Rushdie Latest Case : Censorship: Hot Sales, Then a Chill

Times Staff Writer

It is a familiar scenario: A book or play or movie becomes the target of a boycott or government censorship, and suddenly its popularity rockets. A work that might have enjoyed at most a modest success is enshrined in history. The blackballing produces a smash hit.

So it was last year with “The Last Temptation of Christ,” a film that reaped massive publicity--and long lines at the box office--after fundamentalist Christians picketed theaters. So too with such disparate works as the book “Spycatcher,” a cloak-and-dagger expose that gained international exposure after it was banned in Britain, and Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” a volume of poetry that has sold nearly 900,000 copies since U.S. Customs officials seized it as obscene in 1957.

Rose to No. 2

To the list add “The Satanic Verses,” the massive and some would say difficult novel that has made international best-seller lists even as its author, Salman Rushdie, remained in hiding under threat of death from the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran.


“Under normal circumstances it would have sold moderately well and then found its way to the discount tables,” noted one editor at Viking Penguin, its publisher, who asked not to be named. “It’s the old story: Once you get caught up in the public eye, the great scandal becomes the great seller.”

But don’t expect Rushdie’s publisher or other writers to celebrate the windfall, even though the worldwide furor over “The Satanic Verses” has revived interest in the author’s earlier novels and has prompted a literary and diplomatic backlash against his tormentors.

Visibility, Sales Boosted

For while the immediate effect of high-profile censorship campaigns is often just the opposite intended--far from removing works from circulation, they serve to promote both visibility and sales--the long-term impact is harder to gauge. When the initial surge of curiosity fades, along with the ringing defenses of free speech, what often lingers is fear and reluctance to return to the fray, according to authors, publishers, playwrights and film makers who have been through the ordeal.


These disputes--particularly when they involve threat of imprisonment or, as in the Rushdie case, physical harm--take a heavy emotional toll that sometimes lasts for years. And even the most determined artists or their patrons are often shy to provoke national or worldwide controversy a second time.

“In the aftermath of this, how many publishers will have the guts to come out with critical books about Islam, or any such subjects that get people angry at them?” asks Edward Morrow, president of the American Booksellers Assn. “That’s the real impact of censorship, and it’s something that will be with us long after poor Mr. Rushdie’s fate has been decided.”

With Rushdie’s book, some maintain that the chilling effect took hold early on. The B. Dalton and Barnes & Noble chains stopped selling his novel, citing concerns about the safety of their employees. And Waldenbooks removed the novel from display but continued to sell it to customers who asked for it. (B. Dalton and Barnes & Noble later reversed their decision.)

“What these stores did was itself an act of censorship,” novelist Larry McMurtry charged at a public reading on Rushdie’s behalf Wednesday in New York. “By removing the book, by showing that they were afraid and willing to bow to terrorist threats, they made life much more difficult for other authors who write books like Mr. Rushdie’s.”

In an angry statement, Norman Mailer maintained that the chains’ actions could pave the way for similar threats against other authors, because “crank groups” have learned that a handful of firms control most of the book distribution in the United States.

“We can now envision a fearful time in the future when fundamentalist groups in America, stealing their page from this international episode, will know how to apply the same methods to American writers and bookstores,” he said.

More Personal Level

But others say the real harm occurs on another, more personal level--between artist and publisher, and even in the author’s own creative environment.


Woodland Hills writer T. Coraghessan Boyle, for instance, has read his award-winning, satirical short story “Hard Sell” in public many times. In it, a fast-talking Los Angeles public relations man jets to the Mideast to help a leader resembling Iran’s Khomeini improve his image problem.

Boyle’s work is scheduled to be published this year by Viking Penguin in a collection of his stories. But when he discussed the book last week with an editor at Viking, Boyle says, he was asked if he wanted to drop the piece.

The Viking editor who made the suggestion says it was only in jest and that the company did not want the piece removed. But, the editor added, “Under the circumstances, it was my responsibility to tell him this was an option he might consider.” Boyle says he has no intention of dropping the story.

Jolts With Anxieties

More clear cut is the case of playwright Christopher Durang. In 1982, he won critical acclaim for his play “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You.” The show was a biting satire of the Roman Catholic faith, featuring a nun who sweetly lectures her students about piety but then jolts them with anxieties about God and the horrors of hell.

