Who wrote Hillary's book?

Posted: Jun 02, 2003 12:00 AM

There is a swirl of controversy having to do with writing, with credit for writing, and with disclosure about who writes what and under what circumstances.

One critic on television deems it outrageous that Hillary Clinton has been paid $8 million to write a book which she did in fact not write. It appears to be everywhere accepted that she didn't, one day, sit down and start reading the 5 million pages of news clips, election returns, campaign speeches, editorials, columns, journals, trip itineraries, and personal letters that somebody or some team has at least had to skim in order to put together the life of Hillary that people hope to read. A defensive book editor who commented on the controversy on the Jim Lehrer program said that in weighing the question of book writing, a lot of people never get around to asking the question: Is everybody capable of writing a book? The answer is clearly no, no more than of removing an appendix. What everybody does believe is that he/she, exceptions, can write a book, an illusion that any editor at a publishing house will attest, groaning after returning the one-millionth unsolicited manuscript.

What the critics are saying, really, is that for $8 million you ought to put in a lot of pain. Well, Hillary has certainly done that. For one thing, she had to read the book. She is a very clear and learned lady and is very discriminating, save possibly when at the wedding altar. She is trained to write legal briefs and by all accounts does them well. And in the manuscript assembled for her, she had to run her eyes over four or five times as much material as has finally been collated to form the book that will appear in the stores. And of course it is entirely conceivable that here and there she wished to add a paragraph or two in her own hand. And absolutely predictable that here and there she applied a blue pencil to scratch out in her own hand a paragraph or two she does not wish to see published.

Pride is not forfeit when public figures get others to do the crafting and the writing of a book. At the journalist level a cognate question arose when the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Rick Bragg left the New York Times after a flurry having to do with whose names appeared on an article he filed. Bragg takes more or less the position that the freelancer or stringer does not reasonably expect to have his name appear on a story written by a reporter. The case was moderately complicated in this situation because the stringer supplied color which the readers interpreted as having reflected the reaction of the man whose story they were reading. If you write, "On hearing this the witness paled and her eyes looked pleadingly at her attorney," you are going to think that the reporter's own eye transcribed the witness's face.

The case is difficult to make, who-all gets credit. The stream of commentators discussing the Bragg story for some reason (those I read or saw or heard) neglected to make the contextual point that up until about 30 years ago, nobody got bylines in New York Times news stories. The governing idea was: Here is a story produced by the New York Times. It involves the writer of it, researchers who added to it, fact-checkers who came in on it, stringers who supplied relevant material: but all that you, the reader, get is the imprimatur of the New York Times.

That was how it was, and anonymity was pretty general. Time magazine didn't give the names of the writers of its stories. The Economist still does not do so. But professional movement is hard over in the opposite direction. . . . Written by Tom Jones. Research by Jane Able, Jim Baker, John Charles, and Andrew Dogg. Rick Bragg thinks that's nutty, and resigned his post to go back to writing more books. I don't know what the acknowledgments page of his memoir All Over but the Shoutin' says, but no one doubts that he gave credit where due. The question is: Who is due the credit?

We haven't seen Mrs. Clinton's book. One way to dilute attention to others in an acknowledgments page is multiplicity. Mention everybody in the world, from the local librarian to the website provider, to the teacher in eighth grade who tuned you in to literature, to-the person or persons who actually wrote the book. People who are sore at Mrs. Clinton have plenty of things to hold against her, but not who wrote her book. And Rick Bragg can't seriously be judged morally guilty for failure to cite the work, however fine it was, of the 23-year-old researcher who supplied the story's color.