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.