Wall Street Journal Publishes Letter from Denise Spellberg: “I Did Not Kill The Jewel of Medina”

In today’s Wall Street Journal, there is a letter to the editor from Denise Spellberg which refutes the idea that her protests and phone calls to Random House effectively squashed The Jewel of Medina. According to the letter,, Spellberg writes:

As a historian invited to “comment” on the book by its Random House editor at the author’s express request, I objected strenuously to the claim that “The Jewel of Medina” was “extensively researched,” as stated on the book jacket. As an expert on Aisha’s life, I felt it was my professional responsibility to counter this novel’s fallacious representation of a very real woman’s life. The author and the press brought me into a process, and I used my scholarly expertise to assess the novel. 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. The novel provides no new reading of Aisha’s life, but actually expands upon provocative themes regarding Muhammad’s wives first found in an earlier novel by Salman Rushdie, “The Satanic Verses,” which I teach. I do not espouse censorship of any kind, but I do value my right to critique those who abuse the past without regard for its richness or resonance in the present.

The combination of sex and violence sells novels. When combined with falsification of the Islamic past, it exploits Americans who know nothing about Aisha or her seventh-century world and counts on stirring up controversy to increase sales. If Ms. Nomani and readers of the Journal wish to allow literature to “move civilization forward,” then they should read a novel that gets history right.

It is a shame that no one will be able to read this particular novel, and perhaps then others afterward, in their own quest to learn more about Islam and Aisha’s role within the history of that faith. I’m more than happy to have Spellberg not recommending my reading list, however.

 

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  1. 1

    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.

    She did a little bit more than that, though, didn’t she? I mean, wanring the publisher is one thing, but breaching commercial confidentiality and taking the book to the moderator of a Muslim website is another. Seems to me the correct time to offer her critique would have been when the book came out.

    It’s not her job to act as a policer of what may or may not cause anger, or to froth that up into threats of threats. Or, in point of fact, to anticipate immoderate reaction and lay the blame on Muslims for her own concerns.

    As an expert on Aisha’s life, I felt it was my professional responsibility to counter this novel’s fallacious representation of a very real woman’s life

    Does this sound like a bit of academic territory marking more than an ojective devotion to the academic pursuit of knowledge? She doesn’t impress, I’m afraid.

  2. 2

    Well, all I can say is thank goodness Ms. Spellberg was there to think for me, or I might have had to use my brain.

    I’d like to know what other “press” she contacted.

    And I agree with the above poster—if she had disagreed with the book, post a review afterward.

  3. 3

    I’d like to know what other “press” she contacted.

    I think she’s using this in the sense of ‘university press’ – i.e the publisher. At least, I hope she is.

  4. 4
    Charlene says:

    I wish all historical novels published could go through this kind of scrutiny. Then you wouldn’t get this kind of egregious crap:

    - a blonde, Gaelic-speaking Byzantine French princess who is perfect in every way and who is sent by an English King to marry a Highland laird to calm the borders between England and Lowland Scotland;
    –  Eleanor of Aquitaine being made into a whiny professional victim who’s raped by her husband, has an affair with a troubador, and gives birth to the 100% straight Richard the Lion-Hearted;
    – all those kilt-wearing Scots lairds from the 17th century and earlier;
    – the 18th century English heiress who goes to the local bank to withdraw all her money from her account, folding the bills away in her backpack;
    – the Regency heroine who drinks water instead of wine and bathes every day *for hygienic purposes* and whose entire family, up to 90-year-old great-grandmothers, is alive and well;
    – barons being called “Your Grace”, peers of the realm being called “Lord Firstname”, oldest sons not being allowed to use their deceased father’s titles because they’re not 21 yet, and members of the House of Lords being worried about their ‘constituents’;
    – the US colonial town where 95% of the inhabitants support the American Revolution and the other 5% are mean and nasty.

    WHY are these writers physically incapable of opening a reference book? Do they think they’ll be labelled as pedantic for getting the details right? Do they think that only details known to the average reader are important?

  5. 5
    Chrissy says:

    Nah.  I’d rather read bad books because I can than have a dilettante dictating what I can’t.

