this looks like a thing published by penguin classics or something

On Ghostwriting, Celebrity and That Guardian Review.

Yesterday, some of you may have noticed this review in the Guardian. It’s a review by Jenny Colgan of The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters, by (according to the title page) Nadiya Hussain and Ayisha Malik.

Now, being one of those freaks who doesn’t watch GBBO, I have only limited knowledge of Nadiya Hussain is. I do know of Ayisha Malik, though. She’s a writer, a good one: and from that it’s pretty easy to guess that she’s Nadiya Hussain’s ghostwriter.

So what? Becoming famous in one area (be it sport, politics or baking) does not magically transform someone into a writer. Of course celebrity authors need ghostwriters to help them: that’s why their novels and autobiographies are generally clear, interesting and competently-written. And Nadiya even credits her ghostwriter; not all celebrity authors do. (Some even make them sign non-disclosure agreements, in the hope that the general public will really believe they wrote the book.)

However, having noticed all that, Jenny Colgan (whom I’ve met several times; she seemed like a nice person, though even nice people can be wrong, and in this case, I think she is) still proceeds to make her review all about her dislike of celebrity novels, and how this somehow cheats “proper writers” out of the shelf space they’re entitled to.

She begins with a description of two little girls, one in a library, dreaming of being a writer, and one in a kitchen, dreaming of cakes. You don’t have to be a great brain to understand that the little girl in the library is Jenny Colgan, and that the girl in the kitchen is Nadiya Hussein, who somehow in real life gets to be a baker and a writer too, thereby (it implies) cheating the first little girl out of her dream; as if baking and writing were two kinds of cookies, with limited numbers to go round.

Does she really need to put her name to a novel, too, (writes this successful writer of the first-time author) when there’s only so much shelf space to go around?

It feels greedy.

Well, maybe it would, if writing and baking were cookies. It might be, if we lived in a world in which someone who was good at baking wasn’t allowed to write books. It might be, if publishing were a charity, fairly and evenly distributing its attention to everyone who needed it.

But as it is, no. It doesn’t feel greedy. It feels as if someone is feeling insecure and resentful, and that comes out as sounding plain mean.

Don’t think I don’t understand: I do. Being a writer is a risky business. It’s getting harder and harder to make a living as a professional writer. And now we seem to be overwhelmed by politicians, and TV chefs, and comedians, and musicians, and actors, and pop stars and people from reality shows all wanting to be authors, hogging the limelight and making it look as if anyone can write a book…

Yes, it sometimes feels unfair. It can sometimes seems as if being a celebrity comes with a special, free “bestselling author” card: a card that most authors never get to play. And yes, authors often feel jealous, resentful and scared that their livelihood is being eroded by people whose status as celebrities earn them special privileges. I’m as guilty of this thinking as anyone. You’ve heard me rant about Morrissey, who used his special status to get his ridiculous novel published by Penguin Classics – Penguin Classics, for pity’s sake, next to Shakespeare and Homer. I’m still dismayed that Penguin could do that – to themselves, and to us – for the sake of a piece of piss-a-bed prose that even his fans couldn’t read. And for what? Sales. So I get it. Yeah.

I’d also like to take a moment to mention the editor who commissioned the Guardian piece. My strong suspicion is that he or she knew perfectly well that Jenny Colgan’s review would raise hackles (and, of course, sales). Clickbait is synonymous with journalism nowadays: but if they’d had any kind of integrity, they would have given Jenny Colgan a kind and quiet warning, telling her just how badly she was exposing her prejudices, instead of throwing her under the bus. Because that’s just what the Guardian did, in encouraging her to voice her ignorance and insecurity in a way that would provoke debate. She got the flak: they got the sales. That word again. Sales. Hm.

However – let’s get to the review, and why Jenny Colgan and the Guardian ought to think long and hard about the toxic and damaging messages they are putting out.

