Or does it?
You may not have seen the discussion of a publisher pulling the book, The Jewel of Medina, off the publication track in May due to a potential backlash. Author Sherry Jones wrote a fictionalized version about Aisha, the young wife of prophet Muhammad. According to The Wall Street Journal article four days ago, an extreme controversy arose once the ARCs went out for blurbs, and one particular person whom the author had hoped would give it a positive spin, Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas in Austin… hated it.
Ironically, the author of the Journal article is Muslim, and laments the fact that the book was pulled, saying, "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
Ms. Spellberg, an American, said:
the novel is a "very ugly, stupid piece of work… I walked through a metal detector to see ‘Last
Temptation of Christ,’" the controversial 1980s film adaptation of a
novel that depicted a relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. I
don’t have a problem with historical fiction. I do have a problem with
the deliberate misinterpretation of history. You can’t play with a
sacred history and turn it into soft core pornography."
There are quite a lot of Christians who would say that the latter description is exactly how they perceive that adaptation, and there were protests, far and wide.
Ms. Spellberg alerted the head of a popular Muslim site about her concerns about the Jewel of Medina, who posted about the book without having read it. It snowballed from there within just a few days, if not hours, to the point where editors and publishers felt there was a very real threat of potential retaliation if the book went out into the public. In a letter to the editor
of The Wall Street Journal, Ms. Spellberg denies having been the sole
responsibility for the novel being pulled and says she felt "[i]t was
in that same professional capacity that I felt it my duty to
warn the press of the novel’s potential to provoke anger among some
Muslims." (I’d be very curious to know what other press she notified.)
Also from the WSJ article:
Meanwhile back in New York City, Jane Garrett, an
editor at Random House’s Knopf imprint, dispatched an email on May 1 to
Knopf executives, telling them she got a phone call the evening before
from Ms. Spellberg (who happens to be under contract with Knopf to
write "Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an.")
"She thinks there is a very real possibility of major
danger for the building and staff and widespread violence," Ms. Garrett
wrote. "Denise says it is ‘a declaration of war . . . explosive stuff .
. . a national security issue.’
The book was pulled from the marketplace.
I have to say that the part about all of this that surprises me the most is the surprise over the fact that there would be potential retaliation. There are extremist groups in many religions. Hello? Crusades? KKK? The death threats made over The Da Vinci Code?
So if you "can’t play with a sacred history and turn it into soft core pornography," that begs the question, what exactly can you do? And who’s sacred history is fair game?
The globalization of communication (i.e., the internet) has not only changed how fast we can communicate about a controversy, but just how much information is available out there. Within a very short time, Sarah over at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books had been emailed a copy of the prologue by the author and then Sarah led a very interesting discussion of the work on her blog–where readers of Muslim faith felt (I believe) a welcome spirit to comment, pro or con. That same globalization, however, allows for rumor, gossip, ridicule, lies and threats to be circulated with equal abandon–and that latter aspect is a threat to any sort of real learning we might have of others.
In a day when a cooking show star, Rachel Ray, can have a commercial pulled because she wore a scarf that someone then tagged with negative comments, we have to wonder: where are we going from here? I don’t think anyone in their right mind, if they were speaking to Rachel Ray directly, would have had the thought that she was pimping for murderous extremism–yet, they felt safe enough implying that (or, in some cases, outright accusing it) of the star while "reporting" on the internet. Michelle Malkin, who started the insanity, said:
Ray hawked Urban Outfitters scarves on her website before appearing in
the Dunkin’ Donuts ad. If she (or whichever stylist is dressing her)
wasn’t aware of the jihad scarf controversy before she posed for the
Dunkin’ campaign, she should have been. [italics mine]
Because absolutely everyone should investigate the background of every item of clothing they wear in public, lest there be some sort of potential negative association?
And every book ever published ought not offend anyone.
This is not a case of censorship (the publisher was free to publish, they chose not to), nor is it a case of oppression (the threats had not been made yet), nor is it a case in the Ray example of actual promotion of a violent act (seriously, like I need an example here?). This is a case of fear.
We’ve managed to become a country who feeds and chokes on fear.
