Jason Zengerle compares the literary output of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama -- and finds the latter to be in a league of his own:
Obama's literary efforts, in contrast to Hillary's at least, are an open book. As a relatively unknown young lawyer with a smallish book advance, Obama obviously couldn't afford a ghostwriter for his 1995 memoir Dreams From My Father, so he wrote the book himself. But anyone familiar with the story of Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish knows that editors sometimes do more than just massage an author's prose--they can also rewrite it. So I called Henry Ferris, who was Obama's editor on Dreams, to ask him how many of the words in that book were Obama's. Ferris didn't have too many specific memories of the work he did with Obama more than a decade ago. "He and his book now are seen in such different ways than I was looking at them at that time," Ferris explained. "I didn't take on the project thinking he'd be a leading candidate for the presidency." But Ferris was absolutely adamant about one thing: "He wrote it completely and totally all by himself," Ferris said. "No one helped him." He added, "The manuscript needed shaping and focus, it needed editing, a lot of which he did based on suggestions I made. He was a terrific writer, a great stylist. ... This was not a job where I went in and had to completely redo this book for him. He needed the kind of guidance any first-time writer would need."
For his second book, the 2006 The Audacity of Hope, Obama got enough of an advance ($1.9 million for a three-book deal) and was certainly busy enough with his work in the Senate--not to mention laying the groundwork for his presidential campaign--that no one would have blamed him for going the ghostwriter route. But, according to Rachel Klayman, the Crown editor who worked with him on Audacity, he didn't. "I get irritated when people ask, 'Does he have a ghostwriter?' because it's the opposite of that," Klayman told me. "Not only does he not have a ghostwriter, he's on an entirely different plane from most writers editors work with." Klayman said that Obama's writing process was similar to that of many authors: He'd write a draft of a chapter--oftentimes working at his computer late at night--and then send it to her and a group of other people (although in Obama's case these people weren't just friends but mainly political and policy advisors) for suggested edits.
As for what Obama sent in, Klayman said, "I've never worked with any other writer who needed less line editing than he did. That's how clean his writing is. That doesn't mean we didn't do some editing. I did a lot of different things. But he's sort of a self-editing phenomenon. Sometimes my role was to stand back and watch him edit himself." She added, "Working with him was so much like working with someone whose day job is being a writer. He is a writer as far as I'm concerned. [Slate editor-in-chief] Jacob Weisberg said he's more like a writer who became a politician than a politician who became a writer."
I've only read The Audacity of Hope, but it really stands out in the category of Books Written By Politicians. It does alas suffer from some of the drawbacks of literature in that category -- the ending of the chapter on family is a little cheesy -- but for the most part, it's very genuine and engaging. And while it's clearly written with the goal of advancing his political ideals -- not to mention the idea of himself as the messenger of them -- it's more effective than the standard attempts at this. I look forward to reading Dreams From My Father over the summer, which sounds like the much better book. That would make sense, given he wasn't a senator planning a presidential run at the time. It tends to make one a little less self-conscious of some of the less picture-perfect elements of life. The interesting stuff, I mean.