Sunday, August 05, 2007

Life Intimidates Art?

In the following letter, which appeared in today's New York Times Book Review, writer Erica Jong takes the position that "suppressing a book because you disagree with its content is always a challenge to freedom of speech."

To the Editor:

Rachel Donadio’s summary of the trans-Atlantic response to Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses” (“Fighting Words,” July 15) caught my attention because I happened to be president of the Authors Guild when that book was published in America.

What I remember most from that time was the rampant hypocrisy of the response. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had issued the fatwa on Feb. 14, 1989, and several translators and publishers had paid with life or limb. I was particularly concerned because one of the victims of the fatwa was my and Rushdie’s Norwegian publisher, William Nygaard, who was wounded in an attack provoked by the fatwa.

"A free society cannot tolerate
words being mistaken for actions."

The winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature, Naguib Mahfouz, correctly assailed Khomeini for “intellectual terrorism,” and V. S. Naipaul, who won the prize in 2001, wryly labeled Khomeini’s fatwa “an extreme form of literary criticism.”

But for the people who died or were critically wounded by the attacks the fatwa inspired, this was no occasion for clever remarks. In the face of these attacks, the entire membership of the Authors Guild voted to support Rushdie’s right to publish and protested when Rushdie’s publishers tried to suppress the paperback edition of his book out of fear that bookstore and publishing personnel would be injured.

I understood their fear, but I felt at the time and still feel that our professional organization had to take a stand against such censorship. The guild membership was courageous in supporting Rushdie during those terrible days. While others waffled, we uncompromisingly stood up for free speech and literature — something Salman recognized and thanked us for.

"Suppressing a book
because you disagree with its content
is always
a challenge
to freedom of speech."

It seems to me there are no shades of gray here. Suppressing a book because you disagree with its content is always a challenge to freedom of speech. And the writers who disputed this — whether Roald Dahl or John le Carré — had different agendas. Sometimes writers are contrarians just for the sake of being contrarians or because they are simply jealous of the attention another writer is getting. The fact remains that Rushdie, by writing, did not cause injuries and deaths. The fatwa did.

A free society cannot tolerate words being mistaken for actions. Words must be free while murder and mayhem must be punished. To confuse this because of a fatwa issued for political reasons is to confute the values literature is based on. The Pakistani minister who recently declared that Rushdie’s knighthood justified suicide bombings is dangerously mistaken.

I myself am not a great fan of titles, but if Rushdie wants to be Sir Salman, let him kneel before the queen and swear upon her sword or whatever else is required. I suppose it is a good thing when writers are ennobled as readily as musicians and politicians.

But let’s keep things clear. Writing does not kill people. Fatwas kill people.

Erica Jong

Weston, Conn.


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