Monday, October 01, 2012

Joseph Anton and serendipity

This past weekend I bought Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie’s memoir of the years he spent in hiding under threat of Khomeini’s fatwa. In spite of how busy I am right now, it has proved a difficult book to put down, and I’m almost two hundred pages in (if I wasn’t currently teaching three classes, I have little doubt I’d be finished already). It’s really just that good—enthralling, engaging, and harrowing. I will blog at greater length about it in the future. But for now, I just want to share a snippet I love.

Besides its narrative of hiding from extremists, there’s an awful lot of inside baseball about the literary scenes on both sides of the Atlantic, with all sorts of familiar names surfacing—Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Angela Carter, Susan Sontag, Nadine Gordimer … the list goes on and on, to the point where a lesser author might be accused of name-dropping. But then, this is a book by one of the biggest names of all, so I suppose we shouldn’t get snarky. One of the lovely aspects of this book is the way Rushdie weaves it all together, and in the process tells the story of how some of the greatest novels of the latter twentieth century (i.e. his) got written.

And how publishing works. When The Satanic Verses was put up for auction among publishing houses in the U.S. and Britain, he had a hard choice to make when it became clear that he stood to make more money that he’d ever imagined. His longtime editor at Jonathan Cape, Liz Calder, had recently left her company to start up Bloomsbury Publishing, and it was assumed that she would publish Rushdie’s new novel when he was done. Indeed, Calder and Rushdie’s British agent Deborah Rogers had made just such an arrangement. But when it became clear how much money was being offered as an advance in the U.S. for The Satanic Verses, Rushdie’s American agent warned him that the modest advance Bloomsbury could offer would queer the deal. So after much soul-searching, he changed publishers and agencies in Britain, in the process damaging two deep friendships.

After the fatwa, however, both Liz Calder and Deborah Rogers put aside their hurt and resolutely rallied to Rushdie’s side—staunch friends in a time when it seemed that everyone else in the world was keen to stab him in the back.

And things worked out beautifully for Liz Calder, as it happened:

Liz came to feel that she had dodged a bullet. If she had published The Satanic Verses, the ensuing crisis, with its bomb threats, death threats, security expenses, building evacuations and fear would very probably have sunk her new publishing venture right away, and Bloomsbury would never have survived to discover an obscure, unpublished children’s author called Jo Rowling.

I love serendipity.