Literary courage vs. literary cowardice

Diana West writes a telling contrast between the courage of the late Alexander Solzhenitsyn and the cowardice of today’s literary establishment, as evidenced by Random House withdrawing at the last minute a book about Muhammad’s 9 year old bride due to fears Muslims will not approve. From Free Speech Jilted by Muhammad Romance Novel ‘Warpath’:

Reading about the late Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, we are reminded of his epic force of will — despite the threat to life and limb posed by the Soviet police state — to bear witness, to document, to record everything he could about totalitarianism in the USSR.

Then, reading about Random House Publishing Group, which called off the publication of a romance novel about Muhammad “for fear of a possible terrorist threat from extremist Muslims,” we should be reminded of something else: How apt was Solzhenitsyn’s much-maligned critique of the West, which he excoriated for, among other things, a decline in “civil courage” that was “particularly noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elites.”

Read the whole account, which details both what Solzhenitsyn went through to write about Communism (including the KGB’s murder of his typist), and the skittish, politically-correct, Islamophilic behavior of the Random House editors. The column closes with another quote from the great Russian novelist:

“Should one point out,” he asked, “that from ancient times a decline in courage has been considered the beginning of the end”?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • T Sherm

    It seems like quite a stretch to assign the same level of courage assosciated with the publication “The Gulag Archipelago” with the level it would have taken to publish “Warpath”. It strikes me as a trivialization of Solzhenitsyn to make the comparison in the first place.
    Have we reached a point at which exposing the underbelly of the corrupt Soviet system is of equal importance to publishing a romance novel about Muhammed?

    Also, are we to respond to an increasing Islamic presence and voice in our society by having the “courage” to publish semi-pornographic works about their prophet? It seems that we would do better to advance our own culture through the publication of truthful and beautiful literature, rather than bringing other cultures down to our level.

    And, looking at our own society, how many angry outcries have we heard from Christians regarding the portrayal of Christ in literature and the media? Have we forgotten the attempts to ban “The Last Temptation of Christ?” or the boycott of Disney?

  • T Sherm

    It seems like quite a stretch to assign the same level of courage assosciated with the publication “The Gulag Archipelago” with the level it would have taken to publish “Warpath”. It strikes me as a trivialization of Solzhenitsyn to make the comparison in the first place.
    Have we reached a point at which exposing the underbelly of the corrupt Soviet system is of equal importance to publishing a romance novel about Muhammed?

    Also, are we to respond to an increasing Islamic presence and voice in our society by having the “courage” to publish semi-pornographic works about their prophet? It seems that we would do better to advance our own culture through the publication of truthful and beautiful literature, rather than bringing other cultures down to our level.

    And, looking at our own society, how many angry outcries have we heard from Christians regarding the portrayal of Christ in literature and the media? Have we forgotten the attempts to ban “The Last Temptation of Christ?” or the boycott of Disney?

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    Oh for Pete’s sake, T. Sherm. That’s the falsest of equivalencies. Of course Solzhenitsyn’s writing was more courageous. That’s the whole point. Random House was faced with a much *smaller* threat, and still failed the test.

    And nobody is arguing that the novel about Muhammad’s wife is great literature. The point is that Random House would–and has–published numerous books critical of, and even insulting to, Christianity. They are deferring to Islam in a way they don’t defer to anyone else, purely because (and we all know this is true) they know Muslims routinely murder people who offend them.

    In other words, if you’re tolerant and kind (as most Christians are), they will slap your face. If you kill those who offend you (as happens in Islam more than in any other religion in our time) they will kowtow to you.

    That’s the very definition of cowardice and hypocrisy.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    Oh for Pete’s sake, T. Sherm. That’s the falsest of equivalencies. Of course Solzhenitsyn’s writing was more courageous. That’s the whole point. Random House was faced with a much *smaller* threat, and still failed the test.

    And nobody is arguing that the novel about Muhammad’s wife is great literature. The point is that Random House would–and has–published numerous books critical of, and even insulting to, Christianity. They are deferring to Islam in a way they don’t defer to anyone else, purely because (and we all know this is true) they know Muslims routinely murder people who offend them.

    In other words, if you’re tolerant and kind (as most Christians are), they will slap your face. If you kill those who offend you (as happens in Islam more than in any other religion in our time) they will kowtow to you.

    That’s the very definition of cowardice and hypocrisy.

  • T Sherm

    I believe that Christ speaks specifically to what we are to do when slapped in the face, and he most definitely does not encourage us to publish romance novels designed to offend the cultural group we are afraid of.

    I realize that these things are done to Christians every day. Christian religious figures are constantly being held up for mockery, everywhere we see blasphemous images and read blasphemous words, and it is perfectly acceptable in our society. I do not believe that this justifies doing the same towards other religions.