Durang’s play prompted an outcry by Roman Catholic groups and public officials when it opened in St. Louis and Boston, and productions in Florida, Illinois and Long Island were also threatened by boycotts. Roman Catholic organizations, backed by representatives from other religions, charged that Durang, himself a Catholic, had blasphemed the faith and should withdraw his play.

The protests all but guaranteed a strong box office, especially in cities where the demonstrations were most intense. Still, Durang believes he was scarred by the experience.

‘Perhaps I Shouldn’t’


“I would hesitate to write another play that was strictly about Catholicism, because I don’t know if I want to go through that again,” he concedes. “Perhaps I shouldn’t write another one.”

Censors also succeeded in intimidating artists in 1969 when a group of Yale drama students performed Megan Terry’s “Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool, Dry Place” in a New York City coffeehouse, according to Robert Brustein, a respected drama critic and currently the artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard.

Police, responding to complaints that an American flag was used as a blanket in the play, shut it down and charged several performers with desecrating a national symbol. Although the case was later dropped on a technicality, there was no effort to reopen the play.

“Sometime you can really put something right out of existence with censorship,” Brustein declared, recalling that the students were dejected by the experience. “You can really shut the door and stifle legitimate art.”

World of Art

There have been similar stories in the world of art. In 1957, police arrested Wallace Berman while he was at a Los Angeles exhibition at the Ferus Gallery, charging that his sculpture of a cross near a photograph of a couple making love was obscene. Berman challenged the action in court, but lost.

“That incident hurt Berman in a deep way . . . he didn’t exhibit again publicly for many years,” said Sandra Starr, director of the Corcoran Gallery in Los Angeles, who has compiled a history of California assemblage art. “The censorship worked, in that it contributed to his desire to leave Los Angeles for San Francisco.”

Like the Rushdie case, most calls for censorship in the entertainment industry in recent years have focused on the way specific groups are portrayed. In recent years, for example, the films “Year of the Dragon” and “The Color Purple” attracted considerable attention when Chinese and blacks protested their portrayals.

Religious Motivation

“The Last Temptation of Christ,” the 1988 movie based on the controversial novel by Greek author Nikos Kazantazakis, perhaps most closely parallels the furor over “The Satanic Verses” in terms of religious motivation. It portrayed a less-than-perfect Jesus, including a sequence in which Christ dreams of making love to Mary Magdalene. In Rushdie’s book, Muslims are incensed over passages suggesting that the holy Koran was not the revealed word of God.

Evangelical Christians first demanded changes in the “Temptation” film and then picketed Universal Pictures by the tens of thousands. When some theaters canceled runs of the movie, Universal fought back with full-page newspaper ads comparing the protests with book-burning.

The film gained tremendous notoriety and lengthy lines of customers during its first few days of distribution, but it did not do well in the long run at the box office. To date, “Temptation” has taken in about $8.1 million, against a production cost of $10 million.

Called Counterproductive

While some religious figures criticized the protest campaign as counterproductive, Don Beehler, a spokesman for the San Bernardino-based Campus Crusade for Christ, indicates Christian groups learned from the experience. Much of the protest movement against the movie was “spontaneous,” he said, adding, “I think the religious community will be much better organized” in the future.

And while stressing that “we never in any form condone any sort of violence in our protests,” Beehler said “Christians who have been through this experience can feel a little bit of the hurt and the anger that Muslims are feeling” over Rushdie’s book.

Indeed, some see little harm in inspiring a bit of caution in those they feel would too easily mock deeply held beliefs.

Dr. Amira Sonbol, a professor of Middle Eastern history at Georgetown University in Washington, said few Westerners understand the fury of the Islamic reaction to Rushdie, an Indian-born British citizen who was raised a Muslim. His novel, a satiric and fanciful discourse on the birth of the Muslim faith, “deeply slanders” the religion, she said.

Sonbol said Rushdie’s heresy was similar to that of some American author depicting George Washington as a crook who bribed businessmen to become President, and whose wife, Martha, slept with every member of the constitutional convention to win support for her husband.

“Americans wouldn’t stand for such a book; it would be reviled,” Sonbol maintained. “And that is the case with Rushdie’s book. I think publishers are going to have to watch out from now on. They’ll have to be a little more careful. This is not freedom of speech, this is the freedom to slander.”

Turning to Caution

Others reject the notion that U.S. publishing will be made more cautious by the Rushdie case. The current uproar, they say, reflects the unique circumstances of a Muslim writing a deeply critical book about his own faith, and the uproar caused by “one of the flock” turning on his fellow believers.