The thing is, where art goes, so goes a culture. Art leads the way. Art–writing, pushing those boundaries, painting, photography–informs, questions, makes us think. Are we becoming a nation who feels that our side–and only our side [whatever that side is]–is right and there’s no room for allowing for the fact that the other side just might have some intelligence and be willing to have an open discourse? Are we becoming a culture where art is only commerce?
Art is a dialog.
And we’ve pretty much stopped talking and started shouting and ridiculing.
I don’t know of a single person who really had a change of heart because they were shouted at and ridiculed, and I don’t know of a single side who made themselves look better by being a bully. I also don’t think we learn anything by agreeing with each other and portraying everything down party lines. Where’s the individuality in that? Where’s the humanity? We’re not a homogeneous blob of people–we’re each unique, with unique experiences, both with our own religions and politics, as well as experiences with others. Do we all really want to be a big homogeneous blob? Do we think the rest of the world really ought to pick up and think exactly the way we do? How interesting is that?
So where are the lines drawn? Is it right to publish a book which possibly disrespects a religion? Do we say it’s okay to target one, but not another? Have discourse about one, but protect the other? Is it wrong to have a text which fictionalizes that religion? Or does it open a dialog? Do we really want other people vetting what we read and see and deciding if we’re smart enough to understand it and whether or not it’s accurate? Where do we draw the line between freedom of speech and inciting to riot?
But as artists, I think we’d better figure it out and start leading the way, because otherwise, the fractionalization of this country into sides incapable of progress because the whole is broken into pieces is just going to increase.
Where do you think the lines in the sand should be drawn?
How brave should artists be?
Thank you for writing about this, Toni. I hope that the same force of globalization which seems to have lead to universal “offensasenesativity” by every religious and political group will result in the e publishing of “controversial” works.
Artists are very brave–publishers are not. Maybe we will have a publishing reformation soon.
Perhaps the unintended consequence of this controversy will be a wider availability of the work—I hope.
Fiona, that’s a terrific point about e publishing – I bet you’re right.
Toni, I have to agree with what Fiona said. First, it’s not a matter of artists being brave, because I believe they are. It’s a matter of everyone in charge of the artists’ work (in this case, the publishers) being chickenshit.
And the sad thing is, that email you mentioned from the exec shows exactly why they’re chickenshit. No one pulled The Da Vinci Code because they were afraid extremist Christians might blow up the Doubleday building in protest. But everyone these days seems afraid of upsetting any extremist group outside of Christianity.
The reason? Piss off Christians, and they buy the work to see if it’s “really” as bad, the way people who hated Howard Stern when he first got popular listened MORE OFTEN and LONGER than those who liked him. That seems to be what Pissed off Christians do. They make death threats that they never follow through on, so pissing off Christians seems to be a pretty good and safe way to make money.
Piss off anyone else (religion, race, specific occupation, whatever) and you have a problem.
My hope is that this book will get e-published so everyone can get it, read it, realize that it’s F-I-C-T-I-O-N, and get over themselves.
I’m normally pretty conservative, and even I swear there should be a specific paid occupation in America for someone to go from city to city and remove the stick that’s up so many peoples’ asses. Geez.
Umm! The book sounds highly questionable and it may well be that the whole hullabaloo was designed to promote it. What exactly did the author have in mind when she chose Mohammad’s wife to star in a soft-porn novel if not creating the sort of sensation that sells books?
The concept of the “marketplace of ideas” is, if you’ll pardon the expression, an article of faith with me. That is to say, Dan Brown is free to write THE DA VINCI CODE, and the Catholic Church and others are free to go out in print and say “Dan Brown and the crackpot theories he based the whole idea on are full of shit.” And I, in my turn, have thge right to mock both of them. And the music goes round and round…
Likewise, Sherry Jones is free to write THE JEWEL OF MEDINA, and Denise Spellberg is free to go out and say “this is an ugly piece of work and is historically inaccurate.”
Where I draw the line is in using violence or threats of violence to distort that marketplace, wherein some ideas can be expressed and some can’t. And I’m going to go out on a limb and assert that publishers have a moral responsibility to push back against those who’d try to bully them. Otherwise, people who don’t like the political screeds of Malkin or Ann Coulter, or people who think Richard Clarke or Scott McCellan’s anti-Bush memoirs were works of treason, or even those people who just can’t stand cursing, sex or violence in books may just realize, “hey, I can get those books pulled with an anonymous phone call or two.”
