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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Tanenbaum/Gruber ghostwriting saga

I came across this six-year-old story by accident, when I bought a book at the Wellington Public Library book sale.  It was a book called FURYby a writer I thought I might have vaguely heard of, Robert K. Tanenbaum.  The blurb assured me that Tanenbaum is a NYT bestselling writer, and the price was just fifty cents, so I was sold and the well-thumbed book was bought.

I took it home, and tried to read it.  I couldn't believe how awful it was; the writing was inept, the characters cardboard stereotypes, the main plot thin, and the many sub-plots bewildering.  There was also a constant nasty thread of racism.  It was like trying to read several comic books at once, all of them compiled by someone who watched Fox News too much.  I lost patience a third of the way through, looked at the predictable ending, and tossed the book into the trash.  How, I wondered, did this bloke make bestselling status, churning out this kind of rubbish?

So I looked up the book on to see what other readers thought, and found out, to my amazement, that the bestselling books weren't written by Robert Tanenbaum at all!  I had just been dead unlucky, picking out one of the few that had been penned by the fellow himself.  If I had read one of the previous many that had been ghostwritten, I would have had a much more enjoyable experience.

Sarah Weinman, blogger of the Idiosyncratic Mind (see recommended blogs in the RH column) provided more of the story, and her links led me into a world of wonderful commentary, written by bloggers such as Jules Older.   To put it in a nutshell, Tanenbaum, an astoundingly successful lawyer, was asked by a publisher to write a legal thriller, a la John Grisham, and he accepted the job and set to -- to find that it was harder than he imagined.  He showed his efforts at opening chapters to his close cousin, Michael Gruber, who informed him (kindly, of course) that it needed a lot of work -- to be entirely rewritten, in fact.  Then he offered to do it for him, in return for half the advance.  It was a system that worked well, reaping megabucks from megasales (shared strictly fifty/fifty) for more than a dozen books.  And then the cousins fell out.  The partnership was broken, and books started coming out under Gruber's own name, while Tanenbaum either took to writing himself, or found another ghostwriter, with unfortunate results.

Then the secret of the collaboration was exposed -- by Gruber, who claims that it was due to the astute detective work of a reporter with (for heavens' sake!) Romantic Times, but could well have been a publicity stunt by Gruber himself, to help the sales of his books.  It makes an interesting discussion point -- should Gruber have gone public?  After all, it is the job of a ghostwriter to be just that, a ghost, something for which he is paid -- and splitting advances and (presumably) royalty payments down the middle was a very fair arrangement, particularly when the books sold as well as these apparently did.

To my intense amusement, Tanenbaum's latest effort -- which, judging by the editorial comments on, is as bad as Fury -- is called Betrayed.


Norelle Done said...

Hello, if you're interested, I am posting about my interview with Michael Gruber tomorrow, at about noon.

Keith F. Mount said...


World of the Written Word said...

You can read Norelle's interview of Michael Gruber on her blog: