writing tasks as a biographer; the difference is they stop short of revealing the subject in any light other than their own limelight. On the crunch question of what a ghostwriter should do if the subject lies to them in interviews, Crofts says the ghostwriter should raise it but beyond that it is between the subject and their publisher.
Little academic work has been done on ghostwriting, which may not be surprising given its subterranean, poorly regarded place in literary practice, but it is overdue. Memoir is a popular and influential genre, and the transaction between ghostwriter and memoirist with its various ethical tensions is hidden from readers. We only know about the disparity between the glistening image of Trump projected in The Art of the Deal and the shabby reality because his ghost spoke out. Three further case studies illustrate a range of issues arising from ghostwritten memoirs.
It’s not about the truth: Lance Armstrong’s memoir It’s Not About the Bike
Lance Armstrong’s memoir was released in 2000. He was a successful cyclist, having won the 1999 Tour de France, but beyond sport he was unknown. Soon, though, the world knew the story of how, on the cusp of cycling stardom, Armstrong had been struck down with testicular cancer and how he had recovered to resume his career and win the world’s most coveted cycling event. The book’s title told readers this was no ordinary sporting memoir replete with tedious recitations of training regimes and torn hamstrings but one concerned with matters for which sport is a proxy—life and death. The memoir’s tight focus on Armstrong’s illness and recovery makes his triumph all the sweeter because for most of the book sport has been pushed far into the background.
It’s Not About the Bike is written in prose as spare and unsentimental as Armstrong appears to be. In this, Armstrong was ably assisted by a ghostwriter, Sally Jenkins, a respected sports journalist who played a major role in the book’s success. For the reader, it is Armstrong’s candour that feels so impressive, whether in allowing us to see his restless prickliness or his pain and desolation in masturbating to donate sperm ahead of chemotherapy treatment that would render him temporarily, perhaps permanently, sterile. Readers responded; sales soared immediately and the book stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for a year, selling more than a million copies. The book continued selling strongly for years as it became a hand-around classic. It also won the prestigious William Hill Sports Book of the Year award.
There was, however, a hole in the heart of the book: in its 275 pages there was only one mention of performance-enhancing drugs, on pages 252–3. Armstrong dismisses accusations by French journalists during the 1999 Tour de France that he had tested positive for a banned substance, corticosteroid, saying he had used a cortisone cream to treat saddle sores and that race authorities had immediately issued a statement clearing him. He then makes two statements he was to repeat countless times over the next decade: the people accusing him were the same people who had written him off when he had cancer, and that he had spent months that year training in France, which had been cracking down on drug cheats. ‘If I had been trying to hide something, I’d have been in another country.’
In the cycling world it was well known that to compete at the highest levels you had to take banned substances; at one level Armstrong was only doing what everyone else was and the gap in his memoir was similar to the gap in others’. In the end, however, what made the Armstrong case different was this: first, he became the most successful cyclist in history, winning the Tour de France a record seven times; second, his memoir reached many more people than any other cyclist’s; third, he became a fierce public advocate for cancer sufferers and set up the Livestrong Foundation, which raised more than US$500 million to fight cancer; and fourth, he viciously attacked his questioners, including former teammates and their families, both verbally and in million-dollar defamation suits.
It was primarily the work of Irish investigative journalist David Walsh (whom Armstrong used to call ‘the little troll’) and French filmmaker Pierre Bellester that blew the whistle on Armstrong’s drug cheating, in a book they co-authored in 2003 entitled L.A. Confidentiel. In it, among other accusations, they questioned Armstrong’s saddle-sores story from the 1999 tour, saying the prescription for the treating cream had been backdated to mask the use of corticosteroid, a banned substance. It took the institutional muscle and prosecutorial nous of US authorities to persuade Armstrong’s teammates in the United States Postal Service Pro Cycling Team to accept immunity or reduced penalties and to testify that Armstrong took banned substances. A long-time journalist with the Sunday Times in London, Walsh developed his reporting into a 2012 book entitled Seven Deadly Sins, from which this section draws. Despite his numerous awards as sportswriter of the year and that he was manifestly on the right side of history, Walsh’s book sold fewer copies than Armstrong’s memoir, partly because it was released while Armstrong was still vociferously defending his innocence, partly because it is not as well written as the ghostwritten memoir, and, finally, perhaps partly because Armstrong’s triumph-over-adversity myth was more appealing to the public than Walsh forcing us to see that our hero has feet of clay.
