Novelist Jenny Colgan deactivated her Twitter account this weekend after her Guardian review of The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters by Nadiya Hussain, ghostwritten by Ayisha Mailk, sparked angry reactions on social media.
In her review, Colgan said the novel was “perfectly competent”, but she lamented the popularity of the celebrity novel, commenting: "It’s hardly a new phenomenon, celebrities turning up out of the blue with novels what they have most definitely wrote. Maybe it’s particularly upsetting me this time because I’m a fan. Hussain is just so brimful of talent; of happiness and grace and skill. From a traditional Muslim background, she grew up in Luton and ended up being universally loved and baking for the Queen. Does she really need to put her name to a novel, too, when there’s only so much shelf space to go around?”
She also commented: "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 noisy religious families are all more or less the same, which, while undoubtedly true, didn’t add much for this Irish/Italian Catholic.”
And she added: “In the end, I think the worst thing about this is that it feels greedy.”
However in a blog, fellow writer Joanne Harris took issue with her points, saying Colgan is "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)."
She also took issue with Colgan’s comments on culture, observing: "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…. 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.”
Harris added: "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?”
Elsewhere there was a plethora of angry social media responses, with examples including Twitter user Maryam Jameela tweeting: “The thinking of @jennycolgan is toxic - WOC and in this instance South Asian women & Muslim women are being told we take up #toomuchspace”, and Imandeep Kaur commenting: "Hey, I'm a brown girl with 3 degrees, work in multiple disciplines & more. Is this #toomuchspace I'm taking up @jennycolgan?”
Others leapt to Colgan’s defence, with writer Nina Stibbe commenting, again on Twitter, “It’s hard to believe some of the people criticising @jennycolgan have actually read her piece.” In a series of tweets, reviewer Alex Clark noted: "I have issues with 'celebrity' books as well. I genuinely hope and believe that's not snobby; for me, it's that I think they're often low quality. IMO that is treating the market as fools. And it's not creating a good literary or literary culture. However: people should read what they want (including ghosted/commercial fiction/non-fiction). BUT Jenny's review didn't do many of things it is accused of. She didn't tell Nadiya to stay in the kitchen or, as I have read, 'her lane'. Neither did it accuse her of greed (tho' I understand why that word has triggered anger). It didn't demand that novels educate white readers in the realities of Muslim family life, even if it mentions that it doesn't....
She added: "However: there are absolutely vital arguments to have about representation in publishing; how readers find books; the rights to write." She urged Twitter users to have those debates rather than live in an "echo chamber".