Stanley Fish caught up with the controversy surrounding Sherry Jones‘s still-unpublished The Jewel of Medina, and wanted to remind NY Times readers that, whatever else you might say about Random House‘s decision to avoid riling Muslim fanatics by publishing a novel about Muhammad’s wife, they never actually censored Jones. “Random House is free to publish or decline to publish whatever it likes, and its decision to do either has nothing whatsoever to do with the Western tradition of free speech or any other high-sounding abstraction,” Fish wrote—and, remember, this is a philosopher who will famously tell you that there’s no such thing as free speech. Anybody who thinks this was censorship, he adds—like, say, Salman Rushdie—doesn’t understand the precise philosophical and legal meaning of the term.
This is exactly right. The difference between true censorship and Random House’s decision to place a higher value on the safety of its proven corporate assets than on a commercially unproven work of artistic expression is, simply, the difference between “you can’t do that” and “I don’t want any part of that.” Random House did not join forces with Islamic leaders to explicitly condemn the book, nor is it sitting on the manuscript to prevent readers from ever seeing it; they have given the rights back to Jones, who is even now working with her agent to secure another American publisher for the novel and its sequel. As Fish concludes, Random’s decision “may have been cowardly or alarmist, or it may have been good business, or it may have been an attempt to avoid trouble that ended up buying trouble,” but declining to publish a book that one has come to view as a potential liability is not an act of censorship—and for anyone who thinks it is, here’s a question: Where were your cries of protest when the hint of a lawsuit was enough to make Random House’s Crown division drop its plans to publish the memoirs of Madonna’s nanny? Don’t you think she was entitled to freedom of expression in the face of outside intimidation, too?
One of the few admirable aspects of this situation is the clearheadedness Jones herself has shown throughout; in an early interview with GalleyCat, she said, “I was never angry about their decision… [and] they’re a private corporation; they can do whatever they want.” Contacted last night via email and asked if she felt censored, she wrote back, “In terms of censorship, I would say that Random House censored itself. This is a classic case of self-censorship based on fear.” Considering Fish’s notion that the cancellation of The Jewel of Medina should be viewed as a corporate decision, she added, “When you pull a book because you think you’ll lose money, that’s a corporate decision. When you pull a book because you fear terrorist attack, that’s self-censorship. Until [Random House] execs heard warnings of possible violence over my book, the company had my book on the fast track to best-sellerdom. So they clearly had expected to make money from its publication.”
(Of course, it’s still entirely possible to weigh the threat of violence in stark economic terms, weighing the potential revenues from the book against the heretofore unseen potential costs of repairing physical damage to 1745 Broadway and replacing dead personnel—just like Madonna’s nanny’s memoir turned out to have potential costs in the form of prolonged legal difficulties—and weighing those against any theoretical losses in revenue sparked by all the hoopla over the cancellation—which, let’s face it, probably aren’t that significant.)
But what Jones would call self-censorship, and Rushdie would call censorship by fear, Fish would describe an exercise of Random’s judgment—poor and short-sighted, perhaps, and almost certainly worrisome to any other author dealing with similarly controversial themes, but judgment nonetheless. What’s at risk here isn’t “free speech,” but Random House’s reputation as a publishing company that values unfettered intellectual and artistic discourse.