A few days ago, I read this article. It caught my eye because I’m always interested in hearing about new writers, and I’d never heard of this one. It turns out that the author, Zoe Sugg, is a popular YouTube vlogger, with several million followers. She recently released her first novel, Girl Online, with unprecedented success, and the picture in the article shows her pictured with her book, visibly delighted at achieving her dream of publishing a novel.
And then it all began to fall apart.
In the acknowledgements, Sugg thanked her editor at Penguin, Amy Alward, and an author, Siobhan Curham, for being with her ‘every step of the way.’ Enough people found it odd that she might credit an author rather than just the publishers and editor, that they spent some time investigating Curham’s background. It turns out that Curham is an established author with several books to her name, and that she was the ghostwriter behind Girl Online.
Some argue that the anger directed at Sugg for having a ghostwriter is due to the fact that she is an attractive, young, successful woman, and that the internet loves to hate on people who do well, especially when it is for something so ‘simple’ as putting up videos of yourself applying makeup, or answering questions from fans. It’s certainly true that there’s always those who are happy to see someone successful fail, but I think that in this case, it’s not so simple.
I have a couple of friends who have ghostwritten novels – one of them produces them regularly – and I appreciate that for many writers, it is a way of getting writing jobs which pay. When you’re trying to break into the industry, trying to earn actual money from writing, ghostwriting can be a way of breaking even. However, there is an aspect of this which makes people uneasy. Not about the ghostwriter, most of the time (although Curham has stated that she is getting abuse due to her role in Girl Online), but about the name of the person on the cover.
We’re disappointed when we find out that a book has been ghostwritten when we thought it wasn’t. We feel cheated. Maybe in this case, that’s exacerbated by the fact that Girl Online is a novel, and most celebrity books by ghostwriters are autobiographical in nature. But ghostwriting has been a part of the publishing industry for a long, long time, and that’s unlikely to change any time soon. It could be that we’re naive, thinking that it’s only a rare occurrence.
Perhaps another underlying problem here is that we build celebrities up to such an extent that producing a book or a film appears to be the logical next step for them. The public is insatiable: we want more – we want to see our celebrities succeed, we want to know more about them, we want to see the branch out into other areas. It is almost taken for granted that every famous sportsperson or politician or actor will release a book at some point.
However, not everyone can write. And for those who can, it’s still hard to write a book! We expect that with all the other things these famous people do, that of course they will be able to also sit down and write their autobiography or a children’s book or a novel. And that expectation sets the scene for ghostwriters. After all, there are few celebrities who would stand up and say, ‘I know that people like me put out books all the time. But I can’t write, and I’m much better at playing football/being a senator/acting. So I won’t be releasing a book.’ Of course they’re going to hire ghostwriters, if they want their brand to grow.
And let’s face it, Sugg is a brand. She is only 24 and is putting on the internet elements of her life to paint a picture of a personality – but it’s only a picture. I’m not saying Sugg is shallow… granted, she doesn’t appear to be the deepest person in the world, but she’s young – and her manner and delivery is what her fans are after. However, whenever we get in front of the camera, or behind the keyboard, or even when we go out in public, and present ourselves to the world, we are putting out the edited version. There are things we don’t say and things we do, because of how we want to appear.
And Sugg appears to be so down-to-earth, so it’s not the fact that she didn’t write the book, it’s that she’s not come out and admitted as much. Her fans may be sticking by her, but it would have been more authentic and honest, as many have suggested, to just acknowledge up front that she was working with a writer to complete her novel. Many celebrities do this, so it’s not as if it would have affected her sales. And it would have at the very least taken away some ammunition from her critics.
Sugg wanted to be an author, and by having a ghostwriter, she has achieved the goal of publishing a book with her name on it. But given the controversy, and the negative reaction in many circles, I wonder if it was worth it. Was it really worth paying someone else to write her story? Or should she, perhaps, have continued to do what she was doing well, and if she really did want to write her own novel, then taken the time to do it on her own? The resulting achievement would have been all the more exciting, and the sense of accomplishment would have lasted long after the fame had vanished, which it is, at some point, inevitably going to do.