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.