As for Sally Jenkins, despite the weight of evidence against Armstrong and his manifest dishonesty over many years, she has continued to defend him, on the grounds that he was unfairly targeted because the drug-cheating culture was so rampant at the time, because others have escaped without penalty, and because the authorities’ mission to crush him was unseemly. There is some weight to her argument—there is little doubt that for anti-doping authorities Armstrong was public enemy number one—but their zeal was impelled by Armstrong’s status and his belligerent refusal to lead on the drug-cheating issue. Armstrong really gave them no choice but to go after him. Jenkins’s excusing of Armstrong is also disingenuous given how little attention the memoir pays to performance-enhancing drugs.
It is telling that another journalist, Tom Clynes, was initially slated to ghostwrite the memoir, but he lost interest after spending time with Armstrong. He found him to be ‘kind of a jerk to many of the people around him, from his girlfriend, Lisa, to the guy who washed his car’. When Clynes asked Armstrong about doping, the cyclist said ‘everybody does it’, leaving Clynes feeling he was going to need to be ‘patently dishonest about who Lance really was’ in the memoir. By comparison, even after Armstrong finally confessed his drug cheating, on Oprah Winfrey’s television program, Jenkins said she had forgiven him.
The value of personal testimony: Confronting the Church of Scientology
If, in a sense, Lance Armstrong’s ghostwriter created a problem for him by so compellingly drawing public attention to his life story, Lisa Pulitzer, ghostwriter for Jenna Miscavige Hill’s Beyond Belief, has penned an unsophisticated narrative, but it is one that so far has resisted the hostility of the Church of Scientology. Miscavige Hill is the niece of the church’s current head, David Miscavige, who assumed control of the church in 1986 when its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, died or, to use Scientology lingo, ‘dropped his body’. Her parents were not simply members of the church but worked for it, which meant that she spent her entire childhood in the church and had no idea how weird it was when, aged seven, she was asked to sign a contract pledging her life to the church for one billion years. The subtitle of her memoir, ‘My secret life inside Scientology and my harrowing escape’, accurately describes the book, which begins with her signing the billion-year contract and works methodically through her childhood and adolescence.
It was written after Miscavige Hill left the church as a young woman, but she tries to re-create her childhood experiences without much adult reflection so as to give the reader a sense of how little awareness she had that childhood could be anything other than what she experienced inside the church. For much of her childhood she lived apart from her parents even though she and they were living within the church. From the age of six Miscavige Hill and other children in the ‘Cadet Org’, the junior version of the church’s ‘Sea Organisation’ that her parents worked for inside the church, were required to wear a uniform, to do harsh manual labour from morning to evening, and were encouraged to monitor one another for any signs of cadets straying from L. Ron Hubbard’s preordained path. By adulthood Miscavige Hill had become increasingly suspicious of the church and resolved to leave it with her boyfriend, Dallas, whom she married and with whom she had two children. She set up a website, www.exscientologykids.com, to encourage others who had left the church to tell their stories.
