Flag on the Play: The NYTimes Book Review

Book CoverThere have been a few reviews published this week on The Jewel of Medina. USA Today was hardly complimentary, and the New York Times was so sniffy I’m suspecting nasal spray was involved.

But I’m handing out penalties to the Times and to writer Lorraine Adams, because there are some serious flags on the play in her review.

Illegal Procedure, 10 yard penalty for the following quote:

Spellberg’s characterization of “The Jewel of Medina” as soft porn doesn’t hold up, since the language describing A’isha and Muhammad’s conjugal relations is always euphemistic and most often juvenile. The novel is, in fact, an example of that subspecies of genre fiction, “historical romance.” Yet even judged by that standard, Jones’s prose is lamentable.

Subspecies?! Judged by that standard? Oh, holy shit. I’ve got some standards right here, and you’re not meeting them.

Unsportsmanlike conduct, 15 yard penalty, loss of down, for uncalled-for ruminations as to whether Jones’ book is “art” and worthy of defense of free-speech advocates:

Should free-speech advocates champion “The Jewel of Medina”? In the American context, the answer is unclear. The Constitution protects pornography and neo-Nazi T-shirts, but great writers don’t generally applaud them. If Jones’s work doesn’t reach those repugnant extremes, neither does it qualify as art. It is telling that PEN, the international association of writers that works to advance literature and defend free expression, has remained silent on the subject of this novel. Their stance seems just about right.

It’s not art, and it’s not repugnant, either, so it’s not worthy of defense as free speech? Are you fucking KIDDING me?! Free speech is worth getting up off the couch for only when it’s truly vile or truly marvelous?

Here’s some free speech for you: Shut the fuck up.

[Thanks to Stacey and Barb Ferrer for the links.]

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    KCfla says:

    The novel is, in fact, an example of that subspecies of genre fiction, “historical romance.” Yet even judged by that standard, Jones’s prose is lamentable.

    WHAT.
    THE.
    HELL?

    She can “Sub-species” her …

    * Stops, takes deep breath*

    It’s not art, and it’s not repugnant, either, so it’s not worthy of defense as free speech?

    Here’s some free speech for you: Shut the fuck up

    Sing it Sista!

  2. 2
    Jess says:

    It’s okay Sarah, don’t blame the Times. They’re just touchy because while their medium (newsprint) and their prefered books to review (literary) crash and burn, the romance novel continues on strong.

    Besides, it’s really hard to see with your head up your ass.

  3. 3
    Victoria Dahl says:

    Brava, Sarah.

  4. 4
    Joanne says:

    Ditto times 10 of what Jess said.

    And another 15 yard penalty for Unsportsmanlike Conduct against Adams for using the Constitution as a blocker for her own prejudices.

  5. 5

    Ahhh, but you know the good thing about subspecies??  They can outcross freely with other members of the same species, creating new and interesting combinations that can flourish in a variety of environments. 

    That’s as opposed to members of small, sexually isolated populations that just breed with each other, over and over, until they become so homogeneous they begin to die out.  Like Pacific right whales and pandas.  And some examples of so-called literary genius I’ve run across…

  6. 6
    Jess says:

    Like Pacific right whales and pandas.  And some examples of so-called literary genius I’ve run across…

    FTW!

  7. 7
    SB Sarah says:

    They can outcross freely with other members of the same species, creating new and interesting combinations that can flourish in a variety of environments.

    Today I have a mad crush on Dr. Andersen. Like whoa.

  8. 8
    shaunee says:

    Don’t people ever get bored with dissing romance?  Surely to God comparing “bad” writing to romance must be passé by now.

    Isn’t it just silly to constantly bemoan how crappy something you have no knowledge about is?  Or maybe Ms. Adams is too lazy to come up with a more precise analogy?  For myself, I enjoy conscious, deliberate writing (any writing) that doesn’t rely on hackneyed, overused contrivances.  See?  See what I did right there?  I explained my point of view without making wild generalizations about subjects beyond my knowledge.

  9. 9
    azteclady says:

    Another one crushing Dr Andersen.

  10. 10

    Today I have a mad crush on Dr. Andersen. Like whoa.

    Thanks SB Sarah and azteclady!  I do like a good inbreeding metaphor now and then :)

  11. 11
    moonrat says:

    Uh… also, PEN did, indeed, stick up for her, back on 9/29. They haven’t remained silent.

    Why does everyone have to be so harsh about this book? I just don’t get it. What’s the worst that can possibly happen? A bunch of white Americans learn that there’s an important Muslim figure they hadn’t heard of? Even if it weren’t closely researched, does it matter?!

