Millie Bobby Brown's debut novel is a bestseller. Does it matter that the 19-year-old actor didn't write it?

Stranger Things actor Millie Bobby Brown’s debut novel, Nineteen Steps, revolves loosely around true events. In 1943, the Bethnal Green tube disaster claimed the lives of 173 Londoners, due to faulty stairs in the station used as an air raid shelter.

This tragedy, the UK’s largest loss of civilian life in the second world war, was one Brown’s own grandmother survived. Brown describes her novel as a “really special project” inspired by her family’s WWII history.

But she didn’t write Nineteen Steps. A ghostwriter named Kathleen McGurl did. McGurl described the process in a blog post:

I was sent a lot of research that had already been pulled together by Millie and her family, and plenty of ideas, and we had a couple of Zoom calls. And then I knuckled down and wrote the first draft, while Millie continued sending more ideas via WhatsApp. The book went through several drafts since then, as we refined the story.

There’s been vocal backlash against the book – partly due to Brown’s outsourcing, but also for its quality. The novel’s first paragraph, which has been shared widely (and derisively) on social media, ends with the line:

It was hot — the kind of heat that makes you long for the weather to cool down and the leaves to fall, but then you berated yourself for wishing away the good weather.

Social media users have further lambasted the dubious origins and quality of Nineteen Steps by posting screenshots from classic novels, cheekily attributing the opening lines to Brown.

Read more: Ghostwriters haunt our illusions about solitary authors

Credit where credit’s due?

Ghostwritten novels have long haunted debates surrounding issues of authorship and authenticity in publishing.

It’s a phenomenon we seem to tolerate in some genres, usually when the real author’s ghostly presence is an open secret (even subtly acknowledged), or when authorship takes a backseat to story. It’s more common in mass-market than literary fiction.

For example, anyone who’s devoured a Hardy Boys novel or an instalment of The Baby-Sitters Club owes hours of enjoyment to the invisible authors behind household names Franklin W. Dixon and Ann M. Martin. These serialised books for young readers revolve around familiar characters and the comforting rhythms of formulaic story arcs.

Blockbuster writer James Patterson co-authors his novels, coming up with outlines and working with collaborators to conceive, co-write and curate them.

We also know ghostwriters regularly work with celebrities when they publish memoirs and autobiographies. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In (2013) was co-authored by TV and magazine writer Nell Scovell, best known for creating the hit series Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Prince Harry’s controversial Spare was famously penned by acclaimed ghostwriter J. R. Moehringer.

Read more: Paparazzi, 'blooding' and a body count: hunting and being hunted dominate Prince Harry's royally discontented memoir

What makes a celebrity novel, such as Brown’s, different?

One obvious answer is that this type of ghostwriting feels inherently more murky and disingenuous.

When working with a public figure or celebrity to tell their life story, the writer’s purpose is to help them excavate their circumstances, memories and perspectives – and to then shape them into a readable book. Their task doesn’t necessarily include representing the celebrity “author” or collaborator as a competent, imaginative writer.

A novel, on the other hand, implies a distinct relationship between author and text that a ghostwriter more clearly undermines. The point of writing a novel is typically to write a novel.

If Hemingway was right, and all it takes is to “sit at the typewriter and bleed”, we have good reason to worry about who gets the credit for bleeding a fictional story into being. When somebody puts their name to a novel, they’re staking a claim to an act of skill, imagination and perseverance that even the world’s most successful writers admit is tough.

But our discomfort runs deeper than the concealment of identity and therefore labour. Our discomfort lies more with how a bestselling celebrity novel reconfigures the book as merchandise.

As Noongar Australian author Claire G. Coleman recently tweeted about Brown’s Nineteen Steps: “This book will outsell books by real authors because her name is on it.”

Read more: Ghostwriters haunt our illusions about solitary authors

Ghost in the machine

Pointing the finger at capitalism seems almost too easy. But ready-made audiences are seductive to publishers, who do business in a notoriously competitive domain. Ghostwritten celebrity novels may not always be a critical success, but they often succeed commercially – at least for a while.

You may remember that British YouTuber Zoe Sugg (better known as Zoella) broke records back in 2014 when her debut novel sold almost 80,000 copies in its first week on shelves. Shortly afterwards, the book made headlines again when it came to light that a prolific children’s author had written it.

The fallout was immediate and intense. But Sugg went on to publish several more novels, this time bearing the names of her co-authors on the covers. She also sells homewares, apps and even a monthly “sexual wellness subscription box” through her website.

Celebrity authors – some using ghostwriters (and some crediting them), others writing their own books – have long been a trend in children’s publishing, from Madonna and model Cara Delvigne to Matthew McConaughey.

Critics say widespread ghostwriting in books for kids undermines quality and means there’s less money available to sign other authors.

And let’s not forget Millie Bobby Brown has starred in one of Netflix’s most popular offerings to date. She’s amassed close to 64 million followers on Instagram. That’s an awful lot of admiring fans who might drop $32.99 on a paperback, much as they might buy any other celebrity merch.

We may expect more from fiction. But celebrity novels remind us books always occupy an uneasy position as both artistic creation and commodity. This is why many of us who care about reading and writing will find we can’t agree with the ghostwriting firms that insist books are “just products”.

Writing, as I often remind my students, is primarily a process. It is the means, not the end.

As celebrity authors remain a fixture of contemporary publishing, and AI platforms such as ChatGPT complicate the nature of creative practice even further, the war of words around Nineteen Steps is another opportunity to think about why we read books – and what we want from them.

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Amber Gwynne, The University of Queensland.

Read more:

Amber Gwynne does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.