It is fair to say I never thought I’d find myself using these pages to mount a spirited defence of the Stranger Things actor Millie Bobby Brown, but the pile-on that greeted the publication of her novel Nineteen Steps at the end of last month was unsavoury enough to have me hurrying to the defensive barricades.
Nineteen Steps is not your standard glossy celebrity publication. It is billed as a romance, but takes as its subject one of the biggest and most overlooked tragedies of the second world war.
On the evening of March 3 1943, 173 people died and 60 were injured in a crush at Bethnal Green underground station in the East End of London, pressed into use as an air-raid shelter for locals whenever the sirens sounded. Nobody can say for certain what happened that night, with theories including the ear-splitting sound of a new anti-aircraft gun nearby and three full buses arriving at once causing a calamitous bottleneck on the narrow staircase. Whatever the cause, Bethnal Green saw the largest single loss of British civilian lives of the entire conflict.
Propaganda and morale concerns kept the disaster out of the media, meaning the tragedy has never received the recognition or process of remembrance it deserved. For years barely anyone outside the East End even knew about it, especially when the generations who had been there began to die off. It took until 2017 for a proper memorial listing the names of those killed to be erected.
One survivor of the crush that night was Millie Bobby Brown’s grandmother, who died in 2020 as a result of Alzheimer’s Disease. Having grown up with her story, Brown was determined to share her Nanny Ruth’s experiences as widely as she could and Nineteen Steps is the result, a fictionalised account based on the tragedy in which 18-year-old Nellie Morris, who works for the local mayor, is tasked with recording the experiences of the survivors for a possible future inquest.
On the face of it, this sounds like a rare and positive example of celebrity being used to tell an important story. Any 19-year-old making it their business to bang the drum for a forgotten disaster that occurred more than 60 years before they were born deserves praise, especially when the act of telling the story is a young woman’s heartfelt tribute to a beloved grandparent.
But no. When it emerged that Brown’s book had been written with a ghostwriter, the internet went off like a factory hooter. If Elon Musk had found a way to monetise self-righteous indignation then Twitter – and it is still Twitter, because “X” is a stupid name for anything other than the 24th letter of the alphabet and it’ll never catch on – would have been back on an even financial keel within minutes.
Nineteen Steps is a collaboration between Brown and Kathleen McGurl, the author of 14 novels, many of them set during the second world war, which was for a large and noisy section of the internet somehow entirely unacceptable.
“No hate to Millie Bobby Brown specifically because all celebrities do this, but when are we gonna talk about how disrespectful it is to hire a ghostwriter to write a book for you and then only put your name on the cover and not even mention the real author in any of the promotion,” said one Twitter user.
“Apparently having ‘plenty of ideas and a couple of Zoom calls’ before the actual author ‘knuckled down and wrote the first draft while Millie continued sending ideas via WhatsApp’ is what counts as ‘writing’ a book when you’re a famous person,” fumed another. “It’s nothing short of insulting.”
When the main Waterstones account sent out a cheerful tweet about Brown’s London book launch the responses were so overwhelmingly disparaging the chain ended up deleting the post altogether.
Now, there are many good reasons to gather at the inn with flaming torches and charge at the drawbridge of the publishing industry castle. Don’t get me started. The use and crediting of ghostwriters, however, is absolutely not one of them.
For one thing, Brown and her publisher have never made a secret of McGurl’s involvement. The ghostwriter’s name was on the press release that announced the book and McGurl wrote about her commission to work with Brown on her website back in March. The title page of the book credits “Millie Bobby Brown with Kathleen McGurl” and Brown posted a photograph taken at the book launch of her alongside her co-writer to her 64 million followers on Instagram. To suggest the actor was trying to pull a fast one on readers is simply absurd.
Many critics seemed to consider the use of a ghostwriter at all an appalling act of subterfuge, yet there have been such collaborations since the dawn of literature. As the Scottish author and ghostwriter Jennie Erdal once said: “It might almost qualify as the oldest profession if prostitution had not laid prior claim.”
Some scholars have suggested Homer never wrote a word and possibly didn’t even exist, with the Iliad and Odyssey both written in effect by ghostwriters. Certainly, Alexandre Dumas put his name to novels he had little or no role in creating. The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo were, it seems, largely the work of Auguste Maquet.
I understand why some people might feel disappointed to find a book has been written as a collaboration rather than come straight from the pen of someone they admire. Reading is an intimate experience, as if the author is telling you the story one-to-one, so to find there are three people in that relationship can be deflating, if not faintly humiliating.
Yet even books written solely by the name on the cover are not simply their unexpurgated prose. Every book, fiction or non-fiction, goes through a significant process of review and revision once it has been submitted by the author. Commissioning editors, desk editors and copy editors all have distinct input into what ends up in readers’ hands because everyone involved wants that book to be the very best it can possibly be. After all, if a story is worth telling then it is worth telling well, which is where ghostwriters come in as an extra layer in the creative process.
Many people have won fame in fields other than literature and have a remarkable tale to tell, a story that deserves to be planned and written in the best and most evocative way possible. If that means involving somebody whose specific profession is telling good stories and telling them well, everybody wins. Nobody is being conned or hoodwinked.
For once I can speak with some authority here, having written books under my own name and under other people’s. In the two highest-profile cases of the latter, my name appeared in the acknowledgements of one and on the title page of the other. Did I feel hard done by? Should I have received more credit as I was the one putting the hours in at the keyboard while the people whose names appeared on the cover sat on their sofas with a glass of wine and told me stories?
Absolutely not. For one thing that was the deal I agreed to, and for the other, neither book was my story. I was happy to do as good a job as possible for the people whose lives I was recounting.
As their ghostwriter, I was happy with my part in the process – a flat fee that took away the perils of relying on future royalties and being able to stay well in the shadows of the intense media attention that greeted both books. That media attention ensured that both books sold in large quantities because the stories they contained were the stories of the people whose names were on the covers.
Was I somehow deceiving readers? Again, no. The stories I was helping to write belonged to those individuals, it was up to me to tell them in their own voices using their own turns of phrase while using my literary experience to make them into literature. As one of the subjects, a musician, said to me, “it’s like I’m making an album and you’re the producer”.
As well as well-intentioned but misguided calls for McGurl to be listed as the author, one tweet in particular about Nineteen Steps displayed one of the biggest and most fundamental misconceptions about the publishing industry.
“Millie is occupying a space she has no urgency to be in,” it read. “The budget they need to prop her book up should go to debuts and midlisters.”
On the face of it this is an understandable point of view. It must be intensely frustrating for aspiring writers in particular – the source of much of the criticism – to see Millie Bobby Brown earn a lucrative publishing contract without putting in the hard yards herself.
Yet where does this tweeter think any budget to plough into debuts and midlisters comes from in the first place? It comes from books that bring in significant amounts of income to the publisher, enabling them to invest in a debut novel by an unknown writer or another book from an author with a small but dedicated following.
It comes from books like Nineteen Steps by Millie Bobby Brown.
It is icky enough watching the internet bully a 19-year-old woman for wanting to tell her grandmother’s story because she believes in it so strongly. It is even worse when that opprobrium derives from a fundamental misconception of how publishing works.
(Note to ghostwriter: throw in a few interminably long sentences, some stultifyingly trite opinions and way too many adjectives then just stick my name at the top. No one will be any the wiser. Thanks, Charlie.)