Roger L. Simon

Shades of the Danish Cartoons: Random House in disgrace

Although it has for some time been a division of German media giant Bertelsmann, Random House has been one of the distinguished names in American publishing since the halcyon days of Bennett Cerf. So it is particularly repugnant to see the company knuckling under to  essentially the same reactionary, anti-democratic, anti-free speech forces that repressed the Danish cartoons.  As we learned in the Wall Street Journal today, the company has decided not to publish Sherry Jones’ historical novel “The Jewel of Medina” about Mohammed’s child bride Aisha.  The book was part of a $100,000 two-book contract with the author.

Shame on Random House!  This act of abject cowardice and de facto censorship is one of the most disgraceful incidents I can think of in the history of American publishing.  As Asra Q. Nomani writes in the WSJ:  Random House feared the book would become a new “Satanic Verses,” the Salman Rushdie novel of 1988 that led to death threats, riots and the murder of the book’s Japanese translator, among other horrors. In an interview about Ms. Jones’s novel, 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.”

The “credible” source was one Denise Spellberg, a University of Texas academic who, on receipt of Jones’ galleys, started tattling like a six-year old to Muslims Spellberg felt would be angry with the work. Perry and his cronies simply caved in. That the publishers reference the “Satanic Verses” in their defence is yet more despicable. In the early 1990s, when I was president of West Coast Branch of PEN, we did everything in our power to defend Rushdie against the attempts to suppress his freedom of speech. Random House does nothing for its own authors. The natural conclusion of their behavior in this instance is that nothing critical of Islam could ever be written.

PEN and the Authors’ Guild should launch an investigation into this situation and if the allegations are true, should urge a boycott of Random House until it changes its policy.  If I were Jones, I would sue the publishing house for all they’re worth.

[Full disclosure:  I had three novels published by a division of Random House in the 1980s – Villard Books.  At that point, I was very satisfied with the publisher and could not imagine them rejecting a manuscript for the reasons they are now.  It’s a different world.]

UPDATE:  Some commenters have pointed out that Random House’s behavior is not strictly speaking censorship because the company is not an organ of the state.  They are correct.  But I submit that that a publishing house the size of Random House has a certain level of public trust.  And I would imagine they would agree.  One of the key measures of public trust in the United States is the protection of free speech.  Yes, as one commenter stated, this is cowardice but not censorship, but it is a form of cowardice with immense social ramifications about which we should all be concerned.