  12. 12
    Lori says:

    Should free-speech advocates champion “The Jewel of Medina”? In the American context, the answer is unclear. The Constitution protects pornography and neo-Nazi T-shirts, but great writers don’t generally applaud them.

    This is one of the dumbest things that I’ve read in a ling time.  That’s really saying something considering that I spend most of my time reading about recent US foreign policy.

  13. 13
    Fizzy says:

    A bunch of white Americans learn that there’s an important Muslim figure they hadn’t heard of? Even if it weren’t closely researched, does it matter?!

    I think this does matter because it might add to the muslim-hating furor right now… If an author wants to write on an uberly important religious figure in a religion that’s getting a lot of criticism and hatred right now, she shouldn’t add to the fire by giving misconceptions through her book.

  14. 14
    moonrat says:

    Hmm. But the thing is, I do believe that Sherry did everything in her power to be sensitive and well-researched, and the review attention is so vitriolic that it seems like all reviewers are trying to rip the book to pieces simply because it’s already famous. I think that the harsh criticism has been unfair; certainly a book should be evaluated for its artistic merits, but reviewers are taking the political controversy around this book as a carte blanche to whip out all the worst meanness they have in their little pens. Maybe some of it, just some, is a little hyperbolic… Honestly, I had no problem with any of the similes or language this NYT reviewer cited. Maybe that’s my poor taste…?!

    That aside… I believe that this controversy (warranted or not) has gotten a lot of people who don’t think about Islam at all at least aware that there are all kinds of interesting humanist sides to a faith that gets reduced in the US to the most offensive policies of its most fundamentalist followers.

    And to get back to free speech—even if the book HAD been a directed, imbalanced attack designed to besmirch and infuriate, there’s still the “freedom of icky speech” issue at the heart of this (cf Neil Gaiman’s excellent essay on the topic). Even “icky” speech would get people talking, and you know what they say about bad publicity.

    The most irritating part for me is that other historical or religious figures are fictionally depicted all the time. It makes me sick to think that certain topics will never be safe to touch, and that as a result Jane Smith and her brother John may never have an accessible book to read about the topic. Because, you know, no information at all is better than bad or controversial information. Because, you know, none of us are smart enough to be media critics and decide for ourselves what we want to believe.

  15. 15
    Jessa Slade says:

    Should free-speech advocates champion “The Jewel of Medina”?

    My soul withers. How can an American journalist ask this?

  16. 16

    Wow, this is so well said, it’s caused me to have an epiphany: *I* need to tell more people to Shut. The. Fuck. Up.

  17. 17
    CourtneyLee says:

    Shut the fuck up, indeed. Good call, Sarah.

    I think I’m crushing on Doc Jess, too. I’m a junkie for a good evolution/nature metaphor. I’m also getting antsy for Dawnkeepers.

  18. 18
    Lil' Deviant says:

    Lauren Baratz-Logsted said on…
    12.17.08 at 11:51 AM |
    Wow, this is so well said, it’s caused me to have an epiphany: *I* need to tell more people to Shut. The. Fuck. Up.

    I agree!!!

  19. 19

    Reason #3 to love John Sandford:

    From Deadwatch:

    “This is not a very civilized country when it comes to stuff like that,” Jake said. Then he revised himself: “Actually, the country is civilized, it’s the media that’re not.”

  20. 20
    Arethusa says:

    While the last bit on the bugfuck crazy free speech test set off all my alarms the rest left me unruffled. Truth is the NYTBR is a crap publication more often than not, regularly ignoring basic review rules in order to indulge the writer’s personal angst or hobby horses. (The reviewers also have this awful tendency to tell me EVERYTHING about the writer or the buzz surrounding the writer before they remember they’re writing a BOOK review.)

    I like to think its children fiction reviews (which I’ve never tried) are quite good since it’s the only (or one among few) major book pages that gives it any regular attention. But for anything even remotely stimulating and insightful on literary fiction I have to go to literary magazines, the Financial Times or The Guardian (sometimes).

    Dear romance readers don’t feel singled out by this bad review. NPR Sarah Vowell’s latest release got the same treatment a couple of weeks ago.

  21. 21
    Julie Leto says:

    Wow, this is so well said, it’s caused me to have an epiphany: *I* need to tell more people to Shut. The. Fuck. Up.

    Lauren, I’m with you.

    Brava, Sarah.  And Jess, your metaphor rocks.

  22. 22
    Suze says:

    I googled Lorraine Adams’ novel Harbor to see if anything was snark-worthy, but the only negative review I found was that it was “at times unwieldy.”