    If this were a book defending the Gospel of Christ, stating that Islam is not the true faith, but that one must be washed in the Blood of the Lamb to enter into Heaven, and the publication was halted because of the same fears, then we would have something to be up in arms about. We should be willing to risk our lives for the Gospel. I however, would not be willing to risk my life for the publication of a romance novel.

  • T Sherm

    I believe that Christ speaks specifically to what we are to do when slapped in the face, and he most definitely does not encourage us to publish romance novels designed to offend the cultural group we are afraid of.

    I realize that these things are done to Christians every day. Christian religious figures are constantly being held up for mockery, everywhere we see blasphemous images and read blasphemous words, and it is perfectly acceptable in our society. I do not believe that this justifies doing the same towards other religions.

    If this were a book defending the Gospel of Christ, stating that Islam is not the true faith, but that one must be washed in the Blood of the Lamb to enter into Heaven, and the publication was halted because of the same fears, then we would have something to be up in arms about. We should be willing to risk our lives for the Gospel. I however, would not be willing to risk my life for the publication of a romance novel.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    True enough. But we’re not talking about you. We’re talking about Random House, and the difference between its pretended principles and its actual behavior.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    True enough. But we’re not talking about you. We’re talking about Random House, and the difference between its pretended principles and its actual behavior.

  • T Sherm

    And if we’re talking about Random House, then we’re talking about a company whose ultimate goal is to make money, an entity which acts out of economic self-interest. Apparently, the company decided that it was not in their interest to risk the potential backlash that this book’s publication was threatened to produce. It is possible that people within the company decided that this book wasn’t worth losing their lives over.

    It hardly seems hypocritical, then for the company to decide not to publish this book. They are well within their rights to look out for their interests (both economically and in regards to personal safety) and come to the rational decision that the publication of a romance novel is not worth the risks.

  • T Sherm

    And if we’re talking about Random House, then we’re talking about a company whose ultimate goal is to make money, an entity which acts out of economic self-interest. Apparently, the company decided that it was not in their interest to risk the potential backlash that this book’s publication was threatened to produce. It is possible that people within the company decided that this book wasn’t worth losing their lives over.

    It hardly seems hypocritical, then for the company to decide not to publish this book. They are well within their rights to look out for their interests (both economically and in regards to personal safety) and come to the rational decision that the publication of a romance novel is not worth the risks.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    Just as long as they admit that, instead of making pious pronouncements about their commitment to freedom of expression.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    Just as long as they admit that, instead of making pious pronouncements about their commitment to freedom of expression.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    Furthermore, it’s generally accepted in the industry that the controversy raised by Christian groups protesting books generally is good for book sales. How can it be, then that protest by Muslim groups wouldn’t also be good for sales? Publicity is publicity.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    Furthermore, it’s generally accepted in the industry that the controversy raised by Christian groups protesting books generally is good for book sales. How can it be, then that protest by Muslim groups wouldn’t also be good for sales? Publicity is publicity.

  • T Sherm

    Taking some time to think (while helping my wife prepare her classroom for the first day of school tomorrow) I have tempered my views a little.

    First, I have spoken ill of a book that I haven’t read, and know very little about. I spoke of it as a piece of pornography based on the comments made by professor Spellman, as quoted in the article posted by Dr. Veith. However, the author herself claims that the intent of the novel was to “honor Aisha and all the wives of Muhammad by giving voice to [those] … whose crucial roles in the shaping of Islam have so often been ignored – silenced – by historians.” (quoted by Josh Haney in an editorial in the Daily Texan). I have not read the novel, and should not attempt to judge it either based on moral or literary qualities.

    Second, I also don’t like the idea of our economic decisions being made by Islamic fundamentalists. However, I realize that it is a concern that must be taken into account and sometimes acted upon (in much the same way that Wal-Mart now sells only censored CDs due to pressure from conservative groups).

    I also recognize that from biblical times, one way to speak out against false gods was to stress their human qualities as we see in 1 Kings 18:27 when the prophets of Baal are deafeted “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” Maybe this would be a possible effect of the novel.

    I see also, how some would construe this action by Random House as an act of cowardice. However, according to another article in the Daily Texan, the company did at least relinquish the rights to the novel, allowing her the opportunity to have it published elsewhere. To do otherwise would have been truly cowardly.

  • T Sherm

    Taking some time to think (while helping my wife prepare her classroom for the first day of school tomorrow) I have tempered my views a little.

    First, I have spoken ill of a book that I haven’t read, and know very little about. I spoke of it as a piece of pornography based on the comments made by professor Spellman, as quoted in the article posted by Dr. Veith. However, the author herself claims that the intent of the novel was to “honor Aisha and all the wives of Muhammad by giving voice to [those] … whose crucial roles in the shaping of Islam have so often been ignored – silenced – by historians.” (quoted by Josh Haney in an editorial in the Daily Texan). I have not read the novel, and should not attempt to judge it either based on moral or literary qualities.