  6. 6
    theo says:

    I do not espouse censorship of any kind, but I do value my right to critique those who abuse the past without regard for its richness or resonance in the present.

    Hmmm…isn’t that exactly what she’s doing by putting her opinion out there and passing the book around to those she feels ‘might’ be angered by it? Sounds like censorship to me.

    As an expert on Aisha’s life, I felt it was my professional responsibility to counter this novel’s fallacious representation of a very real woman’s life

    An expert…professional responsibility? I think not. On both counts.

  7. 7
    Ziggy says:

    barons being called “Your Grace”, peers of the realm being called “Lord Firstname”, oldest sons not being allowed to use their deceased father’s titles because they’re not 21 yet, and members of the House of Lords being worried about their ‘constituents’

    Hahaha!

    I think it is interesting that Spellberg states that she teaches “The Satanic Verses”. I haven’t read this book, though it’s less an overtly religious decision (we’ve got 2 copies of it at home) than that I haven’t really decided that I want to read it yet. I love Rushdie though. Anyway, I think it strengthens her position somewhat that she teaches a book that has raised a lot of conservative Muslim hackles – for that reason I believe her when she says she doesn’t support censorship. Which was probably why she mentioned it!

    It’s probably part academic territory-marking, as a previous poster said, and an anger at seeing things about which she feels that she is an authority represented differently for the sake of narrative – which to be fair grates on me too sometimes, especially when it’s offensive, or egregious. But that’s just me.

    Having said which, I am grown up enough to make the decision not to read this book, or buy it, on my own, as I believe we all are. I agree with previous posters when they say she should have waited for the book to come out and then critiqued it. She has not done herself any favours, and she has done the author of the book a HUGE one.

    seems89? Thanks very much, I’m 25!

  8. 8
    Suzanne says:

    What made this novel different than other historical novels is the subject matter. I am not a Muslim, I am a Christian, yet the idea of a novel about a religious figure makes me squeamish. I know I felt offended by some of the assertions in The DaVinci Code for just that reason. And for that reason, I have to agree that it was wise that Random House chose not to publish this book, especially if it would lead to violence.

    What I have always wondered in these instances is, why would an author want to write a book that was offensive to the religious beliefs of others?

  9. 9
    Jonquil says:

    “It is a shame that no one will be able to read this particular novel, and perhaps then others afterward, in their own quest to learn more about Islam and Aisha’s role within the history of that faith.”

    Huh?  That’s like saying people need to be able to read “Chronicles of the Elders of Zion” in their quest to be able to understand Judaism.

    If, as she says, this novel grossly represents the life of Aisha and her times, then it isn’t part of anybody’s quest to learn; it is, rather, a dark alley.

    If it’s made up, call it made up, and *don’t claim you based it on research*.  Rushdie NEVER claimed that The Satanic Verses was anything more than a fantasia and/or commentary.

  10. 10

    If it’s made up, call it made up, and *don’t claim you based it on research*.  Rushdie NEVER claimed that The Satanic Verses was anything more than a fantasia and/or commentary.

    Um, I think some have difficulty understanding that historical fiction is by nature both made up AND based on research. That’s the whole idea of it. Otherwise it would be historical nonfiction.

  11. 11
    Amy says:

    If, as she says, this novel grossly represents the life of Aisha and her times, then it isn’t part of anybody’s quest to learn; it is, rather, a dark alley.

    If it’s made up, call it made up, and *don’t claim you based it on research*.  Rushdie NEVER claimed that The Satanic Verses was anything more than a fantasia and/or commentary.

    This, exactly. I certainly believe it’s wrong that the book got censored, but if it’s that historically inaccurate and yet poses as something based in historical fact, it’s not a shame that people didn’t get to read it to “learn about Islam.”

  12. 12
    Polly says:

    Come on, folks. She was invited to give her opinions—she didn’t contact the press and demand to be allowed to vet all books on said subject matter. They asked her, as an academic and specialist in the field, and she gave her considered view, as an academic and specialist in the field. Which means, what she’s going to comment on is not the story-telling and voice, but the evocation and portrayal of a historical past, and, on this occasion, serious concerns about possible repercussions. If they didn’t want her opinion, they shouldn’t have asked her. Ultimately the decision to pull the book was Random House’s (as much as it’s flattering to think that a single person, academic or not, could have such sway!). It’s ridiculous how much blame she’s getting for doing what she was asked to do.