    At once an intimate portrait of a group of young Arab Muslims living in the United States, and the story of one Algerian immigrant’s journey into and out of violence…It compels us to question the questions it raises: Who are the terrorists? Can we recognize them? How do they live?

    It sounds like something you’d expect from a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist.  It also sounds like something that would be written by somebody who considers romance a “subspecies of genre”, which phrase does get my ire up.

    And I’m offended on Sherry Jones’ behalf by the phrase “inexperienced, untalented author”.  Inexperienced I’ll grant, but untalented is going a little too far.  Is this a book review, or a personal attack?

    On the other hand, in spite of the critical acclaim of Adams’ first novel, I’ve never heard of her.  And I wouldn’t pick up her book unless forced to (by having to write a review, or read it for a class, or something).

    So there.  Phthbthbt!

    dead67: a book is not ART unless there are 67 dead people in it, spreading a miasma of depression everywhere it goes.

  23. 23
    Ashwinder says:

    I’m offended on Sherry Jones’ behalf by the phrase “inexperienced, untalented author”.  Inexperienced I’ll grant, but untalented is going a little too far.  Is this a book review, or a personal attack?

    Yes, I felt the same way about that line. Going as far as to call the writer untalented really doesn’t have a place in a book review.

  24. 24

    I WRITE FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES!  I AM BIG AND IMPORTANT!  I AM BITTER BECAUSE MY BACHELOR DEGREE IN CREATIVE WRITING DIDN’T LEAD TO LITERARY SUCCESS!  HUR DUR DURFY DURP DURP.

    No, Loraine.  You are ignorant.  Shut up.

  25. 25

    Geez.  I’ll toss my own free speech in…

    LORRAINE ADAMS:  You’re a MORON.

    If that closed-minded, uppity, I’m too good for you plebeians type of crap is typical of NYT, no wonder their readership is falling off.

  26. 26
    Silver James says:

    I can and will, under the terms of free speech, DITTO everything that’s been said here. Not even the crossword puzzle is worth the price of the NYT.

  27. 27
    Barb Ferrer says:

    I’m perfectly happy tossing both Lorraine Adams and Sherry Jones into the same vat of Jell-O and letting them wrestle it out.  Because while Lorraine Adams’ review wasn’t really so much review as it was “My Literary Superiority, let me shows you it by dissing teh Historical Romance!” I still can’t forget that Jones attempted to defend her book by incorporating the same diss and claiming that her book wasn’t just another fluffy historical romance.

    So I have no patience for either of them, frankly.

  28. 28

    Perhaps Ms. Adams is just angry that she’s having a hard time recruiting new members for her “Journalists Against Free Speech” group.

    I honestly believe the idea that if it isn’t art and if it isn’t offensive, it doesn’t deserve basic Contitutional protection is one of the most offensive things I’ve ever heard.

  29. 29
    Dechant says:

    Why does everyone have to be so harsh about this book? I just don’t get it. What’s the worst that can possibly happen? A bunch of white Americans learn that there’s an important Muslim figure they hadn’t heard of? Even if it weren’t closely researched, does it matter?!

    Pardon my nose-in-the-air attitude, but you can only take so much history out of historical fiction before it becomes fantasy. The truth in the telling is what compels me. If the Aisha in the book is so very different from the Aisha history gives me, I am less inclined to respect the storyteller. Replace Aisha with any other historical figure—the Tudors come to mind—and my answer is the same.

    The only exception I can come up with off the top of my head is Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin, which was inspired by an account of a young murderess, and it’s not like she set out to spice up the girl’s story. There simply wasn’t much in the way of source material—one broadside, as I recall.

    Where extensive source material exists, I feel it is the responsibility of the author to make good use of it. If this means not writing about a person because the real story isn’t the story one wishes to tell, so be it. I had to shelve an idea for that very reason. The history had to come first.

    Perhaps I misinterpret the genre entirely, then; perhaps in the type of historical romance being discussed, the romance must dominate at the expense of the history. I only wish that didn’t have to happen quite so often.

  30. 30
    mirain says:

    Oh, I didn’t realize that critics got to decide who and what was protected by the 1st Amendment. Why didn’t my American Government teacher mention this?

    Um, and did I read that wrong or did she criticize the book for not having enough graphic sex? Wasn’t that one of the concerns in the earlier attacks, that it might portray the Prophet and his wife in an overly sexual way? Jeez, Jones just can’t win, can she?

Comments are closed.

↑ Back to Top