If you say “well, those people don’t do that,” I answer, “Yet. Let them know that it works and they will.” The place to draw the line is right here, and the time is right now.
Jake, I’d respectfully disagree that all pissed off Christians do is “make death threats that they never follow through on.” Tim McVeigh didn’t blow up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City on the date a mosque was bombed–he picked the anniversary of the day some crazy heavily armed fringe group Christians got massacred. Eric Rudolph didn’t plant bombs for Islam. Dan Brown, and later Tom Hanks, took the threats against them so seriously that they hired bodyguards.
There are nuts in every religion. Ghandi was assassinated by a Hindu. Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by an ultra-Orthodox Jew. Remember what Jesus said about motes and beams.
“Artists are brave.” How true.
As to people being offended, I’ve dealt with it myself in my last book. In it, I look at intolerance and have my protag exibit negative attitudes toward her sister’s Orthodox Judaism (which isn’t portrayed so nicely because the book is written in first person). She also dares to say something less than positive — though not damning — about Israel.
Because of it, I’ve been called “anti-Semitic” and “self-loathing.”
I’ve learned the hard way that people who want to be offended, will be.
But, you know what? I didn’t think of my book as being negative at all. I thought of it as reflecting some of the inner conflicts in Judaism — and a good starting point for people to talk, to explore intolerance.
So when I got the nasty and angry feedback, I was absolutely stunned.
That goes to IJ’s comment above.I think it’s very possible that Sherry Jones didn’t think of her book as incendiary at all.
Should she have?
And, that brings up the question of Ms. Spellberg. I have NO doubt she knew what she was doing. As Dusty points out, it’s fine to object — but to lobby hard for publisher censorship through fear is something else.
Are all Moslem topics in fiction taboo?
We see the same trends with extreme evangelical Christianity where any perceived non-Christian reference to Jesus is uniformly panned.
And there are books that are blatantly hostile to Christianity.
In Judaism, one of the main hotpoints is Israel. It’s a “If critize anything, you’re against us” attitude.
And there are books that are blatantly anti-Israel and/or anti-Semitic.
The difference is: These books still get published even if people will get offended.
I.J., *we don’t know what was in the book* — and one person’s judgement may not be like yours *if you had the chance to read the book.*
Prejudice tells us what to think, while denying us our own experiences. Prejudice is not our friend, and jumping to conclusions is an exercise that clogs our arteries.
Maybe the author was saying the prophet Mohammed was a flesh-and-blood man to his wife. We’re unlikely to find out what she intended, now.
Hugely important topic, Toni. Thank you.
The thing I find most interesting is that the response to the novel came from a group who had NEVER read the book yet were urged by a third party (Spellberg) to protect their interests….the same third party who got on the phone to the publisher and escalated the response she herself had initiated!
Not to mention that Spellberg wasn’t exactly an unbiased player to start with–she has her own book with the SAME publisher on the SAME subject coming out soon….
Is it just the thriller author in me that sees a whole lot of manipulation and orchestrating by one person going on here–this has nothing to do with a religious group protecting their interests or threatening retaliation (they have NO idea what’s in the book, they haven’t read it!) but one person stirring the pot and reaping the rewards (unless there’s a backlash)
I hope Sherry Jones sells it again (I think I read they’re going to auction with foreign rights) and laughs all the way to the bank!!!
And if a Dr. Spellberg ends up the villain of a thriller/conspiracy novel someday, any resemblance is purely coincidental, I”m sure, lol!
Thank you for the post, Toni. (Climbing on my soapbox…)
Tom’s right — making snap judgments when you haven’t read the book is exactly what’s wrong with this country. I must have talked to forty HUGE anti-DaVinci Code people who *hadn’t read the book.* Umm… I’m sorry. Your righteous indignation is utterly nullified. Same with Passion of the Christ — protest all you want, but at least be informed. Same with voting. You don’t vote, you don’t get to complain. It’s your decision.
