9 December 2014

Ghostwriting: A Response to the Zoella Controversy

DISCLAIMER: These are my own thoughts on the subject. I am not saying they are the correct thoughts, or the end-of-discussion thoughts. Just thoughts. Also for the sake of total honesty, I have not yet read Girl Online, so cannot comment on the actual quality of the plot or writing.

Last week it was all over every news and social media site that Zoe Sugg, YouTube alias Zoella, had smashed records with her best-selling novel (memoir?) Girl Online. For me, she seemed to have sprung from nowhere but with six million online followers this was clearly not the case and has been successfully building an audience for some time.

Zoella's YouTube channel trailer

Her instantaneous shoot to the top of best-seller lists was something an aspiring author like myself was green with jealousy about, and I have no trouble admitting that. Knowing not much about Zoe and her aspirations or talents, I resolved to be bitterly happy for her success in the writing industry. I assumed this was something she had wanted and been working on for a while.

This week the news has changed, and there is a significant backlash against Zoe with the revelation that her novel is not strictly ‘by’ her. She has confirmed on Twitter that the “plot and characters” of Girl Online are all hers, and “of course she would need help from [her publisher] Penguin” in trying something new. And I can’t help but feel a little cheated that this best-seller, something to admire and aspire to, something that beat out J K Rowling and Dan Brown in terms of initial sales, is not quite what it seems.

Zoe squashes headline rumours that she is quitting YouTube for good
From what I understand about the novel, it’s an exaggerated memoir of Zoe Sugg’s life as a YouTube vlogger. This is not an insult to it and please don’t take it as one; many authors (including myself) sometimes draw heavily on people and events in their own lives and feed them into their fiction. The annoying niggly feeling comes from the fact that it appears Zoe hasn’t used her life as inspiration, so much as given this inspiration over to other talented writers and then called it her own because it’s about her. Using real life to inform the plot and characters of a novel is nothing new or scandalous. But typically it’s the quality of the writing bringing these elements to life that makes a novel what it is; a well-crafted story rather than a stream-of-consciousness about your own life. Without Zoe, the ghostwriters could have drawn from another online star and still had a novel. Without the ghost-writers, there would be no novel at all.

Andrew Crofts, a prolific ghost-writer involved in the team it took to create Girl Online, has come out in defence of Zoe. He has been quoted as stating (correctly) that "it takes a lot of time to learn how to write a book — you have to slog away for years. The chances that they could suddenly write 70,000 words to publishable standard is unlikely. I don’t think her readers stop to think about it."

Okay, so let’s stop to think about it. What I take from that statement is Zoe wasn’t passionate enough about becoming an author to actually take the time to learn the craft. I think for me that’s what stings the most. I’ve been developing my writing all my life and am still not there yet, and that’s okay. It’s what it takes. But because she’s an online celebrity, she gets to take a shortcut to the top? If she truly wanted success as an author, I feel like she would have taken much longer over the process of writing it. To have help is one thing, and something I don’t think any author can claim they haven’t had. To have someone else write your idea is something completely different.

In Zoe’s defence, she really doesn’t seem like the glory-grabbing cheat who slapped her name on something she had nothing to do with, as some of the responses seem to think. She’s a big name on the online community and was likely approached by the publisher with an opportunity for a book deal. The chance to spin her life into fiction and fast-track it to the top, to see her name in print and tell her story to thousands. I don’t think even I can blame her for accepting a deal like that. And I don’t think she just sat back and let the ghostwriters do their thing with some half-arsed description of her life. No. I believe her when she says the plot and characters are hers, and I believe she was very involved in the process of writing the novel. She just didn’t write it herself.

Zoe's vlog seeing her book printed

For me, this whole thing would be completely fine if the book was credited as being written ‘by Zoe Sugg and…” If Zoe and her publisher were 100% open from the start that this was by no means a one-woman creation. It’s nothing new, and it’s openly accepted by readers. I think the feeling of deception comes from the fact that Zoe ‘Zoella’ Suggs is a self-made celebrity, with a much more equal connection with her audience. With online stars, the barrier between celeb and fan is broken down and you feel like they could just be one of your friends in real life. When an A-list celebrity employs a ghostwriter, it’s all part of the bubble of stardom that surrounds them and their personal branding. You have come to expect a certain amount of falsity. But when someone you considered on the level with you does it, and isn’t completely open about it, you feel a little let down.

We just don’t like feeling lied to. And for me that’s the only real issue here.

What are your thoughts on Zoe Sugg’s debut novel? What are your thoughts on ghost-writing in general?

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