    And frankly, what does she have to gain by keeping the book unpublished? Her book is called Politics, Gender and the Islamic Past, and even on Amazon it’s almost $30—not exactly what readers browsing for historical fiction are going to pick up based on the cover (assuming Borders or Barnes and Noble even keeps the book in stock, in which case it wouldn’t even be shelved in remotely the same place as fiction). As much as many academics love to imagine that their book will be the next big thing, most have few illusions on the reality of the situation.

    Personally, I love historical fiction and hate reading historical fiction that I know is getting things wrong. Which means that there are certain periods and places that I just can’t read about (yes, this means you, Philippa Gregory, though my love for Dorothy Dunnett surpasses all bounds). So I avoid certain books and happily read all the rest. But it also means that if someone asks me to read/review something I do know about, I almost never can shut that off for the sake of the story.

    So, did Random House make the right decision? Maybe, maybe not. But they didn’t suppress the book—the author can shop it to another publishing house—and if they truly had no idea the book would be controversial, isn’t it better they find that out beforehand? It’s ridiculous how much this story has focused on Ms. Spellberg and not on the publishing house.

  13. 13
    Robin says:

    I just want to point out that the original WSJ piece was an *op-ed* rather than a straight piece of reporting.  It was itself an argument, and the author was not bound to tell the story from all sides—or even more than one side.  One sentence in Spellberg’s letter, not quoted here, struck me as well:

    Random House made its final decision based on the advice of other scholars, conveniently not named in the article, and based ultimately on its determination of corporate interests.

    Whatever Spellberg did or didn’t do, and whatever we might be able to argue over regarding her purported response, it is honestly impossible for me to believe that a publisher of the size, experience, and power of Random House would stop publication of a book that was part of a package earning a 100K advance based on the comments of one academic.  Although I have no doubt that Random House will be happy to let Spellberg take the fall.

  14. 14
    SusanL says:

    Whatever Spellberg did or didn’t do, and whatever we might be able to argue over regarding her purported response, it is honestly impossible for me to believe that a publisher of the size, experience, and power of Random House would stop publication of a book that was part of a package earning a 100K advance based on the comments of one academic.  Although I have no doubt that Random House will be happy to let Spellberg take the fall.

    This is something that has been bothering me too.  I think there has to be something more to the story than what we have heard.

  15. 15

    So after all those assertions in the other threads that we can’t assume any threats were made, we’re now to assume…threats were made?

    I can’t imagine RH was completely ignorant of the possible reaction to this book when they acquired it. And considering the delicate nature of the subject matter and current global politics, I’m sure they would have educated themselves further. So yeah, I would like to know just what happened in April to make them change their minds. I’m assuming Ms. Jones will be able to keep her 100k advance, since she fulfilled all her contractual obligations? What would make a publisher (even a big, rich one) flush that kind of money (plus what they spent on art, marketing, editing, etc) down the loo?

  16. 16
    Riana says:

    Publishers these days aren’t that particular about historical accuracy. Or even truthfulness—consider some recent infamous author frauds commited as editors turned a blind eye. 

    If Random House backed out of the deal because they feared angering a particular religious group, shame on them! How many books have they published that are insulting to Christians?
         
    They appear to have broken faith with the author they signed to produce a book which as a work of fiction didn’t have to be 100% accurate.

    The DaVinci Code

    became a bestseller in spite of being full of merde. So maybe it’s Random House’s loss.

  17. 17

    Sounds like censorship to me.

    You keep using this word. I do not think it means what you think it means. Random House (who, the more I hear about this, are sounding worse and worse) did not censor this book. They are not stopping it being published, they haven’t asked Sherry Jones to amend it. They are simply choosing not to publish it themselves.

    So after all those assertions in the other threads that we can’t assume any threats were made, we’re now to assume…threats were made?

