Ever since the world learned about Random House‘s cancellation of The Jewel of Medina over what the company described as “cautionary advice” that publishing a novel narrated by the youngest wife of the Prophet Muhammad might expose them to terrorist attacks, people have been comparing Sherry Jones‘s situation to that faced by Sir Salman Rushdie after the release of The Satanic Verses. Heck, the woman who gave Random House that advice, Islamic studies professor Denise Spellberg, explicitly accused Jones of being an anti-Islamic polemicist by following in Rushdie’s thematic footsteps. So what does Rushdie, who’s been published by Random House for several years now, think of this last week’s hoopla?
“This is censorship by fear, and it sets a very bad precedent indeed,” Rushdie emailed the Associated Press. Upon hearing that one of the company’s most prestigious authors was “very disappointed,” a Random House spokesperson responded: “We certainly respect Mr. Rushdie’s opinion, but we stand by our decision, which we made with considerable deliberation and regret.” (Note that regret: told you that was coming.) Which rather misses the point: It’s not as if Random House, having already liberated Jones from her contract, could change its mind at this point. Even if the company decided it would rather face the threat of violence than continue to be viewed as moral cowards by significantly more people than would even dream of attacking them over a book, the only way they could publish the novel now would be to buy it back again, and we all know that isn’t going to happen.
So let’s stop pretending this is a decision that one can actively choose to “stand by” in a meaningful way, shall we? It’s not a position Random can stick to on principle; it’s the position they’re stuck with.
(The argument for canceling the book and keeping Random House’s employees and other corporate assets safe from harm is not entirely unpersuasive, of course. As I commented earlier this week, though, it leaves every other author wondering, if only for a moment, whether the company would refuse to stand up for them under similar circumstances.)
[AP file photo]