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

By Neal Comment

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.

andrew-klavan-headshot.jpgKlavan, best known for his psychological suspense novels, wrote a scathing editorial for Pajamas Media yesterday, the day on which The Jewel of Medina was originally scheduled for publication. “It doesn’t matter a damn what the Koran says or whether the novel is offensive to Muslims or not,” Klavan wrote, citing Doubleday‘s willingness to publish The Da Vinci Code despite the number of Roman Catholics and other Christians who find it deeply offensive.

I think Klavan’s argument goes a little overboard—this is, ultimately, a private corporate decision, driven less by “political correctness” and “multiculturalism” than by primal fear—but he’s right to point out the unfortunate precedent set by Random House’s decision. One of the key issues I see in all this isn’t about free speech or religious freedom, it’s about trust: How can any author dealing with Islamic culture, whether in fiction or nonfiction, be thoroughly confident that Random House would stand by their book if faced with similar objections? Any such author who currently has a book deal with any division of Random House—including Denise Spellberg—could conceivably find themselves (regrettably, always regrettably) cut loose if similar circumstances arise; authors and agents considering submitting Islamic-themed projects to those imprints now have to ask themselves whether acquiring editors will really be able to bring their books successfully to publication, or whether they, too, could be overruled by corporate superiors. That’s why the “but we’re only talking about a crappy book” argument doesn’t hold water here; although most of us have little more than Denise Spellberg’s word to go on concerning the quality of Jones’s writing, we also know the manuscript few of us have seen was good enough for Ballantine editor Judy Sternlight to want to publish it—and one would suspect that the American editor of Betool Khedairi and Musharraf Farooqi knows a thing or two about publishable fiction and Middle Eastern culture.

(Plus, if one controversial subject is out of bounds, what other topics might become too hot for the publisher to handle? )

For her part, Sherry Jones has decided that she’s tired of trying to talk about the novel she wrote, instead of whatever it is people imagine her book to be based on secondhand testimony at best. “All my efforts to move the conversation forward, to focus on A’isha and what a remarkable woman she was, fall by the wayside, ignored in the wake of this ‘scandal,'” Jones writes on her blog. “Enough is enough. You won’t hear from me again until The Jewel of Medina is out, and you have had a chance to read it.” She cites one last public statement for now: a guest essay on a Washington Post/Newsweek blog where she recaps her version of events, and then, “using A’isha as my example,” urges readers to “rise up against the culture of fear that pervades our society, refuse to succumb to racism, stand up for our rights, and live courageous lives.”