Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Sheesh, Ayesha

If this is true, and I see no reason why it wouldn't be, I really have to question Random House's judgment.

The story: woman writes book about Ayesha, favored wife of the Prophet Muhammad. Book sent to Islamic expert, who predicts widespread offense taken in Muslim world. Random House then decided to pull the book, fearing that it would "become another 'Satanic Verses'" - a reference to the Salman Rushdie book that got a price put on the author's head by the idiots running Iran. (I've read it - and I have no idea what the ayatollahs were bellyaching about. Beside the point.)

Anyway, if you're Random House, wouldn't you be friggin' ecstatic at the idea of another "Satanic Verses"? I mean, what better publicity for a book could you have than CNN reporting on a bunch of schmucks in Saudi Arabia burning it? You can practically smell the money rolling in. Why would you turn that down? It's a slam dunk, and not in the George Tenet sense either!

Random House shareholders, keep this in mind. Some executive doesn't want your company to make money.

Update: "Satanic Verses" was the #6 bestseller in America in 1989. This is a list usually dominated by the likes of Stephen King and Danielle Steel - to my knowledge, Rushdie never had a book up there before and hasn't had one since. I say again, why wouldn't you want to publish this book? Even if it sucks, the controversy makes it a cash cow!


Ben said...

Off the top of my head:

a) Aren't death threats against an author a bad thing? Perhaps the folks at Random House aren't entirely inhuman and care about the author's safety.

b) Perhaps Random House wants to make it in the Islamic market. If so, bad business to have the RH brand associated with such controversial stuff.

Mike said...

Ben, responding to a), assuming the author is apprised of the situation (and how could she not be going in?), it should be the author's decision whether to take the risk. However, a) is a good point for a different reason: ignoring Rushdie himself, I believe that a few publishers involved with "The Satanic Verses" got into some trouble as well (I could be completely wrong, but I thought I heard that somewhere).

As for b), cannot a publishing company print more than one type of novel? I'm sure RH has printed at least one book that would be offensive to Christians on some level, but I'm sure they've also printed at least one that would be thoroughly enjoyed by people of faith.

Either way, I'm not sure most people generally pay much attention to publishers. I know I don't.

Ben said...

Even if the author knows what she is getting into, that does not absolve the publisher of responsibility. The publisher is still a moral agent who knows the potential consequences of its decision whether to publish the book. If the book were published and the author's life were thereby placed in danger, the publisher would be partially responsible. (As would the author herself, who made a decision knowing the consequences. Of course, the PRIMARY responsibility would go to the idiots issuing the death threats. The author and the publisher shouldn't be placed in a situation where they have to consider the possibility of physical harm coming to the author, so damn the idiots fro placing them in that situation. But, whether or not they SHOULD be in that situation, the fact is that they are...and must take responsibility for whatever decision they make, right or wrong.)

Matthew B. Novak said...

Ben -

I think you're wrong to put any responsibility on the publishers. Publishing a book is not a risky enterprise. It's not like mountain climbing or street racing or other inherently risky activities. The threat is entirely placed by outsiders threatening to do harm, and as such the entire blame has to go to the outsiders. If not for other people making threats, publishing this book would be the right course of action.

Should they be concerned for the safety of their author? Yes, and I commend that. But there are other ways to protect the author than not publishing. I mean, Rushdie is still alive. All it took for him was a few years living in Bono's basement. So not-publishing is not the right course of action. No way, no how.

Mike -

I think the reason Satanic Verses was so reviled was because it told the story of Muhammad's prophecy and how he withdrew certain verses, later claiming them to be from a source other than the rest of his verses. There was also the whole "Muhammed forcing the angel to say things" bit.

I dunno. I didn't finish the book. It started well, but got really tedious and boring. I like Rushdie's beginnings, but never seem to finish his books.

Mike said...

Ben, if the author says, "Yes, I'm fully aware of the risks, now please publish my book", I'm not sure I see how the publisher is still responsible?

Matt, I never questioned why "The Satanic Verses" caused such a hullabaloo among the Muslim community (Jeff did). I haven't read the book, but based on what I read of the controversy on Wikipedia, it certainly sounds like there were some blasphemous things in there (having prostitutes named for Mohammed's wives, for instance). Not that I'm saying a fatwa was the way to go, of course, but I can certainly understand Muslims' misgivings.

Regardless, if it's good, I think RH should publish the damn book.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Sorry about that Mike.

Jeff - See my earlier comment directed at Mike.

Ben said...

I'm not saying Random House made the right decision in not publishing the book. Certainly there are other ways to protect the author. What I'm saying is (a) Random House had its reasons and I suggested a couple possible ones...whether they are good is another story, and (b) the choices of others, however wrong, does not absolve us (or, in this case, Random House) of moral responsibility for our actions. Maybe, even knowing the danger to the author, Random House should've made the decision to publish the book. BUT it cannot be denied that Random House had a decision to make and had to take moral responsibility for that decision, including its potential consequences. Even if the author knew the consequences....even if the fatwa-issuers are dead wrong....that doesn't make Random House a responsibility-less, will-less entity that merely acts out the will of others with no responsiblity for its own decisions.

Bottom line: We are all responsible for our own decisions. That's all I'm saying.

Mike said...

"We are all responsible for our own decisions."

Yes, but a publishing company's responsibility is to its writers and its readership, to deliver the best possible books. To be ridiculously cheesy and use a well-worn line, if we don't publish written works due only to the threat of retaliation, then "the terrorists have already won."

And to get back to Jeff's initial point, a publishing company's responsibility is also to its shareholders. Which only adds to the reasons this feels like a wrong decision.