Fascinating: Random House was on the cusp of publishing a novel, The Jewel of Medina, when it decided not to for fear of inciting violence and even terrorist activity. No, not from Mormons, Catholics, or Trekkies, but from a "small segment" of the Muslim community. From Writer's News Weekly, the details:
Random House is pulling the plug on the much anticipated historical novel by Sherry Jones, titled "The Jewel of Medina." The book was to be released August 12, however the book publication has been canceled because "[the book] might be offensive to some in the Muslim community," according to a statement released by Random House. Random House bought the novel last year in a $100,000, two-book deal with the author.
"The Jewel of Medina" is the story of Aisha, the favorite young wife of the prophet Muhammad. After sending out advance reader copies of the book to several reviewers, Random House received responses from "credible and unrelated sources," warning the publisher that the novel may be offensive to some in the Muslim community and may incite violence by a small segment. According to a statement released by Random House, the threats were taken very seriously and the decision was made to cancel publication of the book.
The Wall Street Journal had an article about the situation a week ago, written by Asra Q. Nomani, a Muslim author:
In an interview about Ms. Jones's novel, Thomas Perry, deputy publisher at Random House Publishing Group, said that it "disturbs us that we feel we cannot publish it right now." He said that after sending out advance copies of the novel, the company received "from credible and unrelated sources, cautionary advice not only that the publication of this book might be offensive to some in the Muslim community, but also that it could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment."
After consulting security experts and Islam scholars, Mr. Perry said the company decided "to postpone publication for the safety of the author, employees of Random House, booksellers and anyone else who would be involved in distribution and sale of the novel."
This saga upsets me as a Muslim -- and as a writer who believes that fiction can bring Islamic history to life in a uniquely captivating and humanizing way. "I'm devastated," Ms. Jones told me after the book got spiked, adding, "I wanted to honor Aisha and all the wives of Muhammad by giving voice to them, remarkable women whose crucial roles in the shaping of Islam have so often been ignored -- silenced -- by historians." Last month, Ms. Jones signed a termination agreement with Random House, so her literary agent could shop the book to other publishers.
Oddly enough, Nomani reports, the key person in getting the book shelved was an American academic, Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas in Austin. Spellberg has denounced the book as a "very ugly, stupid piece of work" and "soft core pornography," apparently because of its depiction of Muhammad and Aisha's wedding night.
Jones' blog/website has been shut down, but this is from a cached blog entry she originally posted on August 6th:
First thing in the a.m. after publication of Asra Q. Nomani's editorial about "The Jewel of Medina," misinformation abounds. But I can't talk about the publisher's decision not to publish -- not until Random House/Ballantine says so, for reasons I can't disclose ;-(. But I can correct at least one inaccuracy: My book is not a "bodice-ripper," as one blogger (who obviously hadn't read the book) called it. Nor, in my opinion, is it particularly "racy," as Ms. Nomani, who HAS read the book, described it. Denise Spellberg, the UT professor who started all this, called it "soft porn" -- which makes me feel like a literary master, able to write a pornographic novel without sex scenes!
Bloggers are going wild, reading all kinds of things into Ms. Nomani's excellent opinion piece. Some believe the Random House assertion that several people warned of potential terrorist attack. If so, that's news to me. The only one I was told about was Ms. Spellberg.
Ironically, I've been castigated in some of these blogs by writers who haven't read the book and who mis-read the editorial piece. Being called an "Islamopanderer" is the most ironic. All I did was try to portray A'isha, Muhammad's child bride (believed by most historians to have married Muhammad at age nine and consummated the marriage at age 11) in the context of her times. If I'd pandered, wouldn't my book now be coming out? I guess I'm damned if I do, damned if I don't..
As we all know, when Dan Brown published a novel filled with glaring errors, laughable claims, and outrageous (and offensive) stupidities, he had to go into hiding in the wilds of Siberia for over a year, then get a sex change, gain 60 pounds, wear wigs, and move every other day from hotel to motel to camp ground. Uh, no, he actually sold 60 millions copies, became wildly wealthy, and carried on just like normal, his only fear likely being that he might get buried beneath a pile of crazed fans if he walked out in public. Perhaps Jones' novel is a bit "racy." (Can it be any worse than a "Victoria's Secret" commercial?) It sounds like she took care to actually research her subject and be as accurate as possible with it.
But if the book truly is insulting or offensive, why not respond with a measured, cogent, seriously researched reply? Oh, that's right: it's much easier to threaten the publisher and be a crazed bully, knowing that some Americans seem very anxious to roll over and play possum in the face of such fanaticism. (Jones states, in the comments section of her defunct blog, that the novel is being published in some European countries, including Spain, Italy, and Hungary. Go figure.)
Let's be frank about it: this is religious fanaticism in the worst sense. Criticizing The Da Vinci Code and urging people to boycott the movie were often portrayed as acts of fanaticism and hatred, but they weren't. They were the actions of civilized people who never gave a thought to threatening to kill Dan Brown or blow up his publisher's offices. A free and democratic society requires an openness to criticism, even an openness to taunting and ridicule. If you can't handle it, go somewhere else.
As the Writers News Weekly piece asks: "Dan Brown's controversial book, 'The Da Vinci Code' suggested that Jesus married and had children with Mary Magdalene. The book was found offensive by some Christians, however it was not censored or banned; in fact, it was made into a box office smash movie starring Tom Hanks. Is it a double standard? Are books questioning the Muslim faith off-limits, but Christian books criticizing the church acceptable?"
Well, yes, of course. The double standard is as obvious as the smog in Beijing. That double standard, I fear, is going to continue to spiral out of control unless and until publishers, authors, and readers push back. Not with death threats, of course, but with printing presses and wallets, one "bodice-ripper" at a time, if necessary. And then, once is published, we can debate the literary and moral qualities of the book, as civilized, free people should.