Last year "The Satanic Verses" brought Salman Rushdie a reported $800,000 advance from Viking Penguin, the British-American publishing conglomerate that acquired world rights to the novel. This year it has brought the writer a death sentence from the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, his publisher bomb threats, and book burnings and bannings.
The extreme nature of the intimidation against Rushdie and Viking has made the New York publishing community more tense than any event in memory. While publishers are no strangers to controversy - the kind that may result from publishing a book with headline-making revelations about public figures, or being sued for libel - never before has any house been subjected to terrorist threats. In the words of one observer, "Terrorism has come to publishing."Sonny Mehta, president of Alfred A. Knopf Inc., said: "I am appalled by the level of the attacks, and I believe that the threats to Salman are very serious. It is a grave concern when criticism is turned to mortal threats."
Mehta said that Rushdie "is one of the five or six most important writers in the world, as well as a good friend. All his books have caused a stir. Salman is a storm-raiser. I expected the contemporary bits of the novel set in Thatcherite England would cause a stir."
Mehta said he does not believe the current storm will inhibit publishers from issuing controversial books. "It is impossible to conceive that this will affect us. You publish books that you believe are important, and I believe we'll continue to do that," he said.
"The Satanic Verses," in which Moslem protesters claim the central characters are thinly disguised figures from their holy book, the Koran, has been available in the United States since early last month. Moslems say the Rushdie character Mahound is a blasphemous depiction of the Prophet Mohammed - and that the name Mahound is itself derogatory.
Rushdie has said that "The Satanic Verses" demonstrates the differences between secular and religious views of the world. He said in a Newsday interview that "what they say about the book has nothing to do with what I wrote."
That the novel's contents would provoke a controversy was unimagined by Andrew Wylie, Rushdie's literary agent, who offered an emphatic "No!" when asked whether he had anticipated any difficulty with censorship anywhere in the world.
Similarly, none of the publishers who expressed an interest in acquiring "The Satanic Verses" thought that the book was anything other "than a new novel by a writer of immense talent," said Charles Hayward, president of Simon & Schuster. Hayward added: "We would have been happy to have published the book and I think we would publish it still. To say we wouldn't would be a contradiction of everything we stand for as advocates of the First Amendment," which guarantees freedom of speech.
Publishers and authors, by and large, have been appalled by the foreign attacks on cherished American freedoms. They say they are not sure what their reaction should be - or could safely be. Accordingly, their responses are measured and cautious.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Salman Rushdie's novel, "The Satanic Verses," published last year, has sparked worldwide controversy, from violent protests to calls by Islamic leaders for the author's death. Today, on this page, we have four related stories about Rushdie and his book:
- A profile of Salman Rushdie.
- A brief history of book-burning.
- Excerpts from "The Satanic Verses."
- A look at reaction in the publishing industry.