At 404 pages, Beyond Belief is a lengthy memoir; it is written clearly and honestly but is well short of profound. In a sense, Miscavige Hill comes across as an ordinary young woman who just happened to be caught up in the extraordinarily strange world of the Church of Scientology. And perhaps this explains the book’s appeal, especially to the students who read it for the True Stories class I taught when I was at the University of Canberra. Jenna is ‘relatable’, to use their preferred term. The child in the white dress staring out from the book’s cover could be one of them. In this, Miscavige Hill has been aided by her ghostwriter, who, after a career as a crime reporter and an author of modestly successful true crime books, has forged a second career as the deft exponent of the ‘escape story’ subgenre. Beyond Belief is her most successful book, reaching the New York Times bestseller list. Lisa Pulitzer combines a journalist’s ability to write quickly—she spends two weeks interviewing her subjects and completes a book in three months—with ‘a motherly presence that is comforting to women who are about to expose raw truths of a sordid past’, as an interviewer for the New York Times described her in 2013.
Pulitzer checks the veracity of her co-author’s claims and provides background material (Beyond Belief carries a chapter about the death of L. Ron Hubbard, most of which is straight reportage), but she does not probe her co-author’s thoughts deeply nor does she investigate or analyse the institutions from which she fled. That is because memoir is limited to the knowledge and perspective of the subject. To see beyond it, you need to turn to Lawrence Wright’s 2013 book Going Clear or the Alex Gibney–directed documentary of the same name that drew on Wright’s exhaustive research. There is a wealth of information in Wright’s book that provides both a history of the church and its founder as well as a fair-minded discussion about the sources of Scientology’s appeal for people.
It is the discussion of the political implications of the church’s practices, though, that really separates Going Clear from Miscavige Hill’s memoir. Wright carefully tracks the decades-long fight by the church to have its tax-exempt status as a church reinstated after the US Internal Revenue Service declared in 1967 it wasn’t a church. It flooded the IRS with more than 200 lawsuits, forcing it eventually in 1993 to capitulate, settling for US$12.5 million in back taxes instead of the US$1 billion for which the IRS originally petitioned. The impact of the cave-in was monumental as the church relies on its tax-exempt status as a religion even though, unlike other religions, it charges exorbitant fees for its services.
My career goes bung: Julian Assange’s ‘unauthorised autobiography’
In the history of misfired and misdirected memoirs, few have gone as spectacularly awry as that of Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks. In 2010 the Australian-born cypherpunk became known around the globe through his encrypted, magnet-for-secrets website that published thousands of pages of documents shedding light on America’s conduct in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that pulled back the curtain on how international diplomacy is conducted. He had an extraordinary life story to tell, and the publishers Canongate and Alfred Knopf paid £600,000 and US$800,000 respectively for the rights to it. Assange was reportedly paid an advance of £162,000, which he planned to use to pay lawyers to fight lawsuits he faced over WikiLeaks disclosures, as well as separate allegations against him of sexual assault in Sweden.
A ghostwriter was hired to assist; he was no hack but a respected author, Andrew O’Hagan, who has written award-winning novels as well as a powerful work of narrative nonfiction, The Missing. He did not want his name on the book’s cover as a co-author, as Jenkins and Pulitzer had. The Scottish writer sympathised with WikiLeaks’ political goals, and Assange respected O’Hagan’s writing. So far so good. But what gradually and painfully became clear was that Assange never really had any intention of writing an autobiography. In fact, he appeared to be allergic to sustained reflection and continually swerved away from discussing his personal life. Despite accepting the whopping advance, Assange would not meet the terms of the contract.
O’Hagan waved magic dust over the many hours of snatched conversations, half-completed interviews and rambling monologues, managing to create Julian Assange, a partial autobiographical narrative that seemed to capture Assange’s voice and character, as Henry Porter wrote in a review for the Guardian. The problem was Assange denounced the entire project; he loftily intoned ‘All memoir is prostitution’ but refused to repay the advance. Canongate’s publishing executives were furious; like numerous people before and since, they found Assange almost impossible to deal with. They decided to take the rare if not unprecedented step of publishing the subject’s autobiography against his wishes, which is how they came to give the book its bizarro-world subtitle: ‘The Unauthorised Autobiography’.
