Last weekend saw a social media storm after Jenny Colgan published a scathing review in The Guardian of Nadiya Hussain’s new novel, The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters. Colgan found herself on the receiving end of a barrage of tweets and other social media posts calling her ignorant at best, and a jealous racist at worst. Now that, as they always do, the cyber-storm has calmed down and Colgan seems to have disappeared from Twitter, here’s a perspective from someone who, through my work with the Bradford Literature Festival, has to think about diversity and equal representation in literature every day.
The culture of the celebrity-turned-author is now an entrenched stereotype, and I can understand how it seems all too easy for someone to get a lucrative book deal simply because they are famous for something completely unrelated to writing novels. Celebrity books are consistently topping bestseller lists, and this must be hard to swallow for aspiring writers who can spend years trying to get published. However, celebrity culture is not to blame for writers’ struggles in getting their books on shelves. Rather, books by – I’ll say it – national treasures such as Nadiya Hussain pay dividends for publishers and indeed contribute greatly to keeping the industry going, and therefore their ability to take a chance on an unknown talent.
It is not a smart move for Colgan to use one particular novel – and therefore one particular celebrity – to make a general criticism of a trend in the publishing industry for which she has a personal distaste. Her review is littered with patronising phrases such as “[the novel] is often funny and gradually reveals a bunch of family secrets that one could easily knock up in the back of a recipe book while waiting for a loaf to prove”, as if being a celebrity also makes you completely inarticulate. We know that Hussain wrote the novel with the help (at least) of Ayisha Malik, but she has been interested in reading and writing since she was a child and this level of personal insult has no place in a book review. It is worth mentioning here that I was very disappointed in The Guardian for publishing Colgan’s review, as the decision to do so smacked of being purely aimed at driving up website views rather than delivering an interesting comment on literary culture today. It was a misfire on every level, which brings me to the most difficult issue within Colgan’s piece: race.
I do not believe that the review is racist. Colgan herself does not make the connection between Hussain being Muslim and her claim that there is “only so much shelf space to go round”. Despite this, the review is arguably careless: of all the books to use to criticise the culture of celebrity authors, choosing one by a female Muslim author is somewhat unwise. Muslim women do not get a good amount of representation, and the potential for Nadiya’s book to encourage young Muslim women to read and write is a wonderful prospect. Colgan puts her foot in her mouth by writing “I was hoping for insights into a culture I don’t understand as well as I’d like, but the main thrust, overall, is that big noise religious families are all the same, which, while undoubtedly true, didn’t add much for this Irish/Italian Catholic”. For one thing, Colgan has expressed a desire to gain insight into another culture immediately before making a sweeping statement about it anyway. For another, it is not the sole job of minority writers to educate the white middle class in their culture, celebrity or not, and it is not the sole reason why it should be worthy of shelf space. The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters is a humorous novel written by a winner of The Great British Bake Off, not an informative pamphlet about Islam.
It is not for Jenny Colgan, who incidentally has dozens of published books, to say who deserves to fill that precious shelf space – as if that isn’t a non-issue anyway. She talks of one child in a library who dreams of being a writer and another in the kitchen dreaming of being a baker, and that Hussain’s book deal “feels like yet another chance snatched away from that kid whose library is closing down”, yet there is no reason why children should not pursue both of these interests if that is what they want – which certainly seems to be the case for Nadiya Hussain. How can anyone say who does and doesn’t deserve to have a book published? In an age where there is constant talk of bookshops becoming obsolete, anything or anyone that encourages people to read or write is a blessing, and no-one should be begrudged that opportunity.