Millie Bobby Brown’s debut novel, Nineteen Steps, has stirred controversy as the public continues to grow increasingly suspicious of celebrity merit. Amid the use of terms like “nepo-baby”, many examples of celebrity success are being seen in a new and decidedly skeptical light. Nineteen Steps and other books like it are being put under fire for the apparent erasure of their ghostwriters.
Although Brown has been transparent about her partnership with ghostwriter Kathleen McGurl, many have criticized the young star, claiming that “McGurl’s name should be on the cover”. Others have sided with Brown, pointing out that other openly ghost-written best-sellers like Prince Harry’s Spare, written by JR Moehringer, pass the public’s approval without incident.
As Hannah Yelin, author of Celebrity Memoir: From Ghostwriting to Gender Politics points out, criticism for ghostwritten works is often directed at “young female stars”, and cites the public shaming of Zoe Sugg’s book, Girl Online, ghostwritten by Siobhan Curham. As Yelin implies, the controversy surrounding ghostwriting has much to do with the public’s gender bias and political mentality.
As Brown’s critics bash the novel, it is possible that the long history of ghostwriting is being forgotten in the discussion. Collaboration and ghostwriting have been used for decades by celebrated writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald. The fact that such heated debates and scathing remarks are used only when a young woman publicly acknowledges her ghostwriter seems to show a divide between the proclaimed interests of the readers and the nature of the industry.
Ghostwritten works continue to sell, especially in the memoir genre, where titles like Spare thrive in readership. It can be argued that the public wants to be sold an entertaining story, no matter who it was written by and that celebrity lives make for the most enticing and interesting characters. In regards to the novel genre, Brown’s debut being a mystery novel based on her grandmother’s experience of the 1943 Bethnal Tube Catastrophe, celebrity names undoubtedly sell better for publicists.
While audiences may feel cheated by the realities of ghostwriting, the presence of a writer does not mean that the celebrity was not involved in the process. As McGurl claims, Brown and her family had done prior research and communicated extensively with the author throughout the writing process, crafting the final product.
As in most things involving celebrities, the ghostwriting debate is not without its merit but remains unfairly skewed. It raises questions for a society ever more entranced in the lives of its one percent. Who is deserving of credit, and were credit given to them, would the public engage with the product? Should celebrities be able to leverage their success in other industries?
As celebrities continue to release books, fashion lines, and lifestyle brands, the questions of involvement and merit are likely to continue and become more defined. The debate, colored by bias, but also an indignation at the simplicity of industry success for celebrity names, may only serve to deepen the divide between idols and the public.