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If A Genetics Textbook Author Was Treated Like a Political Insta-Author

Every week, it seems, yet another politician, or someone in a politician’s orbit, releases a book and lights up the media. Against a backdrop of ordinary people recording nearly everything, celebrities and politicians become insta-authors with the big publishers, raking in the huge advances.

Writing these tomes typically takes a few months, maybe a year. How can someone with a full time job do this? Does a politician wake up one day an accomplished writer, like me overnight becoming a proctologist, a plumber, or a porn star?

Political insta-authors often have help.

First comes the agent, then comes the ghostwriter, then comes the book tour,” opined Celia Rivenbark in the News and Observer. “Sean Spicer, whom absolutely no one had ever heard of, will be a very, very rich man.”

The Washington Post’s Karen Heller delved into the political author pool back in 2015, as the election wave crested, in “Every candidate’s an author: The ceaseless boom in books by politicians.” “Oh, there has to be a book. If a candidate has already published one, perhaps it’s time for another. Books have become the telltale sign that someone in one office is serious about running for another,” she wrote.

Heller’s list from 2015 included Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Claire McCaskill, Amy Klobuchar, and Andrew Cuomo. She dubbed the literary landslide “not so much written as belched.” Going back to 2012 found Rudy Giuliani’s children’s book. Huh?

Bringing the roster up to the present gives us the smarmily charming Anthony Scaramucci, the aforementioned Sean Spicer, James Comey, and the latest, Michelle Obama’s long-awaited Becoming.

Some famous folk do write their own books. They are thought to include Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren, and Barack Obama.

But more often than not, a ghostwriter is mentioned fleetingly in a preface or credits, if at all; a co-author’s name may grace a book cover, in small print; or a talented but anonymous editorial team transcribes tapes and assembles clips into a coherent narrative. I realize that these practices provide jobs for writers, similar to speechwriters. But it isn’t totally honest. Once upon a time I even did it myself, ghostwriting a book for an oncologist and a medical journal article for an ophthalmologist, but ultimately felt it wasn’t right for the docs to take full credit.

I especially cringe at the mention of Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal, as if he actually wrote it. He didn’t. The book “made America see Trump as a charmer with an unfailing knack for business. Tony Schwartz helped create that myth—and regrets it,” wrote Jane Mayer in the New Yorker, before she became a household word herself for her stellar coverage of the Harvey Weinstein and Brett Kavanaugh sagas. Mr. Schwartz is, of course, the now-regretful ghostwriter.

Relying on real writers cuts across party lines. I stopped reading Hillary Clinton’s What Happened? about 80 pages in when she casually mentions her writing team. According to Karen Heller, Clinton’s 1996 It Takes a Village didn’t credit the ghostwriters, but in 2014’s Hard Choices she did thank her three-person “book team,” albeit 300+ pages in.

In contrast, I’ve written every word of a dozen editions of my textbook Human Genetics: Concepts and Applications, with editors facilitating the “work flow.” Each edition has the basic facts of genetics, but also the cases, stories, and historical asides that, when told in a popular book by an MD or name journalist, are trumpeted in the New York Times. I’ve actually experienced the opposite situation of a ghostwriter. I’ve been called the “editor of a textbook written by a scientist,” an “assistant to a professor,” and my favorite, “Ricki writes like a girl,” harrumphed by an older male professor at a meeting who didn’t realize I was right behind him.

Getting back to the politicians: Presidents, governors, senators, staffers, press secretaries, and first ladies do have interesting tales to tell. And the new administration has introduced new types of characters to the author ranks. Consider Stormy Daniels, aka Stephanie Clifford.

Ms. Daniels claims to have been busy writing Full Disclosure during the decade since she allegedly slept with you-know-who. Fortunately, Andrew Griffin, writing in The Independent, offers us the “7 most shocking revelations” of her book. These include the “harrowing detail” of the presidential sex organ. I, too, describe the human penis in my textbook, discussing the roles of the seminiferous tubules and the epididymis just before launching into my scintillating discussion of meiosis.

Stormy describes her literary style. “I was like, I’m going to write everything and include it, and people can think what they want about me. But at least it’s the truth.” As far as I know, no one has accused her of writing like a girl.

I admit that I haven’t read her book, so perhaps I’m judging her too harshly. But I did discover, to my shock, that she and I share a publisher: St. Martin’s Press! They published my book “The Forever Fix: Gene Therapy and the Boy Who Saved It” in 2012, my foray into narrative nonfiction. Who knew? They certainly devoted a great deal more publicity to Stormy’s effort than they did to mine.

When Savannah Guthrie on the Today Show chatted with Michelle Obama about her new book earlier this week, I imagined myself doing such an interview. Here’s how it might go.

SG: How’s the new edition coming? Can you share with us some of the changes?

RL: Well Savannah, as you know the first two-thirds of the book have traditionally covered the basics, with the last third devoted to genetic technologies – you know, CRISPR, stem cells, GMOs. Now they’re more integrated.


SG (stifling a yawn): That certainly makes sense. Are you still introducing Gregor Mendel before DNA though? Haven’t you gotten some flak for that?

RL: I solved that a few editions ago. Just moved DNA structure and function up to Chapter 1, and cut back on the monk stuff in chapter 4.

SG: Glad to hear it! Can you tell us why telophase always follows anaphase during cell division?

RL: Because it does. That’s called a fact.

SG (leaning in): What’s the most controversial part of the book?

RL: Well, Savannah, that’s always the “Reproductive Technologies” chapter, you know, IVF, PGD, savior siblings, all sorts of things you can do with eggs and embryos. And now I can reference Michelle Obama’s mention of IVF in her new book!

SG: I see. Stormy Daniels ventures into biological diversity by comparing the presidential sex organ to a member of Kingdom Fungi. How does your book handle genetic diversity?

RL: After traipsing through the Hardy-Weinberg equation, not to be confused with Harvey Weinstein, my book relates how migration, nonrandom mating, mutation, genetic drift, and natural selection alter gene frequencies in populations. Standard content. No mushrooms though.

SG: Your book doesn’t seem to be a tell-all, like the politician/celebrity fare. Which topics are too hot to touch?

RL: White supremacy. Although it’s clearly an example of eugenics, appearance in a science textbook could lend legitimacy in some circles. Also race. It’s a social construct that separates people according to superficial characteristics. Ancestry is what’s important, not collections of traits that one group decides is inferior or superior.

SG: Anything new that’s controversial?

RL: Yes, the 20 gene variants associated with transgender identity. When I wrote about the intriguing study here at DNA Science, I had a lot of response and was even quoted in some newspapers. A biological basis for who we are is always interesting.

I love Savannah Guthrie, but I really want to talk with Bill Maher. I’d like him to ask me about what percentage of a human genome, perhaps a specific human genome, is shared with that of an orangutan, explored in “Trump Sues Bill Maher for $5 million for Orangutan Sex Joke.” Trump withdrew the threat under the advice of Michael Cohen. I hear he’s writing a book too!

For another look at how the work of a textbook author might go mainstream, in a post too toxic to have appeared here, see “If ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ Had Been Written by a Biology Textbook Author.”







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