Thursday, September 18, 2008

For the Last Freakin' Time: Don't Write About Muhammad!

Not if you want to live.  Or get rich.

Some months ago, The Jewel of Medinaan historical novel about Muhammad's wife A'isha was withdrawn before publication, apparently because the good people at Random House were afraid for their lives.  Depending upon the details of her contract, this may have cost the author, Sherry Jones, as much as $100,000.  

Longtime readers (those with, ahem, Egg on their face) will no doubt recall our howls of outrage against those who protested the Danish cartoons.  We are something close to free-speech absolutists around here, certainly with regard to either political or artistic speech.  So you might expect us to howl with similar volume about Random House's craven capitulation in this case.

And we would howl against the rabid Islamist protesters who threatened Random House and Sherry Jones, except that -- according to Carlin Romano's fascinating version of the story, adapted from an article by Asra Q. Nomani -- there really weren't any.  Not the flag-burning, death-to-America kind of protests.  Just a lone American college professor,  Denise Spellberg, a Random House author and an historian at the University of Texas, Austin. When the book was sent to her for a blurb, she responded with both scholarly disdain, which any historical novelist must expect, and with considerable alarm about the possible danger from possibly aggrieved Muslims.  Apparently, this was all the publishers needed.   (Spellberg later called Jewel "a very ugly, stupid piece of work," and it isn't clear whether this is an historical, literary or political judgment).

But still, as Stanley Fish has pointed out, this isn't censorship, in which a government tells citizens what they may or may not write.  (And Romano's supposed point about "the metaphorization" of censorship is just silly). Random House is not guided by ideology, much less by a pristine moral vision; nor does it have the sort of obligation to the public that newspapers might. It is in the book-publishing business, and its choice not to publish a novel, for whatever reason, is a business decision. It infuriates us that Islamic extremism has created an environment in which the safety of employees and distributors has become one of the factors a publisher has to take into account, but, well, you can't just pretend the gorilla isn't sitting at your table.

So, no, we aren't mad at Random House.  But of course, the goal of terrorism is to change people's behavior by scaring them.  So we are a little sad that, aided by an historian posing as a literary critic and a security expert, the terrorists won this round.

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