    Not really. Wouldn’t Random House be informing us if they had? Maybe their just waiting to get their side of the story out, but shouldn’t they, being the world’s largest English language publisher have better media access than Spellberg?

    It really does seem like Random House screwed up and screwed Jones over, and are letting Spellberg take the fall.

    And I still don’t see how this book would increase anyone’s Islamic/historical knowledge. Did anyone here learn anything from The Da Vinci Code? Because that book was the biggest waste of one hour of my life.

    Now I am going to continue on my attempt to read ‘Breaking Dawn’ and unlock the tweener appeal of the Twilight series. Or I’ll read that awesome American War of Independence/ghost story/romance book.

  18. 18
    Faellie says:

    As a historian invited to “comment” on the book by its Random House editor at the author’s express request, I objected strenuously to the claim that “The Jewel of Medina” was “extensively researched,” as stated on the book jacket.

    The author and the press brought me into a process, and I used my scholarly expertise to assess the novel.

    This is all fine.

    As an expert on Aisha’s life, I felt it was my professional responsibility to counter this novel’s fallacious representation of a very real woman’s life.

    I do value my right to critique those who abuse the past without regard for its richness or resonance in the present.

    Also, fine, provided the “countering” and “critiquing” is done in a “professional” manner.

    “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. “

    She’s lost me here.  What was her “professional” capacity to “warn” “the press” in this way?  When she would presumably have been professionally aware, as an intelligent, educated person working in Islamic studies, of the possible reactions on all sides?  And if she was going to do this, it would have been good manners to go to the publisher first and give them time to react before going to the press, rather than doing both on the same day (April 30).

    If Ms. Nomani and readers of the Journal wish to allow literature to “move civilization forward,” then they should read a novel that gets history right.

    Well yes, but there are reasons for publishing and reading books other than “to move civilisation forward”.

    Finally (sorry for the length of this post), here’s the first paragraph of Dr Spellberg’s letter, as printed on the WSJ site

    Asra Q. Nomani’s “You Still Can’t Write About Muhammad” (op-ed, Aug. 6) falsely asserts that I am the “instigator” of the Random House Press decision not to publish a novel about the Prophet’s wife titled, “The Jewel of Medina.” I never had this power, nor did I single-handedly stop the book’s publication. Random House made its final decision based on the advice of other scholars, conveniently not named in the article, and based ultimately on its determination of corporate interests.

    The quotes from Random House in the original WSJ article state that Random House received “from credible and unrelated sources, cautionary advice” and that Dr Spellberg “thinks there is a very real possibility of major danger for the building and staff and widespread violence” and that the book is”a declaration of war . . . explosive stuff . . . a national security issue”.  So Dr Spellberg was not the only person to advise against publication, but hers was certainly one of the responses taken into account, so she is wrong to say the decision was “based on the advice of other scholars”.  And the tone of her response to Random House together with her contact with the press makes “instigator” look accurate to me.

  19. 19

    I still don’t see how this book would increase anyone’s Islamic/historical knowledge.

    Exactly. As a historian (I wear many hats and that’s one) I’m really annoyed by the idea that a moderately intelligent person (the target audience for historical fiction surely) needs to have history filtered through a novel to have it be accessible. There are excellent books written for non-academic audiences on all kinds of historical subjects which work perfectly well as introductions to a topic, and hopefully invite you to read more. Ms Jones would have started in that way to write her book.

    Don’t be scared to browse the history section of your local bookstore. You’ll find good books that are no more challenging to read than this novel, and though it’s still someone’s interpretation of historical records and documents, at least there won’t be a fictional overlay, and it should all be properly footnoted and referenced. If you do then decide to read novels in the same subject area, you’ll enjoy them so much more. Start with the non-fiction, is my advice.

  20. 20
    Faellie says:

    One final post from me, then shutting up.  The original WSJ article states that on 1 May, immediately after Dr Spellberg raised here concerns with them on the evening of 30 April

    Random House….also received a letter from Ms. Spellberg and her attorney, saying she would sue the publisher if her name was associated with the novel.

    As a lawyer, if I were in private practice, I suppose I would happily take money for writing a letter such as this.  But a polite request direct from Dr Spellberg to the publishers, asking for confirmation her name would not be on the book, perhaps followed up through her own editor at Random House, would seem to me to be a more proportionate initial response.