Don’t make your life decisions, calibrate your moral compass, because of a flashy marketing campaign.Turn the freaking channel already.
I hate that our world now seems to bow to whatever fundamentalist group is on top of the news cycle. And it’s exceptionally dangerous — and a trend I hope everyone is actually paying attention to — that we’re allowed to defile and denigrate Christians and Jews, but even the slightest hint of a discussion about Islam and we receive death threats. This is scary stuff.
I hope Sherry Jones’s book goes at auction and gets her an even better deal. Let’s be brave artists for her sake.
Another danger of tiptoeing around anything to do with Islam is that it gives Christians and Jews an opening to demand parity. “Well, if you take books off the shelves becuase they might offend Muslims, shouldn’t books that offend Christians and Jews get the same treatment?” And when you consider that among the things that have offended Christians are Harry Potter and Mark Twain, you begin to see the danger. Like I say, the time to take a stand is now.
I think Dusty’s points were right on the money.
In terms of where the line should be drawn, I don’t have a good answer; and I fear that in the current environment that promotes screeching and squawking rather than intelligent, thoughtful debate, there’s not much opportunity for discussion.
Not having read the book in question, I find myself wondering: was it a bit bold, or maybe a bit controversial? Could it be compared in tone to Christopher Moore’s most excellent ‘Lamb’? Or could it actually have been in poor taste, in which case the publisher might have done the right thing. Could it be that they were reversing a bad decision, a la the O.J. Simpson book? And I’m curious about Ms. Spellberg’s agenda, especially given her own upcoming book. It’s been my observation that these things are never as straightforward as they appear.
Just my two cents 😉
fantastic conversation, everyone. And Dusty, exactly — if we say we’re going to pull something for this group or that group, how much longer will it be before every extremist who thinks he or she has a cause makes the phone calls to make the threats? or whips up a frenzy online? Clearly, it doesn’t take too many people to create a backlash and an environment of fear big enough to make a large company change its mind (thinking Dunkin’ Donuts as well as the pub here).
The definition of “story” is not “how to fit into party line thinking” [whatever the party]. That’s the definition of propaganda, and it doesn’t matter which side it’s coming from, it’s still propaganda and spin.
I hope, as artists talk about this, we can invoke a sea change, because we need that sea change across the board — politically, aesthetically, and charitably. We need to reach out to each other and listen and have conversation, not attacks.
I’ll tell you the thing that offended me the most on behalf of Muslims was the fact that the very woman who was a professor, who was teaching about the history and writing about it, who, one portrays herself as a defender of that faith, apparently made the comments to the publisher about their being the potential of a “declaration of war” — which probably did more harm in painting all Muslims with one tarred brush than the book could have managed on its own, if things had been allowed to run its course.
Extremists can’t be convinced to have a discourse, I realize. But we need to be careful not to paint everyone as an extremist–no matter the religion or political affiliation. A lot of people hold moderate or even contradictory values and that’s just part of being human. I wish we could remember this, nationally.
Seems to me that’s one of the main reasons fiction (and the arts as a whole) exists: to provide a safe place for ideas to be explored.
If not in fiction, then where?
…than the book could have managed on its own, if things had been allowed to run its course….
I’m singling this out because there is a lot of discussion over on Smart Bitches about that prologue and how it implied some things about Aisha which would be considered very offensive to some. Would the book have offended extremists to the point of threatening violence, once it was actually published and in the world? I wouldn’t be surprised, given the response to the Danish cartoons which were pulled. And like I said, extremists don’t participate in our “freedom of speech” and “freedom of religion” tenants, extremists of *any* religion don’t participate, so there probably would have been backlash. But we cannot let the violence of a few run the world, and we should not paint everyone with that same brush, just because they share religion or heritage.
Toni,I don’t have anything to add that hasn’t already been said. I just wanted to thank you for the great post and the excellent discussion it has created.Mary-Frances
A poem by the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz who lived through Nazi occupation and Communist purges and condemned both, not after the fact when it was safe, but in media res.
