This one is so disgusting my teeth are chattering with rage – not quite literally, but it’s close. I feel as if my teeth were chattering with rage. What? A historian named Denise Spellberg was sent a novel about Aisha, the little girl Mo married when she was nine years old, and Spellberg decided she needed to get busy warning and threatening and silencing. And it worked.
Thomas Perry, deputy publisher at Random House Publishing Group, said that it “disturbs us that we feel we cannot publish it right now.” He said that after sending out advance copies of the novel, the company received “from credible and unrelated sources, cautionary advice not only that the publication of this book might be offensive to some in the Muslim community, but also that it could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment.”
Especially if conscientious determined people worked hard enough to get the incitement of violence started, which it looks as though they would have. We have seen this before. (And then been told the ensuing riots were the fault of the people who had the temerity to draw the cartoons, rather than the fault of the people who put in a lot of effort to get people worked up. I hope we never have to hear that kind of thing again.) (The reporter is a Muslim, by the way, and she is upset by this revolting mess.)
This time, the instigator of the trouble wasn’t a radical Muslim cleric, but an American academic. In April, looking for endorsements, Random House sent galleys to writers and scholars, including Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas in Austin. Ms. Jones put her on the list because she read Ms. Spellberg’s book, “Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of ‘A’isha Bint Abi Bakr.” But Ms. Spellberg wasn’t a fan of Ms. Jones’s book. On April 30, Shahed Amanullah, a guest lecturer in Ms. Spellberg’s classes and the editor of a popular Muslim Web site, got a frantic call from her. “She was upset,” Mr. Amanullah recalls. He says Ms. Spellberg told him the novel “made fun of Muslims and their history,” and asked him to warn Muslims.
To warn them? To warn them of what? A threat on their lives? An approaching hurricane? A tsunami? The melting Arctic? Hungry polar bears? Homeland Security? No, of course not. To warn them of a book – a novel – a novel that Spellberg didn’t like. Knowing the impressive history that ‘warned’ Muslims have of respecting the freedom of the press and the value of open discussion and debate, Spellberg asked her friend to ‘warn Muslims’ about a novel. This makes me very, very, very angry. This causes me to have dark thoughts about wishing the University of Texas at Austin would summarily fire Spellberg for her failure to understand the most basic principles of intellectual life. What business does someone like that have at a university? What business does she have writing books and teaching? What right does she have to set herself up as a censor of other people’s work?
In an interview, Ms. Spellberg told me the novel is a “very ugly, stupid piece of work.” The novel, for example, includes a scene on the night when Muhammad consummated his marriage with Aisha: “the pain of consummation soon melted away. Muhammad was so gentle. I hardly felt the scorpion’s sting. To be in his arms, skin to skin, was the bliss I had longed for all my life*.” Says Ms. Spellberg…”I don’t have a problem with historical fiction. I do have a problem with the deliberate misinterpretation of history. You can’t play with a sacred history and turn it into soft core pornography.”
Who says you can’t? Under what jurisdiction can’t you? And who the hell assigned Denise Spellberg to decide? What on earth makes her think she has the right to shut down someone else’s book? Who (to be obvious about it) does she think she is?
Jane Garrett, an editor at Random House’s Knopf imprint, dispatched an email on May 1 to Knopf executives, telling them she got a phone call the evening before from Ms. Spellberg (who happens to be under contract with Knopf to write “Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an.”) “She thinks there is a very real possibility of major danger for the building and staff and widespread violence,” Ms. Garrett wrote. “Denise says it is ‘a declaration of war…explosive stuff…a national security issue.’ Thinks it will be far more controversial than the satanic verses and the Danish cartoons. Does not know if the author and Ballantine folks are clueless or calculating, but thinks the book should be withdrawn ASAP.”
She thinks there is a very real possibility because she herself has been busy trying to foment the possibility. That takes some brass-plated nerve.
I’d like to see her summarily fired, and I’d like to see Knopf withdraw that contract. I’d like to see her disgraced, shamed, an outcast. I’d like to see her have to get a job at a chicken-rendering plant in Odessa. At the very least I’d like to see her name become mud, which, judging by Google blog search, it’s well on the way to doing.
Denise Spellberg, self-appointed censor and destroyer of books: you should be embarrassed at yourself. You should go into a very different line of work, right away – you should not be allowed anywhere near students, and you should never get another book or article published.
*As mediwatchwatch said, all nine years of it.
P.S. Note that the last bit is a pious hope. I’m not telephoning people to urge them to fire Spellberg (much as I’d like to) or to decide not to publish her book (even more as I’d like to). I’m merely expressing a cherished dream. I’m a fantasist, not a censor. Unlike some people I could mention.