  21. 21
    KG says:

    My least favorite line in this article: “They should read novel that gets the story right.” I thought a “novel” implies fiction. And since when does a scholar determine if a work of fiction is written ‘correctly’ or ‘accurately’? There have been plenty of fictional works based off of real people…The Other Boleyn Girl comes to mind…which departed from real history.

    I know why this was pulled. The problem people seem to have with implying any other religion besides Christianity could be flawed. This got too close to criticizing the Muslim religion or a well-known person in the Muslim faith…and therefore the publisher got cold feet, worried they would ‘offend’ someone with this fictional work of a real person.

    Too bad. This author probably did do a lot of research and work hard to produce a book that was worthy of publication, only to have it yanked out from under her

  22. 22
    Ruth says:

    My least favorite line in this article: “They should read novel that gets the story right.” I thought a “novel” implies fiction. And since when does a scholar determine if a work of fiction is written ‘correctly’ or ‘accurately’?

    Ehh, I thought it fit right in with the rest of her “I’m smarter than you, so you really need to listen to me when I tell you what and what not to read” attitude.

    I’m a historian. Or rather, once upon a time, before I traded history for diapers, I was one. I frequently find myself reading a historical fiction piece and then wanting to further research the subject by checking out some non-fiction. Of course, that happens when I’m reading outside of my area of expertise, but I also love a good historical fiction ABOUT my area of expertise.  I’d compare it to the way I am with many movies “based on” anything. I can think of many times when I’ve become interested in the “real” because I’ve enjoyed the “pretend.” I don’t doubt that there are people out there who would have, or will- if it finds a publisher, read this book and decide to check out some non-fiction on the subject.

  23. 23
    SB Sarah says:

    “It is a shame that no one will be able to read this particular novel, and perhaps then others afterward, in their own quest to learn more about Islam and Aisha’s role within the history of that faith.”

    Huh?  That’s like saying people need to be able to read “Chronicles of the Elders of Zion” in their quest to be able to understand Judaism.

    No, that is not what I meant. Perhaps I wasn’t clear. To correct your analogy, people need to read The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to fully appreciate anti-Semitic literature. (Note: The Protocols? That is some fucked up shit right there. Also, 60% of it matches nearly identically Maurice Joly’s satiric Dialogues in Hell).

    And when I said that I wanted to be able to read this book, it was not because I think it’s the Key To Understanding Islam. (That would be what Wikipedia is for. Heh.)

    Due to this discussion, however, and the things I learned in it (i.e. that depictions of Mohammed in any form are offensive, that Aisha’s fidelity is defended in the Quran, that there are various ways in which different Muslims view the role and impact of Aisha’s life, etc) I would have liked the opportunity to read within the context of what I’ve come to appreciate, and I still bristle at the tone of Spellberg’s letter that she knew better than I did what I ought to be reading.

    You keep using this word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

    Oh yeah?! My name is Indigo Montoya! You killed my father! Prepare to die!

  24. 24
    Jody W. says:

    What I have always wondered in these instances is, why would an author want to write a book that was offensive to the religious beliefs of others?

    People write offensive stuff about all sorts of things and it gets published.  Some of it’s intended to be offensive.  Some of it is incidentally offensive.  Why should religion or religious beliefs get a pass?

  25. 25
    Courtney says:

    I think that Spellburg’s problem with the novel (and the reason she reviewed in the first place) was that it has some terrible history in this fictional story.  I am a Ph.D. candidate in medieval history, and I frankly cannot read most medieval historical fiction books (except Dorothy Dunnett) because their history is Terrible.  Capital T.  But other people read these terribly researched books all the time, and enjoy them immensely.  That is our first amendment – the right to publish and read both crap and excellent books.  And it is not just an academic marking her territory to criticize the research or historical accuracy of a fictional book.  As Charlene said at the top of the thread, there are plenty of egregious examples in other genres besides religious (Muslim or Christian) fiction.

  26. 26
    MoJo says:

    Why should religion or religious beliefs get a pass?

