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Posts Tagged ‘Sherry Jones’

So, Did Random House Censor Sherry Jones?

jewel-medina-cover.jpgStanley Fish caught up with the controversy surrounding Sherry Jones‘s still-unpublished The Jewel of Medina, and wanted to remind NY Times readers that, whatever else you might say about Random House‘s decision to avoid riling Muslim fanatics by publishing a novel about Muhammad’s wife, they never actually censored Jones. “Random House is free to publish or decline to publish whatever it likes, and its decision to do either has nothing whatsoever to do with the Western tradition of free speech or any other high-sounding abstraction,” Fish wrote—and, remember, this is a philosopher who will famously tell you that there’s no such thing as free speech. Anybody who thinks this was censorship, he adds—like, say, Salman Rushdie—doesn’t understand the precise philosophical and legal meaning of the term.

This is exactly right. The difference between true censorship and Random House’s decision to place a higher value on the safety of its proven corporate assets than on a commercially unproven work of artistic expression is, simply, the difference between “you can’t do that” and “I don’t want any part of that.” Random House did not join forces with Islamic leaders to explicitly condemn the book, nor is it sitting on the manuscript to prevent readers from ever seeing it; they have given the rights back to Jones, who is even now working with her agent to secure another American publisher for the novel and its sequel. As Fish concludes, Random’s decision “may have been cowardly or alarmist, or it may have been good business, or it may have been an attempt to avoid trouble that ended up buying trouble,” but declining to publish a book that one has come to view as a potential liability is not an act of censorship—and for anyone who thinks it is, here’s a question: Where were your cries of protest when the hint of a lawsuit was enough to make Random House’s Crown division drop its plans to publish the memoirs of Madonna’s nanny? Don’t you think she was entitled to freedom of expression in the face of outside intimidation, too?

One of the few admirable aspects of this situation is the clearheadedness Jones herself has shown throughout; in an early interview with GalleyCat, she said, “I was never angry about their decision… [and] they’re a private corporation; they can do whatever they want.” Contacted last night via email and asked if she felt censored, she wrote back, “In terms of censorship, I would say that Random House censored itself. This is a classic case of self-censorship based on fear.” Considering Fish’s notion that the cancellation of The Jewel of Medina should be viewed as a corporate decision, she added, “When you pull a book because you think you’ll lose money, that’s a corporate decision. When you pull a book because you fear terrorist attack, that’s self-censorship. Until [Random House] execs heard warnings of possible violence over my book, the company had my book on the fast track to best-sellerdom. So they clearly had expected to make money from its publication.”

(Of course, it’s still entirely possible to weigh the threat of violence in stark economic terms, weighing the potential revenues from the book against the heretofore unseen potential costs of repairing physical damage to 1745 Broadway and replacing dead personnel—just like Madonna’s nanny’s memoir turned out to have potential costs in the form of prolonged legal difficulties—and weighing those against any theoretical losses in revenue sparked by all the hoopla over the cancellation—which, let’s face it, probably aren’t that significant.)

But what Jones would call self-censorship, and Rushdie would call censorship by fear, Fish would describe an exercise of Random’s judgment—poor and short-sighted, perhaps, and almost certainly worrisome to any other author dealing with similarly controversial themes, but judgment nonetheless. What’s at risk here isn’t “free speech,” but Random House’s reputation as a publishing company that values unfettered intellectual and artistic discourse.

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Literary Prize Blacklists Random Over Medina

Here’s an interesting sidenote to the Sherry Jones situation: The Langam Charitable Trust has issued a statement deploring Random House‘s cancellation of Jones’s novel so strongly that “until The Jewel of Medina is actually published, [we] will not consider submissions of any books, for any of our prizes, from Random House or any of its affiliates.”

So that’s the $1,000 David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Historical Fiction and the $1,000 David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Legal History or Biography off the table for Random-affiliated authors until 2009 at the earliest—bad news for, at the very least, David Ebershoff (The 19th Wife), David Liss (the forthcoming The Whiskey Rebels), and Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore (the also-forthcoming Blindspot), all of whom would appear, based on an admittedly incomplete reading, to have otherwise had as strong a chance of winning the fiction prize as Random House author/editor Kurt Andersen, who won last year’s award for Heyday. (The legal history prize has never gone to a press not affiliated with an American university in the seven-year history of the award.) “Serious ideas, even if offensive to some, flourish in books,” representatives for the Langum Trust wrote. “Random House has exhibited a degree of cowardly self-censorship that seriously threatens the American public’s access to the free marketplace of ideas… We do this reluctantly, since our most recent prize in American historical fiction went to a Random House title. Nevertheless, this issue must be confronted.”

Is this, however, the right way to confront it? Should these (and other) authors suffer a literary penalty for a corporate decision involving another author, one in which they had no hand whatsoever? What do you think?

It Seems Some Woman Wrote a Novel About Muhammad’s Wife

sherry-jones-medina.jpgSince Michelle Boorstein is the religion correspondent for the Washington Post, and doesn’t usually cover the book beat, it’s understandable that today’s recap of the Jewel of Medina controversy doesn’t reference any of GalleyCat‘s extensive commentary from the last two weeks on Random House‘s decision to not publish the novel Sherry Jones wrote because they didn’t want to risk the possibility of terrorist reprisals, even when it attempts to describe the sentiments of “publishing insiders” by only quoting one person who doesn’t work for Random: Sara Nelson.

But identifying Nelson as “a blogger for Publishers Weekly“? That’s not good. So not good.

Rushdie: Random Gave In To “Censorship By Fear”

salman-rushdie-headshot.jpgEver 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]

Sherry Jones & The Jewel of Medina: Which Side Are You On?

mark-weston-headshot.jpgNeither Andy nor I was able to make it to Mark Weston‘s book party last week, but luckily for us Wiley publicist Cynthia Shannon thought to ask the author of Prophets & Princes, a history of Saudi Arabia, what he thought about Random House pulling the plug on The Jewel of Medina, Sherry Jones‘s novel about A’isha, the youngest of Muhammad’s wives.

“I agree with [Denise Spellberg],” Weston emailed Shannon after reading the original WSJ op-ed that started the public furor. “You don’t turn scripture into soft core pornography.” While admitting that he hadn’t read any of Jones’s novel, Weston says, apparently going by what the scholar who told Random House they were exposing themselves to terrorist attacks has said about the book, “it seems to be a work that will enflame rather than enlighten… Turning the Quran into a bodice-ripper is not the way to show Muslims the advantages of freedom.” (Note: Based on a reading of the novel’s prologue, I question Spellberg’s characterization.)

“Sherry Jones can write and self-publish whatever she wants,” Weston added. “Random House is free to decide that a book is not worth the trouble if publishing it will cause people to die. Should the world’s most violent men have a veto over what gets published? No. But publishing The Jewel of Medina would make radical Muslims stronger, not weaker. In the long struggle for freedom, let us choose a more intelligent cause.”

Strong words for a book Weston hasn’t even read yet. (By the way, who gets to decide which acts of expression are “intelligent” enough to enjoy the support of enlightened free-thinkers? Just asking.) And novelist Andrew Klavan would probably have even stronger words in response to Weston’s dismissal—starting with “Nuts!” and working his way up to a NSFW vocabulary from there.

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