    Second, I also don’t like the idea of our economic decisions being made by Islamic fundamentalists. However, I realize that it is a concern that must be taken into account and sometimes acted upon (in much the same way that Wal-Mart now sells only censored CDs due to pressure from conservative groups).

    I also recognize that from biblical times, one way to speak out against false gods was to stress their human qualities as we see in 1 Kings 18:27 when the prophets of Baal are deafeted “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” Maybe this would be a possible effect of the novel.

    I see also, how some would construe this action by Random House as an act of cowardice. However, according to another article in the Daily Texan, the company did at least relinquish the rights to the novel, allowing her the opportunity to have it published elsewhere. To do otherwise would have been truly cowardly.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Lars, to what “pious pronouncements about their commitment to freedom of expression” are you referring (@6)?

    Also, I can’t tell if you’re being intentionally obtuse or merely rhetorical, but it seems obvious that Random House may have feared more than the usual ineffective boycotting that Christians dish out.

    But I find it odd that the article attempts to compare an author’s bravery to a publisher’s cowardice (or, to put it differently, concern for reprisal). After all, authors and publishers have very different concerns in the book world.

    I suppose you could compare Solzhenitsyn’s courage to that of the romance author, since she also had the “courage” to write her book, but that would be pretty ridiculous, not to mention belittling of Solzhenitsyn. Or you could compare Random House’s “cowardice” to that of the Soviet publishers who also refused to print his works. Except that misses the political scenario at the time. You could also compare Random House to the U.S. publishers of Solzhenitsyn’s work, but then did the latter face any possible repercussions for publishing those books?

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Lars, to what “pious pronouncements about their commitment to freedom of expression” are you referring (@6)?

    Also, I can’t tell if you’re being intentionally obtuse or merely rhetorical, but it seems obvious that Random House may have feared more than the usual ineffective boycotting that Christians dish out.

    But I find it odd that the article attempts to compare an author’s bravery to a publisher’s cowardice (or, to put it differently, concern for reprisal). After all, authors and publishers have very different concerns in the book world.

    I suppose you could compare Solzhenitsyn’s courage to that of the romance author, since she also had the “courage” to write her book, but that would be pretty ridiculous, not to mention belittling of Solzhenitsyn. Or you could compare Random House’s “cowardice” to that of the Soviet publishers who also refused to print his works. Except that misses the political scenario at the time. You could also compare Random House to the U.S. publishers of Solzhenitsyn’s work, but then did the latter face any possible repercussions for publishing those books?

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    tODD: You make some good points.

    A quick web search of “Random House censorship” reveals that Random House founder Bennett Cerf led a famous legal battle against the banning of James Joyce’s Ulysses in the 1930s. That’s a while ago, but I suspect (I haven’t discussed it with them) that Random House considers that a formative point in their corporate history. http://www.answers.com/topic/bennett-cerf

    I also find a news release from the School Library Journal concerning a “First Amendment First Aid Kit” produced by Random House for the use of schools and libraries during Banned Books Week (in which libraries bellyache about how they’re being oppressed by parents complaining that their kids aren’t barred from looking at porn in the libraries). This is the news release, from 2004: http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/article/CA452450.html

    I’ll agree that an author’s situation is different from a publisher’s, but if the publisher considers itself a champion of free expression, and apparently Random House does, then they have an obligation to actually run some risks to back up that claim.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    tODD: You make some good points.

    A quick web search of “Random House censorship” reveals that Random House founder Bennett Cerf led a famous legal battle against the banning of James Joyce’s Ulysses in the 1930s. That’s a while ago, but I suspect (I haven’t discussed it with them) that Random House considers that a formative point in their corporate history. http://www.answers.com/topic/bennett-cerf

    I also find a news release from the School Library Journal concerning a “First Amendment First Aid Kit” produced by Random House for the use of schools and libraries during Banned Books Week (in which libraries bellyache about how they’re being oppressed by parents complaining that their kids aren’t barred from looking at porn in the libraries). This is the news release, from 2004: http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/article/CA452450.html

    I’ll agree that an author’s situation is different from a publisher’s, but if the publisher considers itself a champion of free expression, and apparently Random House does, then they have an obligation to actually run some risks to back up that claim.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Lars (@10), I have to assume that you understand “freedom of expression” better than that. It refers to the freedom from government meddling in what or how we express ourselves. It does not obligate anyone to express themselves in any way. And such free expression does not free you from the meddling in response, however illegal, of non-government parties.

    Random House isn’t worried about the government controlling their business, they’re worried about individuals, acting illegally, who would harm their employees. And it is reasonable for them to worry so, even if those who would harm them are despicable and do hate freedom of expression.

