News & Politics

Mme. Tussaud’s Literary Waxworks, in Vanity Fair

A meditation on Vanity Fair's Salman Rushdie piece--more specifically, its photo spread--from the May 2014 issue.

It’s been a weird couple of weeks for oh so many reasons. There were changes here at Washingtonian. I had a big disappointment that I’ll recover from–but it required a couple of GBD doughnuts to assuage. Maybe it’s just that I returned from a fabulous spring-break getaway, and re-entry is hard. 

But last week got even weirder when I saw this photo spread in the May issue of Vanity Fair. I hate that you have to negotiate a paywall in order to see all four pages in their full glory, for this is a photo spread the likes of which I have not seen in some time. Photographer Annie Leibovitz seems to have had some sort of vendetta against the entire crew. At first glance, I thought perhaps Vanity Fair’s Graydon Carter was reverting to his (now almost antique) roots at SPY magazine and poking fun at the literary establishment.

Let me take a moment to explain what the photo shows, for those who can’t get the full monty: It is a carefully staged lineup of creative types who played a role in Salman Rushdie’s publication of and subsequent fatwa for The Satanic Verses. Included are longtime (and, in some cases, no longer) friends like novelists Ian McEwan and Martin Amis, his American publisher Nan Graham, agent Andrew Wylie, and British agent Caroline Michel, and others. The reason they have been gathered for this photo spread is compelling:

Twenty-five years after Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses, Vanity Fair writer Paul Elie hears from Rushdie himself and authors including Stephen King, Ian McEwan, E. L. Doctorow, Gay Talese, and Martin Amis, as well as editors from Viking and Penguin, the book’s respective U.K. and American publishers, about how the prophetic and provocative book made its author a hunted man and unleashed a fury around the world. Bombs exploded in bookshops in the U.S. and the U.K.; the book’s Japanese translator was shot and killed, its Italian translator was stabbed, its Turkish translator was attacked, its Norwegian publisher was shot, and two clerics in Saudi Arabia and Tunisia who spoke out against the fatwa were shot and killed. In total, Elie writes, more than 60 people died in the controversy.

Stephen King went so far as to intervene on Rushdie’s behalf when a number of bookstores in the U.S. announced plans not to sell the book or to remove it from their shelves. At the behest of two Viking editors, King called the chief of bookstore chain B. Dalton and gave him an ultimatum: “You don’t sell The Satanic Verses, you don’t sell Stephen King.” The store reversed course. “You can’t let intimidation stop books,” King now says, recalling the episode. “It’s as basic as that. Books are life itself.”

I agree wholeheartedly, which is why it’s puzzling to me why this group portrait looks more like Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp” than a modern take on the headline, which is “A Fundamental Fight:” “Paul Elie assesses the extraordinary impact of a prophetic, provocative book, which turned its author into a hunted man, divided the cultural elite, and presaged a new era.” In the dimly lit, shadowy contours of these four pages, Rushdie et al appear as Dutch renaissance experts who might exclaim “My leeches will cure this man!” rather than people who might presage “a new era.” (Full disclosure: I have met at least four of the assembled parties in person, including Rushdie himself; all of those parties are quite charming and affable in real life, not at all like their encased-in-amber avatars here.)

While I’m not interested, here, in analyzing the article as a whole, Elie does write towards the end that “The Satanic Verses is a world-changing book,” and I don’t believe he supports that claim. The book was definitely an eerily prescient view of a world in which fundamentalist Islam would play a larger and terrifying role, but does that make the book itself “world-changing?” I don’t think so. I also think that while Midnight’s Children was a fantastic whirlwind of storytelling, while The Ground Beneath Her Feet played well with space and time, while Haroun and the Sea of Stories was sweet and lyrical, The Satanic Verses was a pair of concrete shoes in book form. (I know this better than most readers because I wrote a paper about it in a grad school course on colonial literature.) 

Perhaps what Elie means is that the response to Rushdie’s book from the fanaticists who declared a Muslim fatwa against him changed the world, in that it alerted us all to the post-Cold War threat of Islamic terrorism. If that’s the case, then everyone so lugubriously portrayed in the Leibovitz spread did participate in something extraordinary, but it’s not about the literature–it’s about the reaction to that literature. 

Here’s why that’s important, and why it’s too bad that Stephen King isn’t in this photograph: It’s not about the literature. It’s not about literary fiction, or fine writing, or Manhattan publishing. It’s about the freedom to publish and read without censorship. I won’t say Vanity Fair missed the boat on this point (I said I wasn’t interested in analyzing the article entire, after all), but I think Leibovitz missed an opportunity to make these people relevant to a new word of readers and writers.