Let Them Eat Literature

amirsistersI was sorry to hear that author Jenny Colgan has deactivated her Twitter after a row caused by her review of writer and Bake Off star Nadiya Hussain’s debut novel. I don’t think she meant to cause offence by writing it. It’s rare that the Guardian books pages become a talking point as they often tend to be anodyne and unmemorable, so I think it’s good that she published the review to an extent.

However, in this para, I think Colgan gets a few things wrong.

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?

This last line sums up the piece. Publishing for Jenny Colgan is zero sum. She explicitly says it: ‘Books are a zero sum game. If you’re reading one, you can’t be reading another.’ The point Colgan wants to make is that in this zero sum publishing world, publishers should not be using their limited resources to publish novels by celebrities like Nadiya Hussain – however much Colgan personally admires her. They should instead direct what they have into promoting new authors and literary fiction.

But publishers spend enormous amounts of money publishing books of no literary merit at all. For example, most of the better known Bake Off people have published cookbooks. All of these books take up time and resources in printing, binding, distribution and promotion. Publishers also of course produce crap celebrity biographies and crap supermarket genre fiction, as well as ordinance maps, histories of railways and lots of other stuff that adds nothing to English letters in any way. Surely that money also could have been spent on Colgan’s hypothetical bookworm or on struggling libraries. Why begin the fight with Hussain?

One implication in the above quoted para is that Hussain, having excelled in one field, should jolly well stick to it. But most creative people have had other jobs at some point. How dare Mr Eliot, who has banking to fall back upon, try and dominate the poetry scene. Couldn’t Agatha Christie have stuck to helping out at archaeological digs? Wasn’t Camus neglecting his college football team?

The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters is a family saga and from reading Colgan’s piece I still have no idea whether the novel is any good. But Hussain could have written the next Anna Karenina and she would have still struggled a great deal to get a book contract. Recently there was a brilliant piece by Andrew Dickson in the NS on BAME brain drain. Talented actors from ethnic minorities like Cush Jumbo and Archie Panjabi (the phenomenal Kalinda Sharma in The Good Wife) leave the UK because they know they have no chance of progressing their careers in the white, nostalgia-driven British TV world.

Publishing has a similar problem and publishers know this. A British Otessa Moshfegh or Colson Whitehead would have little chance of getting published here. YA author Alex Wheatle told the Guardian that he had switched from literary fiction because ‘I felt like I was this token black writer who writes about ghetto stuff… My books are seen as only for a black demographic’. He also said: ‘I didn’t go to university or on a fancy writers’ course, and so I think the respect is grudging – ‘Oh he is just serving his community.’’

As I have said publishing is aware that they have a diversity problem and I don’t doubt they are trying to fix this – although so much of the visible groundwork is coming from relative outsiders like Nikesh Shukla and Comma Press. But even in Colgan’s review – and I am sure that this is not deliberate – there is a sense of: haven’t we already ticked this box? She writes: ‘If you want to read warm-hearted sagas about second-generation immigration, Meera Syal is a wonderful novelist.’

Times are tough for career authors and no doubt publishers could and should do more. I know I sound like Lena Dunham at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop when I do this argument – ‘why are we being so judgy about popular fiction?’ – but I weary of the complaints about popular novels with big advances. The complainers make good points about the neglect of new fiction, lack of diversity etc but they never seem to address these problems in a meaningful way – they just complain about whichever individual author has got the latest big advance. I also think there are many mediocre novelists in the UK who think the world owes them a living.

At the end of the day I don’t think publishing is a zero sum game. The Bake Off tent is big enough. As Tony Soprano once said: there’s enough success out there for everybody.

Update: Bibliodaze has a good take on this.

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