    But even if “freedom of expression” somehow can be twisted to mean that Random House has to publish what you think they should (an odd freedom, that), it doesn’t take a lot of courage to demand that someone else face death threats. If the book does get published (presumably by someone else), what are you going to do to help out anyone who does face possible reprisals? What risks will you run to back up your love for freedom of expression?

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Lars (@10), I have to assume that you understand “freedom of expression” better than that. It refers to the freedom from government meddling in what or how we express ourselves. It does not obligate anyone to express themselves in any way. And such free expression does not free you from the meddling in response, however illegal, of non-government parties.

    Random House isn’t worried about the government controlling their business, they’re worried about individuals, acting illegally, who would harm their employees. And it is reasonable for them to worry so, even if those who would harm them are despicable and do hate freedom of expression.

    But even if “freedom of expression” somehow can be twisted to mean that Random House has to publish what you think they should (an odd freedom, that), it doesn’t take a lot of courage to demand that someone else face death threats. If the book does get published (presumably by someone else), what are you going to do to help out anyone who does face possible reprisals? What risks will you run to back up your love for freedom of expression?

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    Oh, give me a break. I didn’t sign a contract with this author, pay her an advance, edit and print the books, and then suddenly scrap the project under threat.

    People who believe that it’s “book banning” to remove a book from a library shelf have set a very low bar for the definition of censorship.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    Oh, give me a break. I didn’t sign a contract with this author, pay her an advance, edit and print the books, and then suddenly scrap the project under threat.

    People who believe that it’s “book banning” to remove a book from a library shelf have set a very low bar for the definition of censorship.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Lars(@12), your original contention (@10) was that “if a publisher considers itself a champion of free expression … then they have an obligation to actually run some risks to back up that claim.” You clearly consider yourself a champion of free expression. But the main thing I see you doing to back that up is calling on someone else to publish a book that, they fear, may lead to death threats — not so risky. Maybe you should write a book mocking Mohammed? Then we’d know you’re serious about what you’re saying?

    I’m still not convinced you understand the difference between free expression/the First Amendment and deciding to can a book out of fear of death threats.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Lars(@12), your original contention (@10) was that “if a publisher considers itself a champion of free expression … then they have an obligation to actually run some risks to back up that claim.” You clearly consider yourself a champion of free expression. But the main thing I see you doing to back that up is calling on someone else to publish a book that, they fear, may lead to death threats — not so risky. Maybe you should write a book mocking Mohammed? Then we’d know you’re serious about what you’re saying?

    I’m still not convinced you understand the difference between free expression/the First Amendment and deciding to can a book out of fear of death threats.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    I never called myself a champion of free expression. I’m, frankly, open to the idea of some form of censorship (haven’t made up my mind. I think the First Amendment was intended to protect the expression of ideas, not necessarily feelings or fantasies).

    And by the way, what kind of liberal are you? Didn’t you get the memo on Islam? There’s no such thing as a threat of violence from Muslims, according to your side. The only dangerous religious people are those scary Christian fundamentalists. Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance, from which we have Much To Learn.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    I never called myself a champion of free expression. I’m, frankly, open to the idea of some form of censorship (haven’t made up my mind. I think the First Amendment was intended to protect the expression of ideas, not necessarily feelings or fantasies).

    And by the way, what kind of liberal are you? Didn’t you get the memo on Islam? There’s no such thing as a threat of violence from Muslims, according to your side. The only dangerous religious people are those scary Christian fundamentalists. Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance, from which we have Much To Learn.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    By the way, I wrote several columns for the American Spectator Online that surely offended a number of Muslims. And I’ve written a novel that imagines a Muslim invasion of the US, as yet unpublished.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    By the way, I wrote several columns for the American Spectator Online that surely offended a number of Muslims. And I’ve written a novel that imagines a Muslim invasion of the US, as yet unpublished.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Lars, do you understand the difference between free expression/the First Amendment and deciding to can a book out of fear of death threats?

    Not that it matter, I guess, since you’re not a fan of either, apparently. Hard to tell if the “censorship” you favor is different from what we already have, though — the First Amendment does not protect any and all speech, obviously.

    Happy to hear about your forthcoming novel. Let us know when it gets published.

    As to your question (@14) “what kind of liberal are you?”, I guess my answer would be: the kind of liberal that is not easily stereotyped or lumped in with strawman arguments?

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Lars, do you understand the difference between free expression/the First Amendment and deciding to can a book out of fear of death threats?

    Not that it matter, I guess, since you’re not a fan of either, apparently. Hard to tell if the “censorship” you favor is different from what we already have, though — the First Amendment does not protect any and all speech, obviously.

    Happy to hear about your forthcoming novel. Let us know when it gets published.

    As to your question (@14) “what kind of liberal are you?”, I guess my answer would be: the kind of liberal that is not easily stereotyped or lumped in with strawman arguments?

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