In your own words

So a popular young YouTube blogger named Zoe Sugg (aka ‘Zoella’) has released the first novel under her name. There is a lot of talk about this for various reasons. One is that it has sold at record breaking speed. Another is that she is immensely popular for dispensing beauty tips to a very young age group; this has inspired some talk about marketing and messages to young girls.

The one that pisses me off is that it’s ghost written.

It’s yet another celebrity slapping their name onto a novel like it’s a bottle of perfume or a t-shirt and playing at being an author. There have been some disingenuous attempts from the people behind the book to conflate the ghost writer’s role with that of an editor, but that’s rubbish. All authors use editors. Editors do not write the book on the named author’s behalf.

‘Zoella’ is neither the first nor the last to do this, so my opprobrium is not aimed at her as an individual. I have nothing against her. She presents certain content in a certain style to an age group that I am not part of. It’s not for me but there’s no reason to be snobby purely because I’m not her audience.

It’s not aimed at all ghost writing either – I think there is a time and a place for it.

What I object to, however, is the industry marketing a novel on the basis of the author’s “voice” and accomplishment when all they’ve done is come up with the basic plot. That goes double for someone like Zoella who is marketed at a young age group. Adult readers are (or ought to be) worldly enough to know that novels with Katie Price’s name on the cover were ghost written. Young girls aren’t. Many are unlikely to even know what a ghost writer is. She’s marketed as an inspirational and relatable figure for them, someone to look up to, and I feel like peddling a ghost written novel to them is taking advantage.

Coming up with the basic plot line is not writing a novel, any more than plonking a model down on a stool and commissioning an artist is painting a portrait. You know what the voice of a novel is? It’s the words. The language, the rhythm, the imagery, the style. It’s pouring pieces of yourself onto paper. It’s not hard to come up with a basic concept and characters; almost anyone can do that. It doesn’t make you a writer. What is difficult is taking constructing entire stories and three dimensional portrayals out of those bare bones. Taking a reader to another place and time. Making them feel like they know and can relate to your characters. THAT is writing.

I think the reason it annoys me so much is that I have written fiction myself (just for fun, no interest in publishing it). I know how challenging it is. Crafting a story, crafting the sound and flow of a sentence, it’s a skill that requires years of development before you get anywhere even approaching passable. It’s a beautiful thing and I love it but it’s really effing hard. That’s exactly why it makes me so cross to see people being accredited for someone else’s work. They chucked the ghost writer a few grand and she won’t receive another penny in royalties or any of the accolades for her record breaking work. True enough that she signed up for that, but the whole thing still stinks to me. Unknown authors have a hard enough time in this industry, and instead of cultivating talent we want to exploit it and give random celebrities the credit?

I did say that I think there’s a time and a place for ghost writing. I have no problem with celebrity autobiographies being ghost written. In that situation the substance of the book is still the celebrity’s – it’s their life, their thoughts and memories as they’ve expressed them. What the ghost writer does is to hone them into a format that works as prose. That is a skill in itself, since the way people speak doesn’t necessarily work well in writing. You have to shape it into something readable but still capture the celebrity’s own tone and way of expressing themselves. Even so, the meat on those bones is still the celebrity’s so I’m fine with it in that situation.

That, however, is a totally different kettle of fish than a novel. Anybody can come up with a plot line and a basic structure. Few people can take that and make it into a real story. That’s all done in the writing, and in my eyes only a person who has done that (whether alone or as a co-writer) has any right to have their name on the cover.

Maybe I’d be less bothered if they weren’t so obfuscatory about it. Heck, I’m sure plenty of her fans would buy it anyway even if they did know and understand about the ghost writing. At least that would be an informed decision though.


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