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Commentary: Stranger Things star Millie Bobby Brown didn’t write her bestselling novel – does it matter?

BRISBANE: Stranger Things actress 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 United Kingdom’s largest loss of civilian life in World War II, was one Brown’s own grandmother survived. Brown describes her novel as a “really special project” inspired by her family’s 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.

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 money 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.

Amber Gwynne is Sessional Lecturer in Writing at the University of Queensland. This commentary first appeared on The Conversation.

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