In a cry of outrage from the heart of the American literary establishment, a group of the nation’s most prominent authors Wednesday condemned the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran for ordering the execution of novelist Salman Rushdie and attacked booksellers for removing his controversial work.
Hours later, the B. Dalton and Barnes & Noble chains reversed themselves, announcing that the book, “The Satanic Verses,” once again will be available for sale.
In Los Angeles, about 150 people gathered to hear readings and discussion of Rushdie’s work in an event sponsored by PEN Center U.S.A. West. Among the participants were feminist author Betty Friedan, futurist Alvin Toffler and novelist Lawrence Thornton. (Story on Page 16.)
The two bookstore chains said an overwhelming majority of store employees had requested permission to sell “The Satanic Verses” and that President Bush’s assurances that Iran would be held accountable for any attacks on U.S. companies had influenced the decision to restock the work.
But the booksellers made it clear they were not endorsing Rushdie. “As has been the company’s practice throughout its history, it makes no recommendations as to the worthiness or lack thereof of any of the books found on its shelves,” said Richard Mulieri, a B. Dalton spokesman.
The reversal was a victory for the 41-year-old author, who is under heavy guard and in hiding in Britain, and for Viking-Penguin, his embattled publisher, which declined to comment on the chains’ decision.
Waldenbooks, which ordered Rushdie’s novel not to be displayed last week, said it would continue to sell the book from existing stock on request.
With readings from the controversial book, a march through rain-drenched Manhattan streets and a series of angry speeches, prominent U.S. authors rallied Wednesday in defense of Rushdie. While the authors met inside a Manhattan auditorium, protesters and supporters of the book shouted at each other across police lines.
“This is an act of international terrorism against the life of the mind,” Susan Sontag, president of the American chapter of PEN, the international writers organization, told the gathering in Lower Manhattan.
“This must be the largest hit contract in history,” declared Norman Mailer. “Islam, with all its mighty virtues and vices, equal at the least to the virtues and vices of every other major religion, has now introduced a novel element into the history of theology. It has added the logic of the Syndicate.
“One does not even have to belong to the Family (Mafia) to collect,” he said. “One has only to be the hit man.”
The writers not only turned their ire on Iran, but scathingly attacked the nation’s two largest booksellers and President Bush for failing to take stronger action against the ayatollah’s death order.
‘Too Late, Too Little’
“President Bush’s statement, when it finally came, was dramatically too late and shockingly too little,” charged Robert Caro, expressing the sense of the meeting. “We don’t elect the bookstore chains to protect our rights. That’s the function of the government.”
The President, at his news conference Tuesday, declared Iran’s government “can expect to be held accountable” if Americans or American firms are hurt by Khomeini’s campaign against Rushdie.
The author set off a firestorm in the Muslim world with his allegorical novel about Islam. In response, Khomeini ordered his execution and threatened action against Viking-Penguin.
Both Rushdie and his wife, novelist Marianne Wiggins, sent word to the New York PEN gathering.
“We writers are a dangerous breed and we always have been. Only fear can stop a book from being sold,” Wiggins wrote, in a letter read by Sontag.
Rushdie’s wife, who was forced to cancel a seven-city U.S. book tour for her own new novel, “John Dollar,” urged the authors to read her husband’s book. She labeled it “a colossal, unrepentant, courageous monster.”
“Rejoice in it,” Wiggins urged her fellow writers.
Packed into the second-floor loft on lower Broadway were such veterans of best-seller lists as Mailer and Sontag, Larry McMurtry, Joan Didion, Diana Trilling, Don DeLillo, Frances Fitzgerald, Gay Talese, E.L. Doctorow, Lionel Tiger, John Gregory Dunne, Robert Stone, J. Anthony Lukas and Tom Wolfe.
As the authors castigated Khomeini, the debate over Rushdie’s work raged outside. Across lower Broadway, about 25 of Rushdie’s American-Muslim critics held up signs and shouted, “Ban the book.”
“We are here to protest. . . . The book contains language which is beyond the level of decency. The book uses language which is beyond common sense,” charged Abdus Shakoor, the group’s leader.
“In ‘The Satanic Verses,’ Rushdie is not libeling an individual, he insults and libels a whole community. It is obscene,” proclaimed pamphlets handed out by the protesters. “We Muslims believe that it is highly imprudent and inconsiderate for an individual to completely ignore the religious sensitivities of his fellow citizens while exercising his First Amendment rights.”
Across Broadway, long lines of literary aficionados waited in vain in the rain to get into the meeting. “Hands off Rushdie,” chanted his backers.
New York’s day of literary protest began when more than 80 members of the National Writers Union demonstrated in front of Iran’s U.N. Mission against Khomeini’s death sentence. The pickets attempted to hand a protest letter to Iranian U.N. Ambassador Mohammed Mahallati before marching to Fifth Avenue, where they held rallies in front of the large bookstores refusing to stock Rushdie’s book.
“One, two, three, four--Put the book back in the store!” the protesters chanted.
But clearly, the meeting of authors was the high point of the day. Writer after writer rose before a blue and white PEN banner in front of the room to back Rushdie.
“I have not read any of his books and perhaps I never shall,” said Trilling. “But the ayatollah has called for the murder of intellectual freedom everywhere in the world. What we passively accede to today will be forced on us tomorrow.”
McMurtry, who also owns four bookstores, was strongly critical of the chains. He said their decision not to stock Rushdie’s book was “shameful and very regrettable.”
“Those of us who run independent bookstores want to sell Rushdie’s book. We’re going to get as many copies of them as we can and pile them high in the windows.”
But it was Mailer, in an eight-page speech, who best summed up the mood of anger.
“The Ayatollah Khomeini has offered us an opportunity to regain our frail religion, which happens to be faith in the power of words and our willingness to suffer for them,” he said. “He awakens us to the great rage we feel when our liberty to say what we wish, wise or foolish, kind or cruel, well-advised or ill-advised, is endangered. We discover that, yes, maybe we are willing to suffer for our idea.”