Becoming Charlemagne is not a racy book, but when I wrote it, I marveled at the rich potential of medieval history to perplex and offend. Wine-guzzling Muslims, Jews owning slaves, knife-wielding Christians who tried to relieve a pope of his eyeballs and tongue—to be honest, I had expected more complaints from readers who found that the eighth century either defied their Tolkienesque caricatures of the Middle Ages or failed to conform to their religious preconceptions. Instead, debates and discussions at book-talks and lectures have been downright genial, and to my knowledge, the harshest thing I’ve been called is a “Catholic apologist,” a charge that surprised and amused me. (Eat your heart out, Tertullian.)
Years ago, as a college cartoonist, I would have been disappointed by such a placid reaction, but today life feels way too short to make shocking the easily offended the highest goal of art. I’d much rather inform and entertain—but I do reserve the right to offend, a right I hadn’t thought to affirm until I read the review of Sherry Jones’s novel The Jewel of Medina in Sunday’s New York Times.
Jones’s novel is a highly fictionalized retelling of the story of A’isha, the third and youngest wife of the prophet Muhammad. Last year, after a scholarly expert on A’isha suggested that the novel might incite violence, Random House dropped the book and a small press quickly picked it up. In last weekend’s Times review, journalist and novelist Lorraine Adams lists some of the historical errors in The Jewel of Medina, dismisses the book as a bad example of genre fiction, and calls Jones’s prose “lamentable.” As a reviewer, she’s entitled to her opinion, even if the extent to which a novelist must hew to historical facts is debatable, but her conclusion is stunning and strange:
An inexperienced, untalented author has naïvely stepped into an intense and deeply sensitive intellectual argument. She has conducted enough research to reimagine the accepted versions of Muhammad’s marriage to A’isha, thus offending the religious audience, but not nearly enough to enlighten the ordinary Western reader. 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.
That’s one bizarre paragraph, suddenly contrasting as it does Constitutional protections for “repugnant extremes” with what “great writers” applaud while suggesting that a book must “qualify as art” to be defended on the grounds of free expression. Sherry Jones may be no Salman Rushdie, but when it comes to The Jewel of Medina, the question of her free expression is not hypothetical: Adams notes earlier in her review that shortly after last year’s controversy, “somebody pushed a firebomb through the mail slot at the home office of Jones’s London publisher.”
Which leads me to wonder: If tomorrow I should find my car on fire, or death threats nailed to my door, or a dagger protruding from my sternum as I step outside my office, will Lorraine Adams think I had it coming? I suspect not, but in her zeal to pen a clever takedown of a book she thought was lousy, she implies that defending me from violent reader responses depends on whether or not critics and literary mandarins decide my book is art. Call me quaint, but I don’t have to like, or even read, The Jewel of Medina to know that Sherry Jones and her publisher deserve freedom from firebombing. I don’t have to read a novel by a glib reviewer to know that its author deserves the same defense as well.
6 thoughts on ““…and we can all sit watching our Hawaiian island world.””
Good take on this.
Earlier today I saw that the blog SBTB also commented on the NYT’s review. There are quite a few passionate replies there that you might find of interest.
Jeff, I think your stance is right on the mark of reason. I wanted to say, though apropos of Catholic apologetics, that I once spoke to an academic who taught in a Texan university doing their medieval survey course, and who complained that they regularly got Texans of one stripe or another either telling them off or congratulating them for `championing Catholicism’, until they almost wanted to shout, “I’m an atheist! I’m not championing anything! People in the Middle Ages actually were Catholic!” I think basically anything that mentions a pope at all sets off some people’s buzzers…
Thanks for this, Jeff. “Intellectuals” pain me sometimes…
Linda: Thanks for that link. Writers of historical romance are right to be incensed by a Pulitzer-winning journalist who suggests that some genres don’t deserve basic free-speech protection.
Jonathan: I know what you mean. When I teach medieval lit, especially Chaucer, I get emails from grateful students who assume I’m a fellow believer and from atheists who praise me for socking it to those medieval Christians—often after the same class. That amuses me to no end; I take it as a sign that my classroom persona is appropriately enigmatic.
Matt: Tears for Fears was right: everybody does want to rule the world.
Adams is hardly alone in her attitude of “free speech for every I like; everyone else should just shut up” school of thought. The older I get, the more I find that even (especially?) many free-speech advocacy organizations are of this strain. I’m afraid I’m unsurprised to find it expressed by a Pulitzer winner in the New York Times — in fact, I’m not sure I can think of a more likely kind of person in a more likely venue.
Besides, “Becoming Charlemagne” has some imaginative scenes, but it can hardly be called a historical romance. Because of the genre issue, I think the NYT would not suggest that you should be killed for it, just perhaps roughed up a bit. I wouldn’t worry about that — Lorraine Adams hits like a girl.
I also read the review, and my reaction was the same as yours.