“There have been many books attacking Islam in recent years, the libraries are full of them, but none have sparked much outrage in the Muslim world,” said Richard W. Bulliet, director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University. “This (Rushdie’s) book was different. I don’t think you will see harmful effects in the publishing industry from the campaign against this book.”

There is also ample precedent for crusades that backfire not only by ensuring the fame of individual works but also by widening the limits of public debate.

In the theater, the tradition dates back to 18th-Century London, where authorities waged a ferocious campaign to shut down performances of “The Beggar’s Opera” by John Gay. The freewheeling satire took aim at prominent political personalities, including Prime Minister Robert Walpole, according to critic Brustein.

“As a result of these efforts to censor the play, ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ became an enormous success and more people became aware of its strong political message,” he said. “It’s all part of a tradition known as ‘Success le Scandale'--the idea that attempts to squash a play can often guarantee good box office.”

The same is true for the world of art. In 1966, controversy erupted over an exhibition by Edward Kienholz at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art when members of the Board of Supervisors and the City Council charged that several of the works in his show were obscene. In particular, they demanded that “Backseat Dodge 38,” a construction showing a couple engaged in heavy petting in the backseat of a battered car, be removed from the show.

When the museum board of trustees refused, a major public debate ensued. Ultimately, the museum won its battle to mount the entire exhibit, but the trustees agreed to close the door to the car in Kienholz’s sculpture when children under 18 viewed the now-famous artwork.

Put Artist on Map

It was a great victory for Kienholz and, more important, it put him on the artistic map, according to Starr. Due to the extensive publicity, long lines of people streamed into the museum to view his work, and art aficionados from as far away as New York followed the controversy with interest. Several years ago, the museum acquired “Backseat Dodge” for its permanent collection.

In another celebrated case, poet Ginsberg won a tough battle against San Francisco authorities to have his poem “Howl” printed and sold in the Bay Area. The heavily publicized court fight catapulted him from relative obscurity to a position of media prominence.

“The attempt to censor ‘Howl’ led to its wider distribution for sure,” said Ginsberg. “When it was first printed, I thought it was a thin, delicate little volume of poetry that would be of interest only to the cognoscenti. But because of all the publicity, even kids in Iowa went to buy it . . . it reached a much greater audience than I had thought possible.”

Movies, Recordings

The same has been true for the movie and recording industry, where censorship often has been self-imposed or government-sanctioned, particularly when the public airwaves are involved. Battles over motion picture ratings, “decency” rules for broadcasters and crusades for “cleaner” rock lyrics frequently have proved to be fountains of free publicity, leading to bigger box office, higher ratings and greater fame or notoriety for the artists involved.

During the 1960s, for example, a lengthy court fight over “I Am Curious (Yellow)” led off a surge in X-rated theaters throughout the country, with the number peaking at an estimated 800, according to industry observers. Similarly, television movies like “The Day After,” which drew protests from groups for its anti-nuclear bias, racked up strong ratings and set off weeks of intense debate not only over the program but also over the threat of nuclear war.

Yet most artists believe these battles are best avoided. Barney Rosset, the founder of Grove Press, waged bitter court fights to publish books like “Tropic of Cancer” by Henry Miller and “Naked Lunch” by William Burroughs, and he said those disputes cast a pall over the literary world.

‘Difficult Times’

“Those were difficult times,” Rosset noted. “You had local governments, religious figures, customs officials, everybody trying to suppress works of literature. It’s important to fight and win those battles, but they can drain you. As an artist, you’re always wondering, can it happen again?”

In the Rushdie case, Rosset said, “the important thing is for authors and publishers, for all artists, to stand together. Without that unity, these incidents will keep happening, and every victory we may have won in the past could be reversed.”

By week’s end, Rushdie’s publisher had backlogged orders for more than 200,000 copies of the controversial book, which was hard to find even in stores that hadn’t pulled it from their shelves. If all those books sell, the novel--which had been scheduled for a major promotional campaign even before the Khomeini threats--would be judged an enormous success.

But at the public reading for Rushdie in New York, one prominent author after another rose to denounce Khomeini and criticize speculation that the author might someday get the last laugh through royalties from sales of his book.

“Today, Salman Rushdie is a marked man, and the fact that people are buying his novel because of this is beside the point,” said author Robert Stone. “At a time like this, intellectual freedom is worth more than all the book sales in the world.”

Times staff writers Michael Connelly and Garry Abrams contributed to this article.