Fiery Words from FireCrest

Monday, 20 October 2008

The 'Jewel of Medina' Affair

In case you, like me, have been on another planet for the best part of the summer, a quick recap of the background to this imbroglio may be in order. And it fills some thinking space while we wait for the naughty Sundial Press to do the right thing.
     American journalist Sherry Jones sold the rights to her novel The Jewel of Medina to Random House for a gratifying $100,000. The book is about Aisha, the [child] bride of the Prophet Mohamed. In writing it, Jones hoped to build bridges and take some of the heat out of anti-Islamic stereotypes. She reportedly considered the novel to be “about women's empowerment, peace and hope”. Having read it, we take her point. Besides which, The Jewel of Medina is meticulously researched. Any Moslem taking offense could be met with a barrage of Jones’s scholarship in rebuttal.
     In May 2008 Random House pulled the book after Denise Spellberg, allegedly an expert on Islam at the University of Texas, called the novel a “declaration of war” and “a national security issue that might incite violence”. Spellberg also apparently called the book “soft-core pornography”. (It does feature a scene in which the Prophet consummates his by then five-year-old marriage to the 14-year-old Aisha. But as these things go, it’s actually quite tastefully done. And consider that in 1850s England, the age of consent for young women was 13.)
     In August, Random House issued a statement saying the company stood “firmly by our responsibility to support our authors and the free discussion of ideas, even those that may be construed as offensive by some.” The came the weasel words: “However, a publisher must weigh that responsibility against others that it also bears, and 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.”
     Salman Rushdie, who may not be much of a literary genius but does know a thing or two about standing up for freedom of speech, rightly gave Random House a good wiggin’. Many another distinguished voice joined in. When we read about Random House’s poltroonery we fired off e-mails to Jones and her agent asking to see the MS. We reckoned (and said) that even if The Jewel of Medina was only half good, it ought to be in print, on principle. We made it clear we couldn’t quite match RH’s advance (which we hope Sherry Jones still has stashed and cached somewhere safe, viz.: not in a bank). We received the MS and read it and pondered.
     In early September Gibson Square, run by Martin Rynja, took the book for the UK market (in the USA, Beaufort had the balls that Random House so signally lacked). Within about a week Gibson Square’s offices were firebombed, and certain persons are now helping certain other persons, renowned for their blue suits and big feet, with their enquiries. Publication of The Jewel of Medina has now been “postponed”, presumably to allow Gibson House the opportunity to haggle with their insurance company and restore their damaged premises. We sympathise, perhaps more than most, since it might (just) have been the FireCrest offices now in a bigger mess than usual, and our insurance company being unhelpful, the way they are.
     If you have low irony and subtlety quotients, best stop reading now.

Tackling real historical characters in fiction is tricky at best, and more so when handling religious figures. Probably the nearest – that is, potentially controversial – equivalents from Christianity are the various novels that explore the relationship between Mary Magdalen and Himself of Nazareth. We’ve read about four of these, and few get better than the high end of ordinary. The best is Carolyn Slaughter’s Magdalene, but then Slaughter is a real novelist with an eye like a razor. The subject is of legitimate, if always speculative, interest among Christians, and no one in that (now) fairly tolerant tradition of belief seems to have been overly ventilated by these books. The one Jewish equivalent we can think of, offhand, is Joseph Heller’s God Knows, which is mostly hilarious, was also written by a real novelist, and sits in a tradition of infinite self-mockery, half-serious gloom and irrepressible survivalism. So no one minded that either.
     The first and biggest irony of the Jewel of Medina affair is that it isn’t, actually, a terribly good novel, certainly not as good as Slaughter’s and Heller’s. The MS we saw certainly needed the aid of a tactful editor while, it has to be said, we weren’t exactly grabbed by the way the story was told. Which is not to say that its heart isn’t in the right place, or that its author’s motives weren’t of the best. But we were still in a bit of quandary.
     The Jewel of Medina was always going to be up against a certain faction of pathologically intolerant, tunnel-visioned and, not to put too fine a point on it, plain ignorant Moslems who do their faith and their co-religionists no good service, because they understand the subtleties of neither. Freedom of speech is absolute. Personally, I should rather someone called me a kike and a sheeny little Jew (if that’s how they felt; and Disraeli put up with that and worse) than feel constrained by fear of being prosecuted or attacked. To that extent Sherry Jones’s novel could have been no better than the last thing you’d want to read on Mills & Boone’s list, could even indeed have been pornographic (it isn’t) and still should not be suppressed, voluntarily or otherwise.
     The slightly weird thing about The Jewel of Medina is that, had it not been written now, one could fairly wonder if anyone would seriously have considered putting a hundred grand up-front for it. Change the names of the protagonists and you have a mildly interesting take on a May–December marriage, with the December partner erring toward patience, wisdom and generosity. But it’s written in the style of higher romance, which is to say at about the level of the average, genre-specific Aga Saga, of the kind that was once aimed squarely and profitably at the library market. And the bones of its quasi-didactic intent show too often through its flesh.
     Style defines what you’re able to say. If you write like Joanna Trollope or Jilly Cooper you will never be able to delve into human nature the way George Eliot or Joseph Conrad does, because your language won’t let you: it confines your thought. While Sherry Jones’s motives are not in doubt, her work is somewhat lacking in depth. There is a market for this kind of thing (as Trollope and Cooper so amply and affluently indicate) even when prophets are in question, but it doesn’t answer to the condition FireCrest was founded to address. Hence our quandary.
     None of which should be taken as literary snobbery – as implying that The Jewel of Medina would be more righteously defensible if only it had been a Great Book. The argument certainly doesn’t pull much weight with The Satanic Verses, so why should it here? If there is a ‘literary’ point to be made, it’s a general one – that any account of a relationship between a teenage girl and a fifty-plus-year-old man will demand insight and talent of a very high order if it’s to tell us anything new about the human condition.
     The final irony of this whole sorry affair is that Sherry Jones, who really meant well in her enterprise and is a chirpy, humorous soul, is a journalist and fine researcher. Perhaps someone should have told her to write up her research as popular non-fiction. The result may have been a better book, one quickly defensible by reference to cited sources and, in being by its nature less speculative, proportionately less stimulating to the easily-offended. She may have had smaller advances and enjoyed only a slight increase in personal safety, but her generous purpose could scarcely be in doubt. That is the trouble with fiction: it is inescapably ambiguous, because it is art.


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