Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Zoella and the argument for authenticity

In lieu of recent events, and as a writer who shares her thoughts and feelings on a blog, I've decided to come out in support of the underdog.

The cover of Girl Online. (via Goodreads)
Earlier this week, a YouTube beauty guru I have been watching for quite a while now became the subject of controversy when it came to light that the novel she was said to have written was not solely her work. The reports, which centered on Zoe Sugg (or Zoella) and her debut novel Girl Online, claimed that the book was ghostwritten - whether in its entirety or only partly so remains unclear. For details on the subject, I recommend reading the Guardian's post about Zoe's temporary departure from the Internet. It is thoroughly researched and comprehensive on the subject.

The long and short of it is that there is an apparent ghostwriter behind the novel who publications claim has written the entirety of the novel. Zoe is said to have had creative input, but otherwise the work was that of another author - Siobhan Curham. This news came soon after Girl Online received intensely positive reports following its record-breaking first week of sales.

Ordinarily I stay away from topics such as this because, well, they're dangerous. People have strong opinions about entertainment figures and about controversial topics like ghostwriting, which can lead to backlash. Yet I feel there is a side to the argument being publicly ignored.

Zoe is someone I admire quite a lot having been an avid viewer for more than a year now. And in being a part of her community, I have seen her fan base up close - on the Internet and in person at the VidCon YouTube conference.

It would be an oversight to say that the success of Zoe's book was not because of her name and reputation. Her fans are devoted and passionate - they frequently hang on her every word. I can attest to this, having personally purchased make-up and clothing items per her recommendation. As a beauty guru and vlogger, she carries strong influence over millions of followers. And her book attracted that same audience with unsurprisingly enormous enthusiasm.

But Zoe's success is not the reason I've decided to confront the situation.

As someone who considers herself an aspiring writer, I've always taken artistic authenticity very seriously. When I write something and place my name along with it, I do not take that attribution lightly. It is important to me that the things I write are first and foremost my work, and I pride myself in being able to claim my writing as my own.

While I may not be able to attract millions of people to read what I write, I get satisfaction in knowing that the small audience of individuals who take the time to read my blog are reading an authentic piece of myself.

For Zoe, it doesn't seem like this was a possibility with Girl Online. As many readers are probably already aware, a lot of books (primarily nonfiction, but also fiction) are ghostwritten, or at least partially ghostwritten. This is not unusual, especially when it comes to popular celebrities being granted authorship by major publishers.

Everyone who watches Zoe knows that she is a writer as well as a beauty vlogger. Her blog is a testament to this. However, when dealing with a professional publisher looking for the next big marketable thing, an authentic voice may not have been high on the agenda.

The way I see it, in this unfortunate set of circumstances, there's an unfair amount of blame being thrown at someone who was likely not responsible for what happened. Zoe has become the subject of scrutiny, and pushed into temporary hiding for a choice that may not have been hers in the first place.

If I see any fault in this situation, it's the prevalence of ghostwriting and of the money-over-authenticity game being played in the professional publishing world.

Ghostwriting in general is a tricky issue. It frequently involves what could be simply compared to hush-money, provided to an author in exchange for quite a bit of work and minimal recognition. As a writer, I recognize the value in a byline or an authorship. These aren't small tokens. They are valued and often worth much more than a quick pay-off.

The truth is, our society and its extreme focus on economics has made us into willing participants in an industry of lies. Rather than encouraging the potential writing talent of Zoe or giving recognition where it's deserved to any and all contributing writers, stunt-casting becomes the priority. As willing consumers, we avert our eyes to the obvious, therefore letting the system continue on a downward spiral.

As intelligent people and discerning readers, it's up to us to show those in power in publishing that this isn't what we want. A hard-bound book with a celebrity's face on it would mean so much more if the words held within it actually came directly from that celebrity's mind. Can anyone really argue with that?

And on the other side, unknown authors deserve to be discovered and read on the basis of their own talent.

My sincere hope is that one day I will live in a world where people are lauded for their talent over their ability to be recognized at a mall. This is a courtesy that all artists deserve, and one that is so simple to attain.

There is nothing wrong with fame, but what is wrong is trampling on the underdog instead of lifting that person up to shine to their full potential. I feel in this situation, neither the credited author nor the ghostwriting author were given the credit they deserved as creators. But with just a small adjustment in our expectations as readers and buyers, maybe we could affect change and encourage authenticity from the people who make the final decision over whose name goes on the book jacket.

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