There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.
On April 16th, small fiction publishing house Dzanc released their latest book, The Siege of Tel Aviv, a dystopian, absurdist satire written by Hesh Kestin, and praised by Stephen King as “scarier than anything Stephen King ever wrote.” Within twenty-fours, responding to complaints on Twitter, the publisher issued an irresolute statement requesting feedback from tweeters. By April 19th, the digital download was pulled, and by April 24th, Kestin discovered he had been unpublished (the literary equivalent of cancelled) from a Publisher’s Weekly article tweeted out from Dzanc’s Twitter account.
According to a press release written by the author on April 25th, the small, and admittedly vulnerable, publishing house had unpublished the novel almost immediately when 13 tweeters accused the novel of being Islamophobic. More specifically, tweeters accused the book of two things: using “Moslem” instead of “Muslim” and calling Iran an Arab country.
It must be noted that Kestin is not some fly-by-night author-wannabe making this stuff up as he goes along. Kestin’s Simon and Schuster biography informs us that he has been a foreign correspondent for twenty years, reporting from the Middle East on war, international security, terrorism, arms dealing, espionage, and global business. A father of five currently living in New York, he is also an eighteen-year veteran of the Israeli Defense Forces, has worked for Forbes as their London-based European correspondent, and has authored articles in Newsday, the Jerusalem Post, and Playboy. He is also the published author of three previous novels. If Kestin is a virulent Islamophobe, he has done a good job of hiding it over a decades-long life of public life in the Middle East.
In his press release, Kestin acknowledged that he used the widely accepted alternative spelling of Moslem. But he defends against the claim that the book or its jacket refers to Iran as an Arab country. This is not even a mistake he would make, he explains. In Kestin’s own words, “the novel tells the bloody story of what might happen when Iran leads five Arab armies in its long-threatened conquest and destruction of Israel.” This plot summary might account for the claim from the tweeters that the book is Islamophobic, and be the real source of their discomfort with the novel, rather than the rather trivial items they actually pointed out. And Kestin appears to have sensed this.
He continues: “In a time of growing anti-Semitism and the increasing influence of Iran in Syria and other Arab countries, to say nothing of its effective control of terror organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas, being afraid of militant Islam is hardly a neurosis.” Kestin follows up by emphasizing that while militant Islam is a genuine concern, it exists alongside his own personal experience as a foreign correspondent and neighbor to Muslims who has been welcomed into Muslim homes and has gladly welcomed Muslims into his.
Regardless, on April 18th, Steve Gillis, the retired publisher and co-founder of Dzanc Books, released a statement distancing the publishing house from Kestin, the same author whose 2006 book The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats brought their small publishing house the prestige of a gold medal Independent Publishers Award.
In the statement, Gillis says outright that the book employs an “over-the-top absurdist narrative” and “is not meant to be read as Islamophobic.” But that is where his defence of the novel ends. He begins defending himself pre-emptively against accusations of guilt-by-association. He implores his readers to recognize that he and his wife Mary have been fighting Trump’s immigration policies since he took office. He pleas with his readers to understand that he, personally, is not Islamophobic. He lists various non-Islamophobic things of note he has done. Steve has sponsored Muslims. Steve has purchased two houses which he brought Muslim families to America to live in. Steve has worked “tirelessly” and has “given a small fortune” to support the Muslim cause. Steve begs and implores. Steve has been good to Muslims, so very, very, good to them, and it has hurt him personally to see that Kestin’s book has been received as Islamophobic.
Next, Steve goes on to assert the virtue of his publishing house, Dzanc. Steve hopes for “reconciliation” with those who did not like the book and his publishing house. How blind I was, Steve writes, to read this over-the-top dystopian novel as a parody. I am so troubled now. Steve tells us he is distraught that after Dzanc’s thirteen years of publishing underrepresented authors, and all of their work in communities and schools, that readers would think that Dzanc would provide the public with anything but “worthy literature.” Steve tells his readers Dzanc will do anything to make it right. If they had published this book in error, then he would listen to complaints and pull it from the market.
But the overarching reason Dzanc unpublished the novel seems to be contained in these two lines of the statement:
That the material presents itself as problematic in this regard troubles me deeply. I hoped readers would understand the intent of the novel. If an error has been committed, it is not in our intent, but in the failure to consider how readers might perceive the novel.
Reading this press release reminded me of an episode of The Twilight Zone called “It’s a Good Life.” In the episode, the residents of Peaksville, Ohio, are reduced to sycophancy by a six year-old Johnny Fremont who holds power over anything that displeases him: television broadcasts, music, and people. On top of that, Johnny simply hates un-good thoughts of any kind, and displeasing Johnny has horrible consequences. If Johnny doesn’t like you, he can make you disappear. Just like 13 tweeters just made Kestin’s novel disappear.
Gillis’ grovelling in his press release is exactly analogous to the grown-ups in that episode walking on eggshells around little Johnny Fremont. He is terrified of the swift judgment of the tweeters, just like the grown-ups are terrified of Johnny. This fear causes a chain reaction. Complaints from as few as thirteen tweeters, none of whom are likely to have read all, if any, of the book in one day, were able to convince at least one fellow author at Dzanc to also demand the book be pulled, and to threaten to retract their upcoming work from the publishing house. Reviewers have also fallen prey to the monsters of Peaksville, some vowing to never again review any of Kestin’s work. It is clear that, like in The Twilight Zone, Hesh Kestin is being put out into the cornfield.
You can dislike Kestin’s book (assuming you have read it, of course), and you can disagree with its politics, or its point of view, or its value system, or anything you like. You can say it fails at absurdism or satire. You can say it is a bad book. But it is not the duty of a work of art to teach morals or to be agreed with. Artworks are products of culture, of individual voices, and they ought to be engaged with, openly, charitably, critically. And, it is certainly not our duty to get them disappeared to prevent other people from making up their own minds.
Kestin has been given back his publishing rights. As for any physical copies of the book, Dzanc will ensure they are pulped. I hope that a large publisher, like Penguin-Random House or Simon and Schuster, one who has nothing to fear from the opinions of 13 tweeters, will republish this book so we can all see for ourselves.