Is anyone surprised that Ballantine canceled publication of Sherry Jones's historical novel, The Jewel of Medina, due out last week? According to the house's prepared statement, the decision—prompted by concerns from several
Islamic scholars (one of whom, perhaps not incidentally, is under contract with Knopf, like Ballantine an imprint of Random House for a forthcoming Islam-related book)—was made out of fear of terrorism. "We received... unsolicited 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," it read in part. While no specific reference was made, it was clear that the house wanted to avoid the furor and violence that followed upon the 1988 publication of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa led to the death of a Rushdie translator and a decade of hiding for the author.
But by all accounts, Jones's book is less Satanic Verses (which was not withdrawn by its publisher here, Viking, and was bravely sold in shops by American booksellers) and more The Red Tent, a fictional reworking of biblical characters and situations, and aimed at a mainstream audience. At its center is the character of A'isha, Muhammad's young wife, who is here portrayed as both bellicose and sensual in spirit. "I objected to the fact that it was a deliberately distorted view of an important female religious figure," Denise Spellberg, the Knopf author integral to the decision to cancel the book, told Edward Nawotka, a PW contributing editor writing for the Austin American-Statesman (also see News, p. 4). In fact, Spellberg threatened to sue Random House if it used her name in the book promotion, because she had to "protect [her] professional reputation—and [her] safety."
I'm all for authors refusing to blurb books they don't support—it's kind of refreshing, in fact, amid the copious log-rolling in our time. And I'm even willing to believe that because Jewel is a more mainstream book—Spellberg calls it a "burlesque"—than The Satanic Verses could ever have been, its power to provoke might even be greater, not less, than Rushdie's work. But surely Random House knew all this when the manuscript came in. (Jones told Nawotka that executives asked her last year if there would be "anything controversial" in the book; were they expressing a wish or a fear?) Yet, early this summer, even while claiming "[to] stand firmly by our responsibility to support our authors and the free discussion of ideas, even those that may be construed as offensive by some," Random House decided to postpone the book "indefinitely." (Jones's contract was paid in full for two books, of which this was the first; she is shopping it elsewhere.) Clearly, whatever value the book might have as a social document or literary work—or, whatever revenue it might bring back from the marketplace—was not worth the risk of violence.
When Peter Mayer stoutly defended Viking's obligation to stand by Salman Rushdie, it was 20 years ago. It was a brave move, one true to publishing's version of the Hippocratic oath. But that was then. The new now is a post-9/11, "war on terrorism" now. Should a publisher alter its behavior, its core values, because of changing realities? Terrorists would love to think so.