    Heh.  Nobody else’s does.  *chuckle*

  27. 27
    theo says:

    You know, all this talk of egregious errors and how it’s impossible for many to read books with so many mistakes…I guess, if I want facts, I’ll read a textbook.

    I read novels for the stories they contain, not to learn every insignificant detail of the period in which they’re written though, if I find things that provoke me, I will research those things. Sometimes the author has her details right, sometimes she doesn’t, but I’m the one who has looked deeper into those things that interested me. It’s not Miss Spellberg’s, or anyone else’s place for that matter, to tell me what I should and should not read. She thought it was erroneous, that’s her privilege, but it’s a shame she doesn’t give anyone else the credit to believe they are intelligent to make up their own minds about what they are reading and whether they wish to delve deeper or put it out of their minds. Her comments should have been reserved until after publication.  She’s done a great disservice to all readers as well as the author and publisher.

  28. 28
    Valor says:

    (I wrote a really long post that got eaten, so I think we should all be glad for interwebz tweaks)

    What I meant to say, is that from what I can determine from the things the author said on the other threads, she knowingly played with a couple of things in the history, not to be anti-Islamic or heretical, but to create a better story. And here, from what I can determine, is what she did: put Aisha places that she isn’t specifically listed as being (I sincerely doubt the Qu’ran accounts for her every movement) and implies that during a documented event for which there appears to be no first-person record from Aisha’s viewpoint, Aisha might have thought about committing adultery, which everyone agrees should be between her and Allah.
    This may well be insulting and offensive to Muslims, I don’t know, but I do know that if it is, perhaps Random House should have thought of that Months and Months and Months before print date, certainly long before they sent out ARCs. At least, imo.
    Now, I don’t know how historically correct the novel is, none of us do, because rather than letting us read it and judge, we were told we couldn’t handle it.

    and on another note, whether or not Ms. (dr?) Spellberg liked the book, as an academic, she has an obligation to accept it’s view point. I’ve had professors hand me a book and say “I hate this book, it’s offensive and disgusting and terrible. Now what makes it a great book?” To do otherwise is to be mytho-poetic in a rational field.

  29. 29

    It seems like Spellberg (and others) have a really, really hard time with the concept of “fiction.”

    And the “Why write fiction if you know it’s going to offend somebody?” comments I’ve seen just… boggle the mind.

    However, am I the only one who is slightly amused at the fact that Random House got their asses handed to them when they asked an EXPERT in a REAL PERSON to comment on a historical novel that looks, from the prologue, to be written for 21st century female readers with a distinctly anachronistic heroine? Writers can extensively research all they want; it doesn’t mean they used one iota of their findings in the novel. That was one part of Spellberg’s point that I got, and appreciated. From what I’ve read so far (and I’ll admit that’s very, very little), THE JEWEL OF MEDINA seems to be following all the conventions I’ve come to hate in historicals geared towards a specific audience. And this is just from the Prologue!

    I get Spellberg’s total hatred of this book, and I kind of get a kick out of it. And I allow myself a little laugh when I think of the baffled powers-that-be up at Random House; it was short-sighted and pompous of the publishers to think Spellberg or any other historian committed to their profession and area of expertise would give that book a favorable blurb. She sure showed them!

  30. 30
    Spider says:

    I’m with Faellie, my biggest problem is the manner in which all of this happened, and the apparent lack of professionalism on the Professor’s part.  I am sure there are professors who decline to review various books all the time, because they think they are dreck.  But I seriously doubt they engage in the behavior that Spellberg did. 

    For one, I can’t imagine them using unprofessional/non-formal language in an official communication to a publishing (ref. “Stupid, ugly book”).
    It might (heavy emphasis on the conditional) be acceptable to communicate one’s concerns with an outside body/group, but I would have to see the communication—was it worded similar to the RH communication?  Was it incendiary?

    I, too, like historical fiction (and hold it separate from historical romance in my head).  Strangely enough, the ones I have enjoyed the most have been related to my fields (Classical Studies/Anthro), even with the authors’ choices to depart from established fact.  (Usually there’s an Author’s Note about it.)  I’ve liked some of the more ‘modern’ ones, but I didn’t regard them as fact.

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