Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Random House cancels publication of novel about Mohammed

In a shocking tale of corporate timidity (perhaps I should call it cowardice), Random House called off publication of a book of a novel by journalist Sherry Jones, to be called “The Jewel of Medina,” which would have told the story of Aisha, the young wife of the prophet Mohammed. This was supposed to be a two-book deal worth $100,000. The cancellation occurred in May of this year.

The Wall Street Journal Opinion story is by Asra Q. Noami, dated Aug. 6, 2008, and titled “You Still Can’t Write About Mohammed,” link here.

The opinion relates a fear that the book would become another “Satanic Verses” resulting in threats like those against novelist Salman Rushdie. There had been controversy over a short film called “Fitna” by former Netherlands lawmaker Geert Wilders, which Livelink removed from its site because of threats. It is still available on the Internet, however. See my movies blog, March 28 2008 entry.

Random House has given in. Who’s next? Sometimes the Domino Theory makes sense.

Update: Aug 21, 2008

The Washington Post has an account of the cancelation in the Style Section today Aug. 21, 2008, authored by Michelle Boorstein, titled “A Book Too Hot Off the Presses: Random House Feared Radical Muslim Backlash,” link here. According to the story, Denise Spellberg, at the University of Texas and a professor in Middle East studies, called the publisher and said the book was inflammatory. It’s a bit unclear from the Post story, but it appears that Spellberg was to review the book. Also, according to the story, Spellberg said she might sue “if her name wasn't taken out of the book's bibliography.” She played the “family card”. Now, that’s a bit strange, because fiction books don’t normally have bibliographies the way non-fiction policy books do. Maybe what is meant, if she was mentioned as a reviewed. Now, it does sound reasonable that if someone doesn’t want her name mentioned on the book’s dust jacket as a reviewer, that the request would be honored by the publisher. That sounds pretty standard. Of course, however, the reviews would start showing up in Internet search engines anyway, an issue that we all know in conjunction with all these discussions about “reputation defense.”

There is another account, from a bizarre site called “Stop the ACLU” about this, from Aug, 6, 2008, “Clueless Dhimmitude and Denise Spelling,” link here.

I wonder if Ms. Jones should publish the book herself, or use a cooperative service like iUniverse. I certainly would purchase a copy.

What if someone composes a world-class opera about the origins of Islam. Would the Met be afraid to perform it?

Update: Aug. 27, 2008

The Washington Post published a probing editorial "Random Error: Fearing the risk of violence, a publisher capitulates" on Friday, Aug. 22, 2008 on p A16, link here. The Post also discusses Ms. Spellberg, and argues that, whatever the controversy, Random House apparently believed that the novel has artistic merit. I'm going to claim "fair use" and quote the entire last paragraph of the editorial, because there's no better way to summarize it, and because the point is so critical:

"This time -- for the first time in its history -- Random House capitulated, even though its own experts told it the book might be offensive only to "some," not most, Muslims. Only "a small, radical segment" might resort to violence. Yet that intolerant fringe, newly empowered and emboldened by this victory, will be around for a long time to come. Leading cultural institutions must stand up to it -- lest the most violent acquire a veto over our most precious freedoms."

A "Random Error" is not James Hilton's "Random Harvest."

On August 23, 2008 the Washington Post published a "Letter to the Editor" called "Random House's Retreat," here, on page A14. The letter writer wants to boycott Random House.

And today, Aug. 27, 2008 the Post published another letter "Throwing Stones at Random House," on p A16, link here. The writer agrees with the newspaper but says that the Post itself should have shown more courage a few years ago and published the cartoons associated with the Jyllands-Posten Cartoon Controversy.

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