First, let’s start with the fact that the book is “perfectly competently-written.” As well it might be; it’s by a perfectly competent writer. It will sell “like hot cakes”. As well it might: it looks like it might be fun, and lots of people have heard of Nadiya Hussian, whose TV presence (by all accounts) is delightful, warm and appealing. But, for some reason, we still shouldn’t buy it. Why? Because it’s ghost-written? The reason for this becomes increasingly unclear and illogical.

If you want to read warm-hearted sagas about second-generation immigration, Meera Syal is a wonderful novelist. If you want to read a brilliant book about four sisters, Little Women is still in print. If you like sisters and cooking, try the marvellous Like Water for Chocolate. Or read Ayisha Malik’s book: it’s huge fun.

Hang on – isn’t The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters Ayisha Malik’s book? Or does she mean a different book, with Ayisha Malik’s name on the cover? In either case, we know that the book would be perfectly competently-written. So why does it really matter to Jenny Colgan which one of Ayisha Malik’s books we read?

Surely it can’t be just because the book is ghost-written. Ghost-writers are excellent writers, and they work hard for their shelf space. Their work is the reason “celebrity books” meet the high standards readers expect. No, it’s because the book will “sell like hot cakes”. Sell better than books by other, less visible authors, who also write about relationships, and families, and baking.

This surefire seller, promoted at every literary festival you’ll attend this year, just feels like yet another chance snatched away from that kid whose library is closing down.

Except we know who that kid really is. It’s little Jenny Colgan, working hard to write her books, while TV celebrities are ushered past her on a red carpet that’s cordoned off from ordinary people.

But here’s the thing. Jenny isn’t a little kid. No-one’s snatching anything. She’s a high-profile, well-established white author, begrudging a Muslim woman “shelf space.” And that sounds pretty greedy, coming from someone with 27 books already in print. In fact, it sounds not entirely unlike “foreigners stealing our jobs.”  or “get back in the kitchen.” Not a great moment for Jenny (or indeed, for the Guardian).

Moving on to the actual book review part of the piece, we encounter my next problem. Having pointed out the cosmetic similarities to Little Women, Jenny says:

I was hoping for insights into a culture I don’t understand as well as I’d like, but the main thrust… is that big noisy religious families are all more or less the same, which, while undoubtedly true, didn’t add much….

Now whether she meant it or not, that reads as if she is complaining that the Muslim family in this book isn’t different enough to be interesting. Muslims in fiction should be exotic. They shouldn’t try to be like the rest of us. They shouldn’t take inspiration from Little Women. (Remember how Monica Ali was lambasted for daring to write about Princess Diana, instead of staying in Brick Lane?) Reading about people of other cultures should add something (to the experience of white people). It’s a perspective that fails to take into account the fact that a book authored by a Muslim woman, ghosted by a Muslim woman, about Muslim women may not be aimed at white people at all.

So hang on, I hear you asking. If Jenny Colgan didn’t like the book, is she not allowed to say so?

Well, yes. Of course she is. But in her review, she didn’t suggest that she disliked the book. Instead, she used her review platform to make a statement about “greedy” celebrities. Again, she had every right to do this. But was it really appropriate for her to do it as part of a review (and therefore target one writer only), rather than write a general piece, in which she could have mentioned any number of (white, privileged) celebrities?(Morrissey, I’m looking at you.)

And at best, it sounds as if this white author doesn’t understand how little representation Muslim girls have – in the media or in publishing. It sounds as if she has allowed her personal insecurities to cloud her objective judgement. A book reviewer reviews the book, not the author photograph. And in a world dominated by white celebrities, white authors, white reviewers, is it really too much to allow Muslim girls this one successful role model?

Muslim women have little enough of a platform – be it on TV or in publishing - as it is. They do not need to hear that one of the few Muslim women recognized as a success outside of the Muslim community is taking up too much space. And in the past, Jenny Colgan has given glowing reviews to books by (white) celebrities (who didn’t happen to be writing about women, and love, and baking).

Now I’m not a great fan of celebrity novels either, although I do think ghost writers do an excellent, and very underrated job. But in some cases, the value of giving a high-profile role model to (for instance) Muslim girls is more important than literary snobbery, or even the hurt feelings of an author who feels threatened.