Some of this arm wrestle came to light in a carefully worded publisher’s note at the beginning of the book, but its cryptic description of the process raised as many questions as it answered. When the book was released in 2011, it was received with puzzlement by readers and critics alike. The former expressed their bewilderment by opting not to touch the polluted project with a barge pole; the latter allowed that O’Hagan had managed to do his best in the worst circumstances but that overall the book was damaged goods. Which it was.
It was only three years later in 2014, when the book had been largely forgotten, that much of the backstory summarised above was revealed. O’Hagan wrote a 26,000-word essay for the London Review of Books that is probably the most exhaustive—and exhausting (for O’Hagan)—exegesis of the ghostwriter–subject relationship. It is a brilliant essay that deserves to be read in full. It describes the events in detail, from his dogged efforts to corral Assange, to his gradual realisation that Assange is not only colossally narcissistic but also genuinely uncivilised in ways both charming and repelling. He preferred googling himself to having his own say in an autobiography. He would gleefully hack into communication systems anywhere in the world but was obsessed with protecting the privacy of both WikiLeaks and himself. When O’Hagan rolled his eyes at these contradictions, Assange would look at him blankly. Assange seemed deep in a jungle of his own making: ‘It was like trying to write a book with Mr Kurtz.’
The portrait that emerges of Assange in O’Hagan’s essay is the fullest and most perceptive I have read. It is free of the irritated competitiveness of journalists who have worked with then fallen out with Assange, and it brims over with a good novelist’s insight into character. And it reflects on the peculiar relationship between ghostwriter and subject, which hovers between handmaiden, reporter, conjurer and ventriloquist but never quite alights on any. First and foremost, though, O’Hagan reasserts that he is an independent writer, something that Assange consistently forgets.
Julian is an actor who believes all the lines in the play are there to feed his lines; that none of the other lives is substantial in itself. People have inferred from this kind of thing that he has Asperger’s syndrome and they could be right.
The moment of clarity for O’Hagan came when Assange desperately wanted his ghostwriter to accompany him to a literary festival to talk about their book, which had not been completed.
He was flying in from Neverland with his own personal J.M. Barrie. What could be nicer for the lost boy of Queensland with his silver hair and his sense that the world of adults is no real place for him? By refusing the helicopter [ride to the festival] I was not refusing that side of him, only allowing myself the distance to see it clearly, too: I have had to fight to grow away from my own lost boy, and it seemed right that day to fly a kite with my daughter and retain my independence from this man’s confused dream of himself.
O’Hagan’s words are a fine expression of independence; they should also remind us just how much skill and care and commitment it takes to be an independent writer. By definition that means many, including a number who write their own memoirs, don’t possess these qualities, which is why so often ghostwriters are called in, with results ranging from the celestial to the ghastly, as the four case studies discussed above clearly show. The implications of the ghostwriting process are intrinsically important, whether for writers taking part in a sizeable, growing part of literary practice or for readers told so little about a process that substantially shapes the published memoir.
Some, like Lisa Pulitzer, help their subjects tell valuable life stories, while others, like Sally Jenkins and especially Tony Schwartz, are complicit in creating false narratives about people playing significant roles in public life. These false narratives are circulated to many people for many years. It was more than a decade after publication of Armstrong’s memoir when he admitted publicly he had repeatedly lied about drug cheating, and nearly three decades elapsed between the publication of The Art of the Deal and its ghostwriter’s heartfelt mea culpa. And without Andrew O’Hagan’s essay we would still be mystified about Assange’s autobiography. The work of investigative journalists in exposing Armstrong, of a guilty ghostwriter confessing his literary crime in creating the Trump myth, and of a novelist drawing back the curtain on the backstage drama of ghostwriting all serve to remind us of the slide to solipsism that can befall memoir; it also underscores the value of alternative voices and independent scrutiny. •
Matthew Ricketson is an academic and journalist. He is professor of communication at Deakin University, and author of a biography of children’s author Paul Jennings.