Reviewing the Review: August 10 2008

News Publishing Religion
Today's New York Times Book Review is mild, competent and enjoyably readable. I don't know if it's the Book Review or me, but I just don't find I have much to say about it. This rarely happens.

I can't use the excuse that I have no time. It's 4:30 pm on a lazy Sunday afternoon and I just had time to watch three innings of a losing Mets game on TV, along with several Olympic swimming races from Beijing, and I've already read every article in today's issue. I just don't find myself with anything worthwhile to say about any individual piece, and I'd rather not fake it. Instead, I'd like to use this space to talk about Random House's decision to cancel the publication of a major novel (they'd paid author Sherry Jones a large advance) called The Jewel of Medina about the life of one of the prophet Mohammed's brides.

As many bloggers representing diverse points of view have remarked, this is a highly disappointing move, and what's most disappointing is the way Random House is handling the controversy:

Random House deputy publisher Thomas Perry said in a statement the company received “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.”

“In this instance we decided, after much deliberation, to postpone publication for the safety of the author, employees of Random House, booksellers and anyone else who would be involved in distribution and sale of the novel,” Perry said.

It's offensive that the book won't be published -- I don't believe the hearsay that it is unworthy of publication, since Random House paid a lot of money (reportedly $100,000) for it -- but it's even more offensive that Random House is resting their position on a blatant appeal to their own willful ignorance. Again:

"... the company received “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 ... why didn't they ask some radical Muslims and find out? It's not like they'd have to send a rocket to the moon to find an opinionated Muslim, but you'd think so from the distant tones of this public statement.

This recourse to silence and blissful ignorance reflects a broad belief among pro-war Americans -- this belief is a pillar of both the George W. Bush worldview and the John McCain worldview, unfortunately -- that there is little value in communicating with "the enemy" about political or social issues. The gulf is so wide, apparently, that there's no point even trying to talk across it. In fact, open public discourse is the obvious answer that Random House missed.

Why didn't they invite a few prominent scholars representing various sectors of the worldwide Muslim community -- Shiites, Sunnis, liberals, conservatives, Arabs, Asians, Africans, Europeans and Americans -- to participate in an open discussion of whether or not Sherry Jones' book is offensive, and if so why? It's highly likely that the dialogue would result in a positive finding for the book, and the whole thing would add up to a great opportunity for pre-publication awareness. Am I asking too much that a publishing company -- a publishing company -- might resort to open public discourse, rather than cloaked corporate legalism -- to resolve what is essentially a literary and spiritual issue?

Random House is not an oil company or a beef processing concern or an aerospace conglomerate. Random House is supposed to be the most respected and prestigious major book publishing company in the world. Hah.

I don't usually generalize about large organizations, but the way Random House is handling this problem represents a new low in timid, insipid corporate publishing behavior. It's not too late for them to announce a new decision, and I hope they'll do so. Otherwise, we must conclude that Thomas Perry and the other executives responsible for this cowardly move simply have no business working in the honorable field of publishing, a proud craft for the intellectually courageous.

* * * * *

Okay, the Book Review. Sarah Churchwell hates the new novelisation of the JonBenet Ramsay murders by Joyce Carol Oates. Geoff Dyer hates the new book about running by Haruki Murakami, and he also hates running and he also hates Haruki Murakami. Stephen Burt kind of doesn't like Juan Felipe Herrera's poetry because the poems were obviously written for performance rather than print, but manages to eke out some praise for his colorful poetry nonetheless. Robert Olen "Pulitzer Prize Winner" Butler just keeps getting weirder and weirder, which isn't to say I'm not intrigued enough to check out Intercourse, 50 stories about historical figures or famous people having sex. Caryn James like the new Doris Lessing, I think.

And I promise to stay more on topic when next weekend's newspaper arrives.
This article is part of the series Reviewing the New York Times Book Review. The next post in the series is Reviewing the Review: August 17 2008. The previous post in the series is Reviewing the Review: August 3 2008.
9 Responses to "Reviewing the Review: August 10 2008"

While I think your criticism of Random House is a bit harsh, I do believe a public discourse is an excellent idea.

I agree that Bush and McCain put too little value in communicating with those with opposing views.

by Charles Curran on

Why don't you do just that. Do a review of the book, and invite some muslims that you know to do the same.

by Brian on

I don't think your reaction to Random House's decision is harsh at all. This was a corporate decision by a company fearing a hit to their profits, with no sense of free speech, discourse, education, nothing. It was pathetic, and I say good for you for making that point. Well done!

by TKG on

I don't think you are too harsh on Random House. Not at all.

