photo credit Gage Skidmore

The celebrity and the ghost

Millie Bobby Brown joins the cast of celebrities vilified for their use of ghost writers with her debut Nineteen Steps.

Another victim of the ‘actor turned author’ pandemic has been named. Stranger Things star Millie Bobby Brown released her debut novel Nineteen Steps this September, joining the ever-expanding list of celebrities who have developed an incurable desire to publish mediocre fiction.

Unfortunately for Brown, the historical tale, inspired by childhood bedtime stories of World War II, has done little to establish her as a literary mastermind. Instead, it has resulted in a steady stream of hate that is travelling solely in her direction. Brown has been accused of “ruining literature”. She has been criticised for using ghostwriter Kathleen McGurl, and her moral integrity has even come under consideration for plastering her name across the front of a novel that she didn’t technically write. People are especially angry over Brown’s comment that turning Nineteen Steps into a movie was the “intention behind it”. But is this so-called ‘disease’, taking the publishing industry by the sweep, really the fault of nineteen-year-old Millie Bobby Brown? I highly doubt it. In fact, I would argue that the blame should be placed at the feet of the mindless consumers, or in other words, us.

To fully understand the issue of celebrity novelist, we need to take a step back. The world of fiction is only one of hundreds of industries that have been taken over by celebrity culture. For decades now, those in the public eye have been signing their name over to skincare, makeup, clothing lines, and more. Investors and businesses know that consumers will buy into anything remotely linked to their favourite on screen star, and in turn, will generate massive profits. As a study into consumerist culture by the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative concluded, we are more likely to purchase a product when it’s actively endorsed by a celebrity.

According to this analysis, it would be logical to place celebrity-written books, and say, celebrity makeup brands, in the same category. Both are celebrity-endorsed products. This description, of a book, as simply a product begging to be bought, is enough to make any literature lover cringe. This degradation from art to commodity, is perpetuated significantly by the emergence of celebrity ghost-written novels. Publishing industries are investing in money making names, rather than talented young authors, and in turn the fiction industry is becoming more and more superficial. We consumers are sustaining this.

So why is Brown receiving so much backlash, for something almost every celebrity does? Why are we singling her out, and vilifying her, for playing a part in an industry that we’ve only encouraged and supported? Why, when it comes to the likes of Ethan Hawke, or Chris Hoy, do we praise their literary ventures, but attack Brown’s attempt to branch out in her career? I would argue that Millie Bobby Brown’s status as a young woman plays a major role in our rush to blame her for something that’s much bigger than one individual. As author Matt Haig wrote, following the release of Nineteen Steps, “picking on one young individual is a bit like blaming a sneeze for a cold. It’s just a symptom.”

When commenting on the debut, the Telegraph stated, “Some say there’s nothing this young star can’t do, but her first book, Nineteen Steps, a flat and repetitive wartime romance, disproves that.” This habit of bullying and blaming young women for the increased celebrity culture in the fiction industry is nothing new. Take social media influencer Zoe Sugg, who published Girl Online back in 2014. She was attacked so viciously for using a ghostwriter that she had to “take a few days out and off the internet”. Similar events occurred when Kendall and Kylie Jenner released their ghostwritten novel Rebels: City of Indra: The Story of Lex and Livia also in 2014. I would argue that literary critics have become accustomed to placing the blame on young women, as it allows frustration to be placed onto individuals that they view as ‘easy targets’.

As Millie Bobby Brown faces cruel, and in my opinion, misdirected critique, I believe we need to ask ourselves two fundamental questions. Why do we trust celebrities that often know minimal information about the product they’re so passionate about? And why do we find it acceptable to place the blame on someone we see as an easy target? The release of Nineteen Steps should not prompt us to find someone else to blame, but rather make us reflect on the social norms that made the controversy possible. It should lead us to conclude that, as consumers, we need to be more discerning. And as people, we need to be more thoughtful about the vitriol we place on young women.

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