Fiction for Mortal Stakes

Return to main article:

The fatwa that Iran issued in response to Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel The Satanic Verses affected his agent, Andrew Wylie, directly. “Tehran was sending out teams of people to kill--Rushdie, primarily, but also those associated with him,” Wylie relates. “There was lots of information coming in at warp speed. Visiting Rushdie was an excitement in itself, involving unmarked cars and street corners and high-speed drives going the wrong way down streets. It was a period of intensely heightened experience.”

It was also “an act of international terror, a nation condemning an individual from another country to death,” he continues. “How do you react to that? Do you cave? Do you withdraw the book from publication? Do you hide and hope it goes away? Or do you stand up to it? It’s like a hostage crisis, and Rushdie was effectively held hostage. He and I both felt it was critically important for the publishing world--and for freedom of speech--to arrange for the orderly publication of the paperback edition one year after the hardcover publication.”

Normally, that paperback would have appeared in the fall of 1989. Instead, the hardcover publisher, Penguin, declined to publish the paperback edition; furthermore, “each and every publisher in New York refused to publish the paperback or even to participate in the publication of the paperback,” Wylie says. “There was a lot of fear, some of it for good reason. The Norwegian publisher of the hardcover was shot three times in the back by a hit squad. But he ordered a reprint from his hospital bed. It was one of American publishing’s darkest hours, in my view. The cover for the reaction was, ‘I can’t put my employees at risk.’ The fundamental issue, though, was: Is there freedom of speech, or is there not? It was about having the courage of your convictions.” The paperback finally appeared in 1992, from a group of publishers styled “The Consortium.” Rushdie is now writing a book on the fatwa episode.

You might also like

John Manning Appointed Interim Provost

Harvard Law School dean moves to central administration

Facebook’s Failures

Author and tech journalist Jeff Horwitz speaks at Harvard.

Kevin Young Named 2024 Harvard Arts Medalist

Museum director and poet to be honored April 24

Most popular

Convocation 2017: What Should an Education Be at Such a Moment?

Speakers reflect on the goals of a liberal arts university. 

Nicco Mele

The director of the Shorenstein Center on how the Internet came to mean so much to him. 

Found in Translation

Maureen Freely ’74, longtime translator of Orhan Pamuk, shares the nuances of bringing a text from one language to another.

More to explore

Photograph of Winthrop Bell 1910

Winthrop Bell

Brief life of a philosopher and spy: 1884-1965

Illustration of people talking to each other with colorful thought bubbles above their heads

Talking about Talking

Fostering healthy disagreement

Vacationing with a Purpose

New England “summer camps” for adults