The publication of Stranger Things star Millie Bobby Brown’s debut novel has reignited a debate over ghostwritten celebrity books.
Brown’s Nineteen Steps, inspired by her grandmother’s experience of the 1943 Bethnal Green tube disaster, was ghostwritten by author Kathleen McGurl and published on Tuesday. The cover of the book features only Brown’s name.
In response to a now-deleted tweet by Waterstones promoting the book, many Twitter users criticised Brown. “You should be ashamed,” wrote one. “Ghostwritten celebrity novels have ruined children’s literature and now they’re doing the same thing to adult fiction.
On Tuesday, Brown posted an image on Instagram of herself holding the book standing next to McGurl, with the caption: “I couldn’t have done this without you!” Below the post, many comments were critical of Brown, claiming that the actor was “taking the credit” and that McGurl’s name “should be on the cover.
However, others came to Brown’s defense. “People love to attack people who trigger them and Millie is young, beautiful, famous, and rich,” Catherine Yardley, author of Ember, told the Guardian. She said that a lot of the criticism came down to “jealousy”, “ageism” and “sexism” – “I can’t think of one man who has had this level of criticism,” she added.
Brown is not the first celebrity to be criticised for using a ghostwriter. “We’ve seen it in relation to many young, female stars,” said Dr Hannah Yelin, author of Celebrity Memoir: From Ghostwriting to Gender Politics. “Zoella’s [media personality Zoë Sugg] first memoir comes to mind as an example which saw her lambasted in the media for breaking some kind of implicit social contract.”
Katie Price and Naomi Campbell are among the celebrities who have also used ghostwriters for their fiction books. “Collaborative authorship is nothing new and exists in many celebrated forms,” added Yelin. “From political speechwriters to editors like Maxwell Perkins who helped F Scott Fitzgerald with The Great Gatsby”. Shannon Kyle, a ghostwriter who started the Ghostwriters Agency, agreed that ghostwriting “has been around for a long, long time – since the days of Shakespeare”.
Kyle said that it was “part of the celeb culture” to front products such as perfumes, clothing ranges, beauty lines and food products that celebrities might not have been involved in the technical side of creating. Brown’s transparency about her use of a ghostwriter was “refreshing”, added Kyle, and “it doesn’t diminish her involvement, because ultimately it is her family story, and it wouldn’t be happening without her”. Yardley added that “the public might feel cheated”, but that Brown was “being open about it”.
In a blog post in March, McGurl explained that she was sent “a lot of research that had already been pulled together by Millie and her family, and plenty of ideas”. Brown and McGurl then had a “couple” of Zoom calls before McGurl wrote the first draft. Brown continued to send the writer ideas via WhatsApp, and the book went through several drafts as the pair “refined the story”.
Kyle said that the “public perception” of ghostwriters was shifting, which was a “good thing” because there were “some parts of the industry where ghostwriters can be subject to being a bit exploited”.
She believes that celebrities speaking about their ghostwriters will happen “more and more”, because the more celebrities talk about it, “the more acceptable it becomes”.
Yardley believes that publishers could be more “open” about books that are ghostwritten. Kyle added that a publisher had to “think of the commercial angle of this because they’re a business and they need to work out what sells”.
Other notable ghostwritten celebrity titles include Prince Harry’s memoir, Spare, which was written by JR Moehringer. Harry “talked very openly about his ghostwriter and their relationship, and it didn’t diminish book sales there,” said Kyle. “The general public wants to be entertained by a book, they want to read a good story, and ultimately, whoever puts it together, I don’t think they really mind.”