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Saturday, August 09, 2008

Burning our own books

It is, naturally, a blogger's inalienable privilege to declaim about matters he/she knows **** all about. Doubtless I've been guilty often enough. One field where I do have a bit of insider knowledge, though, is the book-publishing business. I've totted up a dozen years of employment in it, and even one who is no more than a rude mechanical in the eyes of the literary lunching brigade does pick up a thing or two along the way.

So I claim above-average qualifications for fishing the red herrings out of the water in the latest self-censorship affair. Notably, any suggestion that one of America's leading publishers pulled the plug on a new novel because, having taken scholarly advice, they reaIised it was crap.

HELLO. Big publishers (and most little ones) are publishing crap all the time. Indeed one may fairly safely say that most of what they publish is crap. It's publishing crap that enables them to fund those occasional worthy volumes that advance the cause of human knowledge, wisdom and culture and barely break even.

The piss-poor soft porn with a shag on every third page in which one of my former employers (also a leading player in the evangelical Christian market, as it happens) specialises. The assorted quackery in the Mind, Body and Spirit section of your local bookshop, which mostly emanates not from collectives of Tuvan shapersons but from Big Ink. The countless unreadable academic tomes which exist solely because the authors' careers require that they be Published... I could go on, but must call myself to order. OK, not before I've mentioned Jeffrey Archer.

I'm thus quite prepared to believe that The Jewel of Medina is indeed crap. I must shamefacedly admit that the mere fact that it is written by a person named Sherry inclines me towards the view that this may not be the Satanic Verses of the Noughties.

But that's not the point, is it?

Do you suppose that when Bloomsbury were sent a manuscript about a school for wizards they forwarded it to half a dozen Associate Professors in Magic Studies to make sure it had got its facts right?

There's a feminist novel which recounts the life of Jesus from the perspectives of Mary Magdalene and other female dramatis personae. Frau Grumpy once encountered it in a women-only reading group, and came home fuming over the author's invincible ignorance of New Testament scholarship. Fuming Christian theologians were not sufficient to prevent the publishers getting the thing onto the bookshelves. They thought it would sell and it did.

No, next time you read a really bad book, don't just sit there fuming. Threaten to kill or maim the author, anyone who works for the publisher, anyone who sells it, translates it or gives it a good review. Might take a bit of getting used to, but the nice thing is that once you've done it a few times you won't even need to utter the threats, as the mere perception that you have form will suffice to effect the pulping of the offending volume.

At least Random House are up front about their cowardice. What's really scary is the way the intellectual climate has changed since the Satanic Verses affair. In the early Nineties the liberal intelligentsia still had something resembling a backbone; the appeasers, though vocal, were a minority. But now... Consider this specimen if you will.

'It was in that same professional capacity that I felt it my duty to warn the press of the novel's potential to provoke anger among some Muslims.

'There is a long history of anti-Islamic polemic that uses sex and violence to attack the Prophet and his faith. This novel follows in that oft-trodden path, one first pioneered in medieval Christian writings.'

- says the Assoc. Professor of History and Middle Eastern Studies University of Texas at Austin.

Well, I'm no apologist for the cruder manifestations of medieval Christianity. But I think one can uncontroversially note that the Prophet was neither a pacifist nor a celibate; that, moreover, he permitted himself more wives than any of his followers and that one of them, Aisha, was distinctly on the young side.

It's true: this was and is fuel for polemic. So what's your problem, Associate Professor Spellberg? Polemic between competing belief systems is what happens in free societies. Passions flair, unfair and hurtful things are said. Offence is taken, and given in return. Polemic, one would hope, is the lifeblood of any university worthy of the name.

'I do not espouse censorship of any kind' declares Associate Professor Spellberg with smooth piety, and moves on without expanding on whether, specifically, she considers self-censorship in response to naked intimidation to be a particularly deplorable phenomenon.

What we have instead from Spellberg, of course, is the Bunting-Armstrong thesis which is now Guardianista orthodoxy. It is not enough that we are cowed into silence by fanatical thugs. We must declare them to be men of peace who have been provoked into violence only by the outrageous suggestion that their creed is a violent one. We must knuckle under, flagellating ourselves as aggressors the while.

George Orwell, you should be living at this hour.


SnoopyTheGoon said...

Just a technical remark to otherwise exemplary post, Mr Grumpy: that remark about a person named Sherry - well, isn't it a health hazard in our PC times?


Mr Grumpy said...

How many Hail Marys should I say, Father?