One of the best New York nights of my life was in the early aughts, at a children’s book launch in the basement of the Mercer Hotel. It was a tiny spot, the kind of place where, if you were there, you were inevitably talking to everyone else who was there, too—and the “everyone else” at this event was so random that it was sexy: Joaquin Phoenix, fresh off of Gladiator; Howard Stern and his then-new wife, Beth Ostrosky; Moby, who was inexplicably pole dancing; and so many supermodels, it felt like you were in a magazine. (I really still have no idea how I ended up at this party, but that was the beauty of New York.) And of course, to make it a real New York affair, it required at least a dash of public intellectuals: writers, cultural commentators, novelists. In those days, revered downtown critics like Michael Musto or Fran Lebowitz were the types who typically fit the bill. But on this particular night, it was Salman Rushdie: literary hero. I remember thinking, This is the coolest party I’ve ever been to.
Because, as I mentioned, the place was the size of a boot box, it didn’t take long before Rushdie and I were bellied up to the bar at the same time, and I took the opportunity to tell him how much I loved The Satanic Verses. With tremendous humor, he responded, “Did you actually read it?” I had no ambitions of being a writer, but I was an avid reader of fiction at the time and assured him that I’d read that and Midnight’s Children and loved them both. In my naivete about life, and my preconceived notions of what “serious writers” did with their free time, I asked him what brought him to the party that night. To that, he said: “I’m just making up for lost time.”
Back then, when I was only in my 20s, I could not have even imagined what it would be like to re-emerge into public life after spending nearly a decade underground, wandering from place to place, living under a pseudonym, with 24-7 government protection. I could not grasp how so much living could be sacrificed for writing a work of fiction. Not that I wasn’t aware of the fatwa on Rushdie’s life—the bounty on his head was international news that had played out on the covers of all the New York tabloids. It was just that, having barely lived at all at that point, I hadn’t understood all that he’d been made to give up for his art.
Of course, all art requires sacrifice—of time, of spirit, of sanity. And art requires risk of rejection, of critical misunderstanding, and of pissing people off. How could it not? Art is a reflection of the lived life of the artist—no matter the art form—and the quest to express or find some expression of personal truth about that lived experience. For some of us, including Rushdie, this often results in touching on the controversial or, at the very least, disagreeable. As a writer he’s often concerned with the politics and history of his native India; his second book resulted in a lawsuit by Indira Gandhi and his third was banned in Pakistan.
In many ways, the story of Salman Rushdie, the artist, is a universal opera that all artists can relate to: risk, reward, and sacrifice—all of which have played out on the grandest possible scale. As Martin Amis wrote in Vanity Fair of Rushdie’s predicament in 1990:
Rushdie’s situation is truly Manichaean, but he is neither a god nor a devil; he is just a writer—comical and protean, ironical and ardent….There are times when Rushdie’s predicament feels like a meaningless divagation, a chaotic accident; there are other times when it feels rivetingly central and exemplary. Rushdie’s friends, I imagine, think about him every day. But his writer friends, I suspect, think about him every half an hour. He is still with us. And we are with him.
Certainly, this was true for me when I heard the news of his stabbing on Friday. I am not a writer friend of his, but by virtue of being a writer, I understood that—by simply existing as an artist—there but for the grace of God go I.
Here is where my thoughts turn more cynical, and probably more controversial: As his condition stabilized and my concern and horror turned to analysis and assessment of the larger situation, I was forced to ask myself what would have happened had The Satanic Verses come out in 2022. In addition to the bounty on his head, would Rushdie have also faced a metaphorical death in the form of so-called cancellation? A recoiling of the literary and intellectual world that had so vocally supported him in 1989? In 2013, Rushdie himself predicted that the answer would be yes. Commenting in response to the American writers of PEN America protesting the recognition of the journalists from Charlie Hebdo, Rushdie said: “[I]f the attacks against Satanic Verses had taken place today, these people would not have defended me, and would have used the same arguments against me, accusing me of insulting an ethnic and cultural minority.”
By his own admission, Rushdie didn’t write the book with the intention to offend, as he wrote (in the third person) for The New Yorker:
When he was first accused of being offensive, he was truly perplexed. He thought he had made an artistic engagement with the phenomenon of revelation—an engagement from the point of view of an unbeliever, certainly, but a genuine one nonetheless. How could that be thought offensive? The thin-skinned years of rage-defined identity politics that followed taught him, and everyone else, the answer to that question.
Regardless of his intention, his tome was and is offensive to many Muslims. Perhaps today the book would not have even been published for this reason. Or if it had, I can picture a scenario where Western liberal society en masse likely would not have condoned violence, but mightn’t have rushed to his defense, either.
There are very real right-wing attacks happening on free speech right now, including homophobic attempts to add “ratings” to TV programs that feature gay characters, book bans, and threats of violence against librarians for carrying and recommending these books. Still, on the left today, there is little appetite within liberal discourse to support freedom of artistic expression that might be deemed offensive to anyone—intentional or otherwise.
In the current moment, our concern for Rushdie’s freedom of speech feels like a case that’s been grandfathered in—one that, in considering oneself liberal, we are meant to have a certain opinion about, but that opinion is actually completely out of whack and inconsistent with the actual discourse of the moment. It's a bit of a throwback—like the kind of book party I chance encountered him at—of a moment in time that’s past us.
Or perhaps it’s an opportunity to revisit the past and question if perhaps we might not have thrown out some of the baby with the bathwater in the past 30 years since the bounty was put on Rushdie’s head. The fatwa is an extreme expression of a still-familiar threat; physical exile from your home country is extreme. But the truth is that artists and creators of all races, genders, and sexual preferences are living in a time of trepidation, at best. At worst, we live in fear of cancellation—not of our personas, but of our art. Of the limitation of our forms of expression. Of a kind of creative assault. (Public apologies aside, as a friend pointed out to me this weekend, Will Smith really seems to have opened the floodgates to retaliation against public figures at their most vulnerable.) I know this from media case studies I can point to, and by way of personal stories—whispered to me in bars of experiences through pulled book contracts and requests for edits of scripts or storylines.
Before I am misinterpreted, I want to be clear that this is not a defense of bad actors who happen to be artists. That people whose behavior as individuals outside of the creation of their art is criminal, bigoted, or hateful are being held accountable for that behavior in the court of public opinion or the marketplace is a good thing. But when the art itself is bothersome, to some or many, and faces backlash, this becomes a different question.
As I see it, the bravest thing Salman Rushdie has done as an artist is to continue to make his art while knowing, better than almost anyone alive today, that radical truth-telling in a time where we are allergic to nuance holds great risks. Yes, it is our job to be courageous. But, when artists feel stifled by a climate, or are holding back from exploring their art to its fullest expression out of fear for how that art might be received, we all lose something. I say this even as I find some of the artmaking happening today upsetting, offensive, discomforting, or questionable. Because we either believe in supporting free artistic expression, or we don’t.