Is there nothing that Stranger Things star, actress, producer, Human Services student (nope, no idea), make-up and skincare mogul Millie Bobby Brown cannot do? Well, yes, in fact one of the things she cannot do is write a novel, something that she has cheerfully admitted as her debut, Nineteen Steps, was published by HarperCollins last week.
Mills, as her line of all-natural slap bills her, has worked with a ghostwriter, Kathleen McGurl, to tell a story based on the Blitz experience of her own grandmother, Nanny Ruth. Ruth was one of the survivors of the terrible Bethnal Green tube station disaster of 1943, in which 173 men, women and children died descending the steps to what should have been safety.
It was the UK’s worst civilian disaster of the Second World War, and the greatest single loss of life to take place on the London Tube system. Nineteen Steps is not, by all accounts, a ravishingly good book, but it is a good story, and an important, lesser-told one. It deserves to be in the world.
But of course there was consternation of various kinds once word got out about the book’s publication. On the one side were the “So you can become an author and not actually write it yourself these days… what’s the point?” grumblers, who apparently think that every autobiography is the golden, intricately woven words of its subject alone, and on the other, those who castigated Brown for not putting McGurl’s name on the front of the book alongside her own (a marketing decision that you don’t have to agree with to understand) – some of them directly under the Instagram post that she put up with a picture of herself, McGurl, and the book, with the caption “a HUGE thank you to my collaborator @kathleenmcgurl - I couldn’t have done this without you! #nineteensteps”
Brown is not the first celebrity to employ a ghostwriter. Both Keith Richards and Slash’s hugely entertaining autobiographies were collaborations, with James Fox and Anthony Bozza respectively. The backlash against Youtuber Zoella’s use of ghostwriters for her first novel in 2014 knocked her confidence but didn’t stop her publishing two more genuinely decent books off her own bat; Naomi Campbell’s 90s novel Swan, on the other hand, which apparently Campbell “did not have time” to write, probably should have stayed unpenned.
McGurl, who also writes her own novels, will have been paid handsomely for the work, for which, she has said, she was sent “a lot of research that had already been pulled together by Millie and her family, and plenty of ideas”, and talked to Brown a few times on Zoom before submitting her first draft. They have done in-conversations together to promote the book. She has not been hidden, or ignored. Celebs stick their names on all kinds of things they have almost no involvement in, from perfumes to clothing lines to food supplements – it sounds here very much like the bulk of the research came from Brown and her family, which certainly counts for something.
I think this is all… fine? The rise of celebrity fiction has actually increased the visibility of the ghostwriter, which is one hell of a job. The mastery of structure and ear for a voice required to create a readable and convincing book out of the jumble of ideas and personality traits tumbling out of another human being is hugely underestimated and underrated.
There has been a feeling in the past that the ghostwriter is not a ‘proper’ author. And of course it’s important that the work of ‘proper’ authors (your Sally Rooneys, your Paddy and Tom Crewes, your Bernadine Evaristos) is supported and promoted and read. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for other types of author, as long as the books produced are worth reading.
One of Brown’s critics gnashed that she “should be ashamed,” which seems a bit much, and claimed that “ghostwritten celebrity novels have ruined children’s literature and now they’re doing the same thing to adult fiction.” I will absolutely acknowledge that there’s a lot of execrable shit out there that sells waaaay too many copies just because it’s written (or not) by a popular figure. But ultimately, if (big if, I know) publishers maintain a sense of perspective and an eye to onward sales (if you want to create future classics and thus long-term income, best to invest in lesser-known, higher-quality work as well and not put all your eggs in the fleeting popularity basket) then celebrity books can provide a gateway for reluctant readers to discover the joy of losing yourself in another world. A delve into Brown’s Nineteen Steps, for example, might lead to a picking up of, say, Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn, or Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life.
Brown’s celebrity and energetic promotion of the book will, ultimately, bring a little-told story to a wide – and global – audience. She has not just acknowledged but enthusiastically bigged up her collaborator, McGurl, whose own book sales are likely to receive a significant boost off the back of the project. None of this is bad, it’s just part of an ecosystem, the diverse terrain of the publishing landscape. Let’s just relax and explore it.
What the Culture Editor did
Beautiful Thing, Theatre Royal Stratford East
God, remember how homophobic the Nineties were? I was the same age as the teen protagonists of Jonathan Harvey’s seminal play when it was first produced in 1993, and watching it now for the first time I can really see why it was such a game-changer — a gay love that doesn’t have to be mired in trauma? Without deep internalised shame? What a bloody joy. It’s on until October 7, and you can hear about it on the Evening Standard Theatre Podcast when it comes out on Sunday.
James Hannaham’s novel, which I gulped down in a couple of days on a Greek beach last week, is a breathtaking, full-pelt, bend-and-snapping internal narrative about a trans woman, Carlotta, taking her first steps of limited freedom in a changed Brooklyn after 20-plus years in the can upstate, serving time for a wrong-place, wrong-time robbery. Simultaneously hilarious, hopeful and horrifying, it transports you not just to another place but into another mind.