After winning The Great British Bake Off to near universal excitement, Nadiya Hussain has gone on to be one of Britain’s most beloved culinary personalities. She’s written the inevitable cookbooks, hosted a delightfully charming TV show on her family’s food history in Bangladesh, and now she’s releasing a novel, The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters, the first in a three book deal with Harlequin.
Hussain was assisted in this endeavor by author Ayisha Malik, meaning Malik did the bulk of the actual writing process while Hussain was in control of the story, characters, and so on. It’s a common industry practice, one that divides readers and authors alike, particularly when audiences are duped about the process. Internet personality Zoe Sugg famously caught the ire of readers for claiming she wrote her own novel Girl Online when in reality a ghost-writer did the heavy lifting. Transparency is key for building trust among your potential fan base, and to Hussain’s credit, she has never denied the assistance of Malik in her books, nor have Harlequin.
However, this issue remains a hot button, as highlighted by author Jenny Colgan’s review of Hussain’s book, which reads more like a sour grapes misunderstanding of the realities of publishing, not to mention the pitch of the dog-whistle racism in declaring Hussain’s desire to be a novelist “greedy” and that potential readers should buy books by other women of colour authors instead.
In fairness to Colgan, a best-selling author in a similar genre to Hussain’s book, we’re currently in a very tough market for authors to scrape out a living – most British authors’ annual salaries fall well below the breadline – and competition as tough as a celebrity must be tough to deal with. However, the problem with Colgan’s review, beyond it not actually reviewing the book in favour of airing her grievances on celebrity authors, is that it denies the long history of this practice and the financial benefits it brings.
2016 saw a surge in UK book sales – a merciful turn of fortunes after a tough few years where many feared e-publishing would sink the industry – and two of the driving forces of that trend were cookbooks (Joe Wicks being the leading figure) and celebrity authors (comedian David Walliams’s children’s’ books came second in sales to that of JK Rowling). Zoe Sugg may not have written Girl Online herself but that didn’t stop her massive fanbase from flocking to bookshops and driving first week sales past 78,000 – a record for a debut author. Even Sugg’s endorsement is enough to drive sales, as one of her WH Smith book club choices saw its sales climb an astounding 94%. There are also celebrity author name-stays like Katie ‘Jordan’ Price, whose work sells consistently even as she proudly admits she doesn’t have time to actually write them.
Some celebrities do write their own novels. Hugh Laurie wrote The Gunseller; Steve Martin has written a series of critically acclaimed books; James Franco’s novel is awful but it sold more than a few copies; even Julianne Moore and Madonna wrote children’s books. As good as some of those works are, it would be hard to deny that the primary reason they were published was for the name above the title.
Many celebrity novels follow a specific narrative that is similar to the writer’s own life, or perceived as such in a way that intrigues readers. Katie Price’s books are about glamorous parties and splintered personal lives; Naomi Campbell and Tyra Banks’s novels were takes on the cut-throat world of modelling; Sugg’s series follows an internet celebrity; Walliams’ debut novel for kids, The Boy in the Dress, wasn’t autobiographical but banked heavily on his own penchant for dressing as a woman in his comedy shows. There’s a thrill in reading these stories for many people: What elements are true? Who is that person a thinly veiled reference to? How much of this is based on their real life? It can be trashy as all hell sometimes, but trash sells and it can be a delight to read.
Even as we see supermarket bookshelves stuffed full of celebrity names and the most heinous dreck top the NYT Best-seller lists, we as readers are still inclined to believe that art is a meritocratic venture, where those with the most luminous talent will naturally rise to the top. It’s a nice dream, but it’s one that’s become increasingly hard to buy into as certain people dominate the most powerful offices in the world through no talent or ability of their own. Books that are objectively bad can and will sell well if the market and audience demand calls for it. The free market sucks but it’s what we’re working with, and companies making business decisions along those lines will continue to happen.
Colgan’s closing paragraph, where the vitriol finally breaks through the fluffy exterior, is particularly galling in its ignorance of how the industry works and how readers work. After declaring Hussain’s literary ambitions to feel “greedy. Not the good greedy”, she declares “Books are a zero sum game. If you’re reading one, you can’t be reading another” and then ends her piece with an odd analogy that the inevitable publicity push Hussain’s work will get “feels like yet another chance snatched away from that kid whose library is shutting down”.
Let’s take apart that “greedy” moment, because that speaks volumes to me regarding Colgan’s intentions. Hussain is a woman who became beloved and famous due to her charm and talents on a large public platform. She leveraged that support into a successful career, as many did before her, and took the opportunities it presented to her she could never access before. She’s following in many footsteps, but there’s a key area where she differs from those before her.
As a woman of colour, a Muslim who wears the veil and openly talks about her arranged marriage to her husband, Hussain is a rare and crucial presence in modern British entertainment. The culinary scene is mostly dominated by a very staid and archaic model of domesticity – the genteel white woman with the perfect family, the cleanest kitchen and light piano playing in the background as she prepares the perfect meal. The current ‘clean eating’ trend relies on the same model, albeit with glossier hair, grosser food and a flagrant disregard for how the body works. The men of the cooking scene can be fiery or solemn, bantering lads or comforting older men, but they too are mostly white.
With anti-immigrant sentiment and Islamophobia at an all-time high, it’s hard to overstate the sheer power of visibility that Hussain’s presence on TV and our shelves can have. The romance and women’s fiction categories are improving with diverse stories and content, but progress remains maddeningly incremental, so Hussain writing a mainstream novel for women about 4 Muslim sisters and their lives will reach a much larger audience than such stories tend to reach, and that is important. This isn’t greed – this is a crucial step forward in helping an often uniformly white genre branch outwards to the rest of the population. For Colgan to declare that to be greedy, a mere paragraph after telling readers to just try another novel by a Muslim author, is willfully ignorant at best.
Readers will come to Hussain’s work because they like her, but it will also bring them to a story and ensemble they may not have encountered previously in their literary travails. Those readers will also read more than one book, perhaps even at the same time, and will recommend them to friends and family. They’ll scour shelves for good deals, pre-book the ones they’re most excited for, attend book festivals, write reviews, tweet for days about their favourites, and perhaps have a go at writing their own stories. The realities of the publishing industry, however unglamourous and cynical they may be, won’t stop the act of reading, nor will a few big names here and there crush the industry. Perhaps the increased sales from a celebrity’s novel will give publishers extra funds to invest in lesser known and riskier projects. Whatever the case, readers will choose, and ‘greed’ will play no part.