In the beginning, there was YouTube. Then, a little later, there was Zoë Sugg, a young woman with a dream. When those two things merged, they formed Zoella, vlogger extraordinaire, lover of all things “Beauty, Fashion, & Life.” Next came fame and fortune and millions of YouTube subscribers and Twitter followers. Finally, last month, Zoella’s new novel arrived. It is titled Girl Online, and now it’s the fastest-selling debut novel of all time.
But! Last weekend, Sugg’s publisher, Penguin Random House, admitted that the novel was “factually” not written by Sugg. “To be factually accurate you would need to say Zoe Sugg did not write the book Girl Online on her own,” they said. Then, on Twitter, Sugg, admitted that the novel was ghostwritten by committee. And not just a little bit ghostwritten. The entire thing, as it turns out, was ghostwritten, except for the ideas for the characters and the story. Here is Sugg’s “confession”:
Thanks for all the positive feedback about Girl Online and for the doubters out there, of course I was going to have help from Penguin’s editorial team in telling my story, which I talked about from the beginning. Everyone needs help when they try something new. The story and the characters of Girl Online are mine. I want to thank all of you who have taken time to support the book.
And so Sugg shrugged off the problem (or so it seemed). “Everyone needs help when they try something new,” she says, as if writing a novel is like inviting your friends over to help you put together an Ikea bed.
Now, as of yesterday afternoon, Zoella has taken leave of the Internet because, as she says, “It is clouding up my brain”:
Bare with me on vlogmas. I’m taking a few days out and off the internet because it’s clouding up my brain. Thanks for understanding .❤️
If you’re like me, you had to read this tweet multiple times in order to realize that vlogmas is not a Greek Orthodox holiday but rather a triple portmanteau: video + blogger + Christmas.
So what’s the takeaway from this would-be tragedy? I can pretty much guarantee you that there is no scandal here. For one, Zoella probably wanted a vacation from the Internet. She just wrote a novel by committee. And her followers, who are overwhelmingly young, have no idea that novels aren’t usually written by a board of money-grubbing editors-cum-marketers with no regard for the written word. They simply do not give a shit.
Let’s take the example of the Kylie and Kendall Jenner. Not only was their debut novel, with its double-colon title — Rebels: City of Indra: The Story of Lex and Livia — almost certainly ghostwritten, but we already know that it was written by two people.
Does this state of affairs suggest a future where novels are written by committee, or where no one cares if two or more people write a novel? Is this the death of the cult of genius? The Foucauldian death of the author? Or is it the height of exploitation, of a trickle-down publishing economy that splashes ghostwriters in the face with pennies?
I strongly doubt that the case of Zoella, again, pseudo-author of the fastest selling debut novel of all time, will amount to much more than a footnote in publishing or literary history. It’s simply a function of branding. Zoella’s base was already tethered to the idea of Zoella as the star or the actor of a production — not as its author. When Zoella publishes a novel, in other words, it only matters that it came, in some way, from her thoughts, or appears to, the way that things can come from an actor’s thoughts (the script). Girl Online, then, is just a bit of merchandising, like a Star Wars figurine.