You may remember that the American publication of ‘Jewel,' about the life of A'isha, one of Muhammad's wives, was recently cancelled by Random House after a number of sources, most prominently University of Texas professor Denise Spellberg, told the publisher that the book, which she later described as containing "softcore pornography," might prompt violence on the part of, well, Islamic extremists. (In America, the book has since been picked up by the small New York publisher Beaufort Books and is scheduled for an Oct. 15 release. According to this report, Beaufort has temporarily closed its offices to confer with law enforcement officials following the London bombing.)
It goes without saying — well, I hope it goes without saying — that the bombing of a publisher's home is a horrific act, and no excuses should be made. Still, I find myself bothered by Jones' reaction. According to London's Daily Telegraph,
Sherry Jones has now called on Miss Spellberg to retract her comments, saying they are "unfair" and "slanderous". "She used the most inflammatory language she could possibly have used," she said. "If you want to incite heated emotions from any religious group you just use the word ‘pornography' in the same sentence as their revered figures. "She ought to take back her words because it is in no way an accurate description of my book. There are no sex scenes in it."
The problem with this is that the book contains at least one passage that would qualify as a sex scene. I haven't read the entire book, but when the controversy first erupted, Spellberg allowed me to skim through it and copy a few pages. (Full disclosure: My wife, a UT professor, is a professional acquaintance of Spellberg's.) Among them were this one, about an encounter between A'isha and her almost-lover Safwan:
His lips were so sweet and his breath so warm. I let my eyes flutter shut again as I returned his kiss, as chaste as a child's. I felt a stirring under my skin and I raised my tongue to touch his. With our bodies, we brushed each other lightly - my breasts to his chest, his thigh to my most intimate place, my toes to his shins. An aroma like musk rose from his body. My moan of pleasure surprised me, luxuriant as the part of a cat stretching in the sunlight.
There's a bit more in this vein ("His pointed tongue darted into my mouth like a lizard's"; "Safwan grabbed my breasts and squeezed them hard"; "Muhammad was so gentle. I hardly felt the scorpion's sting"), and while one could reasonably disagree as to whether this qualifies as soft-core pornography or lukewarm erotica, it certainly qualifies as a sex scene. (Pace Bill Clinton, the absence of penetration is not a disqualifier.)
This isn't the first time Jones has claimed that her book has no sex scenes in it, and I'm not sure why she has continued doing so. She has solid enough reasons to be angry about what has happened to her book on general (though not constitutional) freedom of speech grounds.
It also seems odd for her to accuse Spellberg of inflaming the opposition. Spellberg made her comment about soft-core pornography to a friend of Jones' who wrote an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal about the controversy. It's the public campaign by Jones and her supporters to publicize her book's shoddy treatment that has given Spellberg's words such a wide audience. I think it's fine - even admirable — for Jones to wage this public campaign; we deserve to know when a major publisher cancels a book out of fear of violent reprisal, even if that information prompts a violent reprisal. But does it make sense to publicize someone's comments and then complain that those comments have unleashed a whirlwind?