And Yet the Books
And yet the books will be there on the shelves, separate beings,That appeared once, still wetAs shining chestnuts under a tree in autumnAnd, touched, coddled, began to liveIn spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up,Tribes on the march, planets in motion.”We are,” they said, even as their pagesWere being torn out, or a buzzing flameLicked away their letters. So much more durableThan we are, whose frail warmthCools down with memory, disperses, perishes.I imagine the earth when I am no more:Nothing happens, no loss, it’s still a strange pageant,Women’s dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley.Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born,derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.
Mr. Rhoades, fair point. I guess it just seems to me that people (publishers?) seem more inclined to back down if facing backlash over a piece offending Muslims, or Jews, or African-Americans, or Irishmen, or any other “group” (regardless what members of other groups it entails, like African-American Christians, or American Muslims, or what have you) aside from Christians (and most often, it seems, Catholics).
But you are absolutely right, and I misspoke. Every group, from Liberal to Conservative, from Christian to Jew to Muslim, from every single country has its nutcases, and all of the groups have the dangerous ones as well as the blowhards.
I guess I just feel that if the book is good enough to be accepted for publishing based solely on the writing (in other words, based on what it should be rather than some concept designed specifically to incite anger, like the OJ “I did it this way, but not really” book), then the publisher should put it out there and let the rest of us be adult enough to decide what it class and what is crap.
Because you’re right about this: if people realize a few phone calls can kill something they disagree with, then America will continue to, even moreso than now, become a place where we are too scared to upset anyone or go outside the accepted conformity of thought. The land of the sheep and the home of the afraid.
Not to mention that Spellberg wasn’t exactly an unbiased player to start with–she has her own book with the SAME publisher on the SAME subject coming out soon….
Actually, C.J., Spellberg’s book on A’isha is already published– it’s considered a preeminent text on the life of the woman, it was apparently one of the books that Jones read early on in her research on A’isha and she admired it so much, that when Ballantine asked her for a list of people from whom she’d like to solicit possible blurbs, she asked for Spellberg to be on that list. (I know, irony much?)
The book that Spellberg has under contract with Knopf is on Thomas Jefferson’s Qu’ran which of course, puts it in the realm of Islamic history, but a different arm of it.
However, all that said, rebuttal piece aside, I still have to give the stinkeye over in Spellberg’s direction because seriously, if she hadn’t liked it– if she’d thought it was that historically inaccurate, why did she just not email the editor in question and say, “Yeah, I can’t blurb this, it’s counter to everything I’ve learned and believe?”
Nope, she sent the all-points alert and from what it sounds like, if Random House did get warnings from other sources, perhaps they were prompted to do so by her reaction. I can appreciate that she felt so strongly about the subject matter that she thought she needed to protect it by any means necessary, but I resent like hell the fact that she apparently willfully manipulated people’s reactions. It has a very Thought Police feel to it–
And thing is, and this is what I said over at Smart Bitches– IF Denise Spellberg had simply declined to blurb the book and IF she hadn’t raised such a stink and IF it had been published as scheduled, what do we all want to bet it would have simply been quietly released? I mean, we’re one week out of Twilight being the big publishing news and in all of the publishing sites I frequent, I hadn’t heard anything about this book’s imminent release.
I don’t know… this is just me being a cynic about the publishing industry. By going to all these lengths to make sure that her name was never attached to the project, Denise Spellberg has pretty much insured that her name will always be attached to the project. Go figure.
I’m with Barb F.
What amazes me most is how one blurbing author’s opinion carried so much weight.
I see so much petty jealousy and back-biting among authors (Cormac McCarthy refuses to even associate with any of his fellow scribes)- too bad no considered the blurber just might have an agenda other than “national security.”
I do hope this book gets published.
Toni – magnificent post.
Let’s face it – as a species, we’re doomed.
Increasingly, we are living in the straightjacket of political correctness, where you can’t say or do anything for fear of offending somebody. In the UK recently there was a case where one business banned birthday cards with the person’s age on them. Another town banned Christmas lights. Schools are stopping competitive sports because of the discouraging effect on the children who lose.
Where does it end?
I’m not condoning a return to the racist, sexist times of thirty or forty years ago, but surely there has to be a happy medium somewhere?
I have this image that in getting from there to here we passed through a moment of perfect balance, but it happened at 2am and was gone in a nanosecond.
And nobody noticed.