Books are a zero sum game, she says. If you’re reading one, you can’t be reading another. 

Not so. Books are stepping-stones. One book leads to another. People reading Twilight sometimes go on to Wuthering Heights. People reading The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters might well go on to read Little Women. And people being told not to read it may just end up not reading at all. Whether we like it or not, there are people who never read books unless they have a TV or a celebrity connection. Those people feel so disconnected from the world of literature that, unless given permission to read by someone they know from TV, they may never reach for a book at all, let alone Little Women. Are we to ignore them, just because we, as writers, happen not to understand?

Books are for readers, not writers. And if even one non-reader reads a book because of a TV show about baking, then that book will have served its purpose. And if one Muslim girl sees Nadiya Hussain on the cover of a book and tells herself “I could do that,” then once more, it will have served its purpose.

As writers, we are all subject to fears and insecurities. But we’re not in this business to score off readers, or sneer at their choices, or deny role models to those who need them. That kid in the library needs to learn that no-one owes her shelf space, or column inches, or sales, or cookies. As writers, we ought to care about literacy, and empathy, and the good that books – that all books – do. And that means looking at what readers need. Because we’re not children any more, even though sometimes, we feel that way.


Classics that Inspired J.R.R. Tolkien: Legends from the Ancient North

  Penguin Books has kindly sent me their collection of epic stories that had a great impact on Tolkien’s legendarium. I feel very honored and thankful for it and ask apologizes for taking quite a long time to write this review. I just wanted to make sure it would be a good one, cause it's the first time I do something like this.
  The first thing that catches the eye is the design of the books, which is very elegant, the mistic and colourful paintings despicted on their covers really attracts the reader and gives a feeling of what’s to be found in there. The collection comprises the following titles: Beowulf, The Elder Edda, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Wanderer: Elegies, Epics, Riddle and The Saga of the Volsungs. Below I’ll give my impressions as a reader of the first four books (I haven’t received the fifth) and draw parallels between those tales and J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium, much of which have been discussed by himself in some of the letters that are avaliable in the book  "The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien".
  - Sir Gawain and the Green Knight presents an Arthurian legend dated from the 14th century. It’s a Middle English alliterative romance that tells the story of Sir Gawain, a knight of the King Arthur’s Round Table, who accepts (after had begged Arthur for the honour) the challenge to strike the Green Knight with his axe on the condition that he may return the blow in a year and a day. Sir Gawain then beheds the Knight, who neither falls nor dies, he simply picks up his head from the ground and handles Gawain his axe. The rest of the story tells about Sir Gawain’s chilvary and loyalty in his quest to reach the Green Chapel and fulfill the oath made to the Green Knight (these features are very abundant in Tolkien’s characters)
  J.R.R. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon published in 1925 a scholarly edition of the Middle English text of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and described the author as:

  He was a man of serious and devout mind, though not without humour; he had an interest in theology, and some knowledge of it, though an amateur knowledge perhaps, rather than a professional; he had Latin and French and was well enough read in French books, both romantic and instructive; but his home was in the West Midlands of England; so much his language shows, and his metre, and his scenery.

  - Beowulf is one of the most important works of Anglo-Saxon literature. It tells the story of Beowulf, a hero of the Geats in Scandinavia, who came to the aid of Hroðgar, the king of the Danes, whose mead hall (in Heorot) has been attacked by Grendel (a monster) and later by his mother. He defeats both and later becomes king of the Geats. Some years later, he finds his kingdom threatened by a dragon that he slays whilst daring into his lair. It’s an epic poem of a hero who proves his strenght against the greatest forms of evil.
  J.R.R. Tolkien in 1936 gave a lecture entitled “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”, which was later published in that year Proceedings of the British Academy and reprinted in many collections, incluiding the one edited by Christopher Tolkien “The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays”. In this, Tolkien managed to put down the critics against the poem and to draw attention to the main theme of the tale which is the hero’s battles against monsters and not its historical accuracy. It is said to be the most important article on Beowulf of the 20th century. Also Tolkien spoke on the importance of the tale to him: 

“Beowulf is among my most valued sources; though it was not consciously present to the mind in the process of writing, in which the episode of the theft [Bilbo stealing the cup from Smaug] arose naturally (and almost inevitably) from the circumstances. It is difficult to think of any other way of conducting the story at that point. I fancy the author of Beowulf would say much the same.” on a letter to the editor of the ‘Observer’, 1938.

