Jenny Colgan and political correctness


When I logged on to twitter today, I unexpectedly saw Jenny Colgan trending. My guess is she’d won a prize or had been nominated for one. I was surprised to see she was being attacked as some kind of racist and had quit twitter as a result. I want to say a few words about this review and the response to it on Twitter.

Firstly, if I believed she was a racist or Islamophobe, I’d join the chorus of criticism. But I’ve seen no evidence. Those abusing her enough to drive her off Twitter have made a mistake. Some will have jumped on a bandwagon before thinking it through. Others will stick to their guns, unable or unwilling to admit they could possibly have made a mistake. I’m not prejudging who belongs to which camp. Let’s debate what happened here.

I had to read the review that caused all the problems, but before reading it I had already assumed those who drove her off twitter must have overreacted. I tweeted my comments even before reading it. Having now read it, I don’t see what the problem was.

There seems to be an assumption that if a white person criticises a black one, then we need to see this in terms of race. So white women who have accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault must all be making it up? This is a daft way to approach such issues. The race and religious intolerance allegations don’t stand up.

I didn’t recognise the name of the black woman. I may be one of the few people who didn’t recognise her face either. I don’t watch that show. But I do know this woman did win the hearts of the fans of the show, and there is, apparently, a lot of them. However, if you actually read what Jenny wrote, she loved this novelist too, at least for what she did in The Great British Bake Off. Here’s what she wrote: “she is amazing.” “Hussain is just so brimful of talent; of happiness and grace and skill.” “[Hussain] ended up being universally loved.”

Jenny admits Hussain is ‘universally loved’. Is that the sort of thing a racist would say? On the contrary, are these not the words of someone who has herself been smitten by her, in a platonic sense? Jenny has proved her criticism of Hussain had no reactionary elements to it. She described herself as a fan, and anyone reading the review can see that to be true.

Was Jenny’s criticism of this novel legitimate? Having not read the novel, I have no way of knowing. I’ve no idea how much help she got in editing it, but we know it’s not all her own work, with a well-established co-author getting credit, and possibly a huge pay-cheque thanks to attaching Hussein’s name to it. For all I know, this novel may be almost 100% ghostwritten. On the other hand, it’s possible that Jenny has simply failed to recognise that in addition to being a great cook, Hussain is also a writer of fiction who doesn’t need help drafting her work; and if it’s not to Jenny’s taste, maybe others have different tastes. Jenny is entitled to her view on the literary merits regardless of what anyone else thinks. We all have to make up our own minds. Reviews don’t just tell us about the work being reviewed, but at least as much about the merits of who is doing the reviewing. When we find our attitudes to a work reviewed differs in significant part from that of the reviewer, we might still value that reviewer or, alternatively, we may decide they are no help in deciding what we may like to read in the future. Differences here are not worthy of abusing anyone to the point of making them withdraw from Twitter.

I hope Jenny will rejoin Twitter immediately if she’s not already realised she shouldn’t have quit. If she hates the abuse she’s suffering, then block individuals, and unfollow others. Protect your tweets if you want to have a debate with those who value you and want to debate rationally. In time, hopefully,  those who did jump on a bandwagon without thinking will concede they overreacted, and we can let bygones be bygones. At that point, lifting the Protected status from a twitter account can be done safely.

Another point:  when individuals on twitter suffer from unwarranted abuse, closing down your account won’t help. It will give those who abused you a sense of victory, and they’ll turn to someone else. Refusing to close your twitter account isn’t just in your own interest; it will help others who would simply be the next victim of overenthusiastic political correctness extremists.

Also, closing a twitter account is likely to escalate the abuse, adding fuel to the flames. You won’t be there to defend yourself, and those who feel empathy for you will not be sure how best to help you prove your critics wrong. I am reminded of Paul Dirac’s decision to reject his Nobel Prize for Physics as he wanted to avoid publicity. He was persuaded not to do this on the grounds that this would lead to much more publicity. Jenny Colgan’s quitting Twitter increased the abuse she was getting, increasing the time necessary to put the record straight. The sooner she is back the better – for everyone’s sake.

My final point is this: Jenny assumed Nadiya Hussain was benefiting from an out-of-control celebrity culture dishing out attention to an individual for work she didn’t actually do, like paying someone to write your essay to get your hands on qualifications you don’t actually earn, or maybe get your parents to do your coursework for you. If she actually wrote the novel herself, the fact she is a ‘celebrity’ is hardly Nadiya’s fault. But I do understand where Jenny is coming from. And the point she’s making is a perfectly valid one.

Artists all across the board are struggling in this age of everything being free on the internet. Losing income to those who are suspected – legitimately or otherwise – of having simply taken advantage of name recognition in an unrelated aspect of culture is irritating, to say the least.

When Bob Dylan received his Nobel Prize for Literature last year, most people I respect were glad about this. I don’t mind going on the record to say I think this was a mistake. Literature is distinct from song lyrics. I love Dylan’s lyrics. But they are integral to the music and vice versa. Poetry and Songs are as distinct as Physics and Chemistry. To hand this prize to a singer-songwriter is to rob others of a prize they may have earned, poets and novelists may now die before they get their just reward, meaning they’ll never get it since it’s not doled out posthumously.

Jenny Colgan’s attitude to celebrities taking up bookshelves needed for professional novelists such as herself may be based on assumptions that she can’t back up. Nevertheless, that is still no reason to drive her off of twitter. I hope everyone can accept that. And we can welcome her back as soon as possible.

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