Keeping up with the Joneses

Disappointing stuff from the Bookseller on the Random House censorship case.

Philip Jones, managing editor of the Bookseller’s website, has written a piece entitled ‘A Jewel worth fighting over?’ After this, the article writes itself – when someone asks ‘Is this worth defending?’ the subtext is generally: ‘No – forget it and move on.’

He begins by noting Andrew Franklin’s argument against the decision. A publisher at Profile Books, Franklin said:

It’s absolutely shocking. [Random House] are such cowards… I just think publishers should uphold the principle of free speech – editorial judgement is very important, but free speech is sacred, without it we should give up and go home.

To deal with this Jones tries to reduce the debate to a conflict between independent and corporate publishers:

Franklin speaks as a former corporate publisher, and with some knowledge—he was at Penguin during publication of The Satanic Verses. But he also speaks as an independent publisher (at heart) and one happy to cock a snook at the corporates.

That concludes Jones’s engagement with Franklin – the Profile man is only criticising Random House because he works at a little independent and doesn’t like corporate publishers. Note also the insinuation of bad blood between Franklin and Penguin (‘a former corporate publisher’).

But Franklin is clearly not alone: Rushdie himself has told the Associated Press: ‘This is censorship by fear, and it sets a very bad precedent indeed.’ (Random House publishes Rushdie on both sides of the pond). While the web, and theBookseller.com, is now peppered with comments such as ‘Have we already become dhimmis to islam?’, from people who seem as interested in criticising Islam (or Random) as defending free speech.

The full story is likely to be more nuanced than these comments allow.

Of course it’s nuanced – most things are. But as journalists know, saying that something is complicated is shorthand for ‘Move on – nothing to see here’. Dissemblers exaggerate complexity to avoid scrutiny. But the essence of the story is this: a work of fiction is being subject to censorship. Is it really so hard to work out which side you’re on?

As with the cartoons furore, the Brick Lane row and so many other cases, we are hearing from pseudo-left apologists for censorship. We will also hear from the Eurabia nutjobs and racists who use the issue to attack Asians. Both should be challenged wherever and whenever they appear.

But note Jones’s juxtaposition: the frothing and raving about dhimmi slaves comes from ‘people who seem as interested in criticising Islam (or Random) as defending free speech.’ Isn’t there a false apposition there? The defence of free speech is contrasted with the criticism of Islam as if the two things are completely separate, and as if defending free speech is good whereas criticising Islam is bad.

Unfortunately, this really is one of those all or nothing issues. If you’re going to defend free speech, you have to – increasingly – defend at least the right to criticise Islam. (Let me add the standard caveat, for Jones’s benefit, that this applies to all religions and belief systems.)

Yet the number of ‘credible and unrelated sources’ telling Random US the same thing does lend weight to what its spokesman described as a ‘difficult decision’. Of course, the publisher has not helped its case by not disclosing more about the warnings, but commentators should perhaps at least give Random the benefit of the doubt that it would not take such a decision lightly.

I appreciate that there are good people at Random House and that this was undoubtedly a hard decision to make. This doesn’t change the fact that it was the wrong decision, or invalidate the arguments of people who point this out.

It may be, as Julian Rivers argues in the comments published on this site that a ‘brave indie will outperform a corporate publisher in this regard every time’ (and he points to one occasion when that certainly has happened), but even corporate publishers are not generally as weak-kneed as this suggests.

You get the impression that for Jones this isn’t an argument about free expression but a professional bunfight between the corporates and the indies.

Of course publishers regularly cancel books, even at the eleventh hour, and not always because the lawyers or accountants have got involved. Sometimes they just cancel them because they are bad books.

This reminded me of Verso’s decision not to publish a book by Ophelia Benson because it was too critical of Islam. Some commenters suggested that Verso turned the book down because it wasn’t any good and that Ophelia made up the censorship issue out of churlish pique. It was then pointed out by Ophelia’s co-author, Jeremy Stangroom, that Verso had expressed interest; that it was impressed with the sales of the authors’ last book; that it invited Stangroom to a meeting to discuss the book and in any case the book is being published elsewhere.

The same appears to be true of The Jewel of Medina, but on a bigger scale. Its author Sherry Jones explained the initial enthusiasm at Random House:

I was thrilled not only by the two-book deal, which included a sequel detailing A’isha’s life after Muhammad’s death, but also by the passion with which everyone at the publishing company seemed to embrace this novel.

Soon, the foreign rights sales started coming in: Spain, Italy, Hungary. I still wasn’t surprised. My agent called to tell me of an eight-city U.S. book tour — gratifying, but not surprising. Book of the Month Club signed on to feature ‘The Jewel of Medina’ in its August 2008 issue, and Quality Paperback Book Club would follow up six months later. My book seemed destined for the best-seller list.

Now, is it likely that Random House, after having given Jones a two-book contract and secured all these lucrative sales rights and book club deals – is it plausible that, at the last minute, someone said ‘Hang on, this Islamic stuff is fucking rubbish. Why are we publishing this? Stop the presses!’

I don’t work in publishing but can you really see this happening?

Isn’t the more obvious explanation the true one – that Random House are scared of provoking the notoriously sensitive minority of religious fundamentalists?

Of course Jones covers himself by adding: ‘There is no suggestion that this is what happened in this case’.  Yes – probably for good reason.

[B]ut could it be true that Random just decided the book was not important enough to put itself or its staff at risk over? The Jewel of Medina is not The Satanic Verses, and lest we forget Random House remains the publisher of the more important work.

Most of us don’t know the quality of The Jewel of Medina and we won’t unless it finds a publisher with some guts. Perhaps Philip Jones has read it. Perhaps it is a piece of shit – although the amount of time and research Sherry Jones has put into her novel indicates that the work is likely to be of value.

We don’t know. But the point with censorship is never about this or that book. It is that fiction should not be censored. Sacrifice The Jewel of Medina to satisfy the fanatics? But the fanatics are never satisfied: are opposed to satisfaction itself. There are censors in all organised groups, not just Islam. And the next book on the pyre may not be some controversialist hackwork. It could be the next Ulysses or Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

In short, this piece is a desperate apologia for corporate cowardice and corporate censorship. I am disappointed that the editor of a major trade publication has chosen not to support freedom of expression in this instance. I hope that this piece doesn’t reflect the Bookseller’s editorial line.

3 Responses to “Keeping up with the Joneses”

  1. ‘We apologise for publishing this book’ « Max Dunbar Says:

    […] publishing this book’ You may remember Bookseller managing editor Philip Jones and his dismissive, badly argued article on The Jewel of Medina censorship […]

  2. Now that’s how it’s done « Max Dunbar Says:

    […] that’s how it’s done Recently I’ve been laying into the Bookseller’s managing editor over his weasel words in the face of censorship and […]

  3. More Gibson Square « Max Dunbar Says:

    […] by Salman Rushdie] it is not clear that most wanted to see it banned’ before finishing with a Phil Jones-style plea of ‘Move along, nothing to see […]

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