Asra Q. Nomani relates a dispiriting story in the Wall Street Journal about Random House’s decision to cancel the publication of The Jewel of Medina, Sherry Jones’s “racy historical novel about Aisha, the young wife of the prophet [sic] Muhammad.” The reason for the decision is depressingly familiar:
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.”
Well, considering the mayhem that followed the publication of Sir Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons in Denmark, I’m sure the publication of a book describing Muhammad and Aisha’s wedding night might “incite” acts of violence (by people, it must be remembered, who are perfectly capable of deciding not to be violent in response to such “incitement”). But it’s not as if Random House’s decision not to publish will be free of nasty consequences. It will embolden that small, radical segment to threaten other publishers with violence the next time something it finds offensive is published. Perry’s statement might more accurately be rendered as, “If we’re about to publish something you don’t like, threaten us with violence and we won’t publish it.”
It’s especially shameful that this has happened at Random House, whose co-founder, Bennett Cerf, faced an obscenity trial for trying to publish James Joyce’s Ulysses. (Cerf and Random House won the case, of course, and began typesetting copies of Ulysses within ten minutes of the decision.) It’s hard to think of a more dismal way to traduce Cerf’s legacy than to cave in to the demands of religious fanatics.
It’s shameful, too, that the University of Texas, alma mater of my parents and my paternal grandfather, has a part in this. Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of history at UT, was asked to review Jones’s book by Random House and after doing so took it upon herself to mobilize Muslim opposition to the publication of The Jewel of Medina. According to Nomani’s article, Spellberg said, “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.”
You can’t? Why not? It’s a novel, that is, a work of the imagination, not a history book. And anyway, offending religious sensibilities and titillating readers with soft-core pornography are an important part of the novelistic tradition and have been since the very beginning, as anyone who’s ever read François Rabelais or Laurence Sterne, to name only two early novelists, can tell you. I hope there is a publisher out there with a spine and an understanding of the fundamental importance of defending freedom of speech against thugs, bullies, and perpetually offended humanities professors (someone in other words more like Bennett Cerf than Thomas Perry), who will publish this book.