What Bush and McCain have to do with any of this is a mystery.

As far as your suggestion, that is what random House thought they did. The publication was shut down on advice of Islamic scholar and discussion by Muslims. In fact almost exactly how you described it in terms of getting input -- although this was on a listserv and on internet discussions.

After he got the call from Ms. Spellberg, Mr. Amanullah dashed off an email to a listserv of Middle East and Islamic studies graduate students, acknowledging he didn't "know anything about it [the book]," but telling them, "Just got a frantic call from a professor who got an advance copy of the forthcoming novel, 'Jewel of Medina' -- she said she found it incredibly offensive." He added a write-up about the book from the Publishers Marketplace, an industry publication.

The next day, a blogger known as Shahid Pradhan posted Mr. Amanullah's email on a Web site for Shiite Muslims -- "Hussaini Youth" -- under a headline, "upcoming book, 'Jewel of Medina': A new attempt to slander the Prophet of Islam." Two hours and 28 minutes after that, another person by the name of Ali Hemani proposed a seven-point strategy to ensure "the writer withdraws this book from the stores and apologise all the muslims across the world."

from Wall Street Journal, Aug.6.

I feel you are also side stepping the issue by calling for an open discussion in that you are assuming this consortium of Muslims would welcome the book with open arms.

But what if this open discussion came to the conclusion that the book should not be published?

I think you are not too hard on the House but too soft. I think this whole episode reflects a bit how near irrelevant and ossified this industry is. The whole thing. And of course cowardly and bereft of any belief in fighting for basic freedoms against those who seek to take them away.

It's a big issue, but random House is so pathetic this can only be expected.

____

I thought the Joyce Carol Oates headline was from the Onion.

This issue, based on web headlines, was a bizarre issue -- putting evrything down. People who drive cars are idiots, Doris Lessing's parents are insane (apple don't fall far from the tree would be my editorial comment), western world and US are bad and mess everything up. And whatever Stein and Toklas did or did not do, it was not intercourse.

____

Levi, rather than me blather on like usual, seriously, do you think this Random House decision to publish this book, then renege due to concerns is a serious matter that can have broader implications than just that book and that publishing company?

by TKG on

A good link for this is here where the first chapter or prologue of the book is available and there is a discussion going between various people, kicked off by a Muslim woman's opinion and including comments by the author, Sherry Jones.

by JDS on

Would publication of this book, put the author in danger? With so many small radical Muslim groups claiming GOD wants this or that and are willing to react on such thought processes with nonrational behavior, it is probably true. Asking muslim scholars with many diverse opinions is probably pointless. Radicals have no attraction to supposedly educated or supposedly theological diverse opinions to change their destructive behavior. The author obviously could make up her own mind after hearing theses so call scholars by just not agreeing to have it published. Rushdie remained hidden for years for a reason. Are we entering another so called Dark Ages against ideas or knowledge being transmitted through public media, I wonder. The age of political correctness or ideas contray to this or that particular group and being seen as threats to certain ideals or beliefs has grown exponetially in the last few years. Very scary indeed.

by Steve on

You know what? I like Herrera's poetry. I like some of it a great deal, enough to say so in public, rather vociferously, I thought. I teach his work in my courses too. (I don't mean to deride your snarky style: I just want to make clear that I like Herrera's poems... even though I don't like all of them.)

by Levi Asher on

TKG, what I'm objecting is Random House's "talk to the hand" attitude towards anyone who might be offended by the book. This rules out any chance of a compromise solution (which is what would probably result from consulting an ad hoc committee of Muslim reviewers).

A compromise solution -- what a crazy idea, huh?

(By the way, another subtext of this whole mess is that Random House recently had a major management change. What's really going on here is that the new management is refusing to go to bat for the old management's controversial projects.)

TKG makes a good point that (a) Random House thinks they have already had the discussion that Levi is advocating, and (b) "what if this open discussion came to the conclusion that the book should not be published?"

As for the freedom of speech issue, Random House is not prohibting anyone's freedom of speech. They have the right to publish or not publish anything they choose. I recall Levi himself deleting certain comments from the old Litkicks site because he believed they were inappropriate. I agreed with his decision.

Of course, if Random House decides not to publish The Jewel of Medina, they should allow Sherry Jones to shop it elsewhere. AND keep the advance.

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