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.