This story that has obsessed the American publishing community for the past two weeks has been the ongoing saga of "The Jewel of Medina," a historical novel by Sherry Jones about the prophet Mohammed's young wife Aisha. The book which was scheduled to publish in August, but was abruptly canceled by Random House in May following the protests of Dr. Denise Spellberg a history professor at the University of Texas was asked to write a blurb about the book. Spellberg thought the book irresponsibly portrayed the prophet’s wife as a sword-wielding soldier, as well as offering provocative scenes about her sex life.
You can read my coverage of it here.
I interviewed Jones once and found her to be earnest, passionate, and a bit entitled -- not a great deal different from many novelists. She defended her right to fictionalize history as she saw fit. It was, after all, a novel.
I also interviewed Denise Spellberg twice and found her to be a reasonable person with genuine objections to the book. She’s an academic who wrote her own book on the topic of Aisha (a book Jones used as source material) and has spent nearly two decades studying this subject, so it goes without saying she was going to pick the book apart. She would have likely picked apart any novel on the topic.
Both women in this argument are correct.
Spellberg should not be scapegoated; nor for that matter should Jones have suffered the fate of having her book canceled.
If there is anyone to be blamed for this kerfuffle, it should start with Random House.
Spellberg’s objections are ones that – provided the company thought there were strong enough to warrant canceling the book -- someone in-house should have brought up earlier than the galleys and ARC’s being produced. How many people were involved with this? Likely, a dozen or more people – marketing, publicity, editorial, production. I just wonder how many of them took time to actually read the book. I fear it was too few.
No matter how hyperbolic Spellberg’s objections may have sounded on the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal, she doesn’t deserve to be pilloried for having been asked for and then delivering her opinion.
Isn’t that what freedom of speech is all about?
Coincidentally, when when I asked I Spellberg her if there was any novelist who wrote Muhammad’s wives that she would recommend, Spellberg suggested Algerian Assia Djebar’s 1991 novel Loin de Médine (Far from Medina). The professor thought Djebar’s novel had integrity because it relied on direct quotes.
"Djebar allowing the women to speak for themselves, in their own voices,” she said.