  - The Elder Elda is a collection of Old Norse poems present in the Icelandic medieval manuscript Codex Regius. J.R.R. Tolkien has showed great interest on those having its influences spread over his works, as he states in this quote:

“Thus the names of the Dwarves in The Hobbit (and additions in the L.R.) are derived from the lists in Völuspá of the names of dvergar; but this is no key to the dwarf-legends in The L.R. The 'dwarves’ of my legends are far nearer to the dwarfs of Germanic [legends] than are the Elves, but still in many ways very different from them. The legends of their dealings with Elves (and Men) in The Silmarillion, and in The L.R., and of the Orcdwarf wars have no counterpart known to me. In Völuspá, Eikinskjaldi rendered Oakenshield is a separate name, not a nickname; and the use of the name as a surname and the legend of its origin will not be found in Norse. Gandalfr is a dwarf-name in Völuspá!” on the drafts for a letter to 'Mr Rang’, 1967

Also the book The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún draws back from studies of characters from these poems and also from The Saga of the Volsungs.
  - The Wanderer: Elegies, Epics, Riddles presents poems from England’s ancient origins. J.R.R. Tolkien based the name of the Ents from the poem The Wanderer and the Seafarer" as mentioned by him in this letter to W.H. Auden (1955):

“But looking back analytically I should say that Ents are composed of philology, literature, and life. They owe their name to the eald enta geweorc2 of Anglo-Saxon, and their connexion with stone.”

  - The Saga of the Volsungs (I have not read it) is a legendary Icelandic saga narrating the origin and the fall of the Völsung clan. It dates from the 13th century. The book “The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún” was larged based on it and comprises the alliterative verses written by J.R.R. Tolkien inspired by this poem. In a letter to W.H. Auden (1967), Tolkien wrote:

“Thank you for your wonderful effort in translating and reorganizing The Song of the Sibyl. In return, I hope to send you, if I can lay my hands on it (I hope it isn’t lost), a thing I did many years ago while trying to learn the art  of writing alliterative poetry: an attempt to unify the lays about the Völsungs from the Elder Edda, written in the old eight-line fornyrðislag stanza.”

and in a letter to Mrs. Mitchison (1949):

“I find 'dragons’ a fascinating product of imagination. But I don’t think the Beowulf one is frightfully good. But the whole problem of the intrusion of the 'dragon’ into northern imagination and its transformation there is one I do not know enough about. Fafnir in the late Norse versions of the Sigurd-story is better; and Smaug and his conversation obviously is in debt there.”

Also Sigurd is a dragon slayer and reminds me a lot in parts of Túrin Turambar’s story.

  There’s much more that could be written but I will keep it small for brevity’s sake, plus I think it’d spoil a bit for the potential new readers. I do recommend this series not only to Tolkien’s most assiduous fans but to every fantasy enthusiastic. Much of what is featured on late fantastic literature has its roots on the old legends from nowadays Scandinavia, Germany and Great Britain. And this series are amazing for those who have never gotten in contact with it before due to all the information provided beforehand in the introduction section, it’s very well-written and explains to the reader the backgrounds of the tales and how they were translated to modern english. 
  Being a long time J.R.R. Tolkien fan I’ve always read about parallels drawn between his legendarium and the old norse, germanic and english tales, both by Tolkien himself and by his readers and critics, which drove me to search more about it. Now I finally had the chance of experiencing it as 'whole' not only by reading fragments in internet and whatsoever but having them beautifully compiled in physical books. I do intend on reading more carefully this works because it is really amazing how much of them can be seen not only in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings but also in the tales that helped shaping Arda’s first ages.
  That’s it! Thank Penguin Classics so much for the wonderful gift and to everyone who read it, buy it! It’s totally worth it.