For me this is another of the continuing trangressions of über-sensitivity and being afraid of anything not-us.
Too sad, all the way around.
We need to be who we are — Americans who believe in free speech. We should be able to publish good and bad books where the only perils are losing money and losing reputation, not national security.
Instead, the West is taking the easy way out, the cowardly way out. And no wonder the publisher withdrew. It’s hard enough to make money in publishing.
Add to this the fact that everything the West does is offensive. Please note this ridiculous story about protests in the UK over a postcard sent out by the local police to publicize a telephone number for non-emergency calls. It had a photo of a puppy police dog, and the Muslim community was outraged. Here’s the link:http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1030798/Muslim-outrage-police-advert-featuring-cute-puppy-sitting-policemans-hat.html
Holy ****. I had not heard about the Rachel Ray video. The caving in to censorship groups seems to be happening faster and faster. There’s a difference between a hate group and a book that offends some people. The more the publishers cave in to fear, the fewer books will be published and pretty soon, we’ll be right in a Ray Bradbury Fahrenheit 451 situation.
It would be fine to “Piss Off” anyone, but then, again, you have to deal with the many tangible repercussions.Look at poor (yet rich) Salmon Rushtie’s book, The Satanic Verses. He had a patwah on his life for a number of years after this publication. Today it has been 19 years since Muslims declared “Holy War” on the desperate writer.Today, Rushdie is making historically-based books and videos (and money) Hollywood gliterati. You must ask yourself, as an artist, “Am I willing to take the risk of offending a particular group?”.Why do people believe it is religions that create Terrorism? It is most often power-crazed individual who pervert a religion’s teachings for their innate purpose. Religions are suppose to teach tolerance and love, to name but a few virtues. If religions do not teach morals and virtues they are, in my opinion, a cult.jj
Being the author of a novel that has pissed off a few fundamental Christians, I tend to agree with the notion that the publisher is being cowardly. However, just for a different perspective, I’ll post my husband’s reaction: “Why would anyone write or publish such a book in today’s climate, knowing that it would offend nearly every Muslin on the face of Earth? It’s irresponsible.”He’s a moral, rational, nonreligious man who’s looking at the big picture. Just something to think about.Lj
Slightly OT: One of the truly bizarre things about the Rachael Ray headscarf flap is that apparently the very same type of scarf is being worn as a “non-uniform” item by some of our own troops, because they discovered from the locals that it’s good for keeping the sun off or the dust out or something.
Malkin’s an idiot who was having a slow day with nothing to write about so she ginned up a controversy over nothing. The woman is all abut dividing people and turning us against one another for her own self aggrandizement. She’s just evil.
“Malkin’s an idiot who was having a slow day with nothing to write about so she ginned up a controversy over nothing. The woman is all abut dividing people and turning us against one another for her own self aggrandizement. She’s just evil. “
Sounds like the kind of person you just love to see wind up as the second or third victim of a novel’s serial killer…so you get to know them well enough to dislike them, then see them re-humanized when they are brutally disembowled, or something along those lines. I could see Thomas Harris doing something like that. Hmmm…Will there be a ‘Malkin’ who acts as villain or victim in a future J.D. Rhoades book?
The point about ‘fear’ driving this decision is key to the discussion. Obviously the author wasn’t afraid. She had studied the subject and knew what she was doing. The publisher and the professor [nice alliteration, would make a good title] could possibly have a conflict of interest, given the other book deal.
But I suspect that The Jewel of Medina will find a publisher, but maybe not in the US.
As an American who no longer lives there, it makes me very sad that the fear factor has so pervaded the country. The treatment of Americans as well as foreigners is reprehensible. Would you allow a border guard to confiscate your laptop? What if they found a challenging manuscript. There are thought police in the US already. This publisher is just falling in lockstep. Very very sad.
Returning to Fiona’s original point at the top of the thread: if “traditional” publishers become too cowardly to publish works that might be deemed too “controversial,” then their worst fears will come true and e-publishing WILL put them out of business.
My comment is going to seem very simplistic in light of the discussion, but the first thing that came to mind when I heard of this situation was quote from Benjamin Franklin: “Those who give up essential liberties in order to secure a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”