On December 7th, the online magazine Literary Hub published a short excerpt from The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah, Yale and Middle East Institute-affiliated sociologist Adam Valen Levinson’s recently published debut. From the looks of it, the book is a memoir about falling in love with and in a foreign language—in this case, Arabic, which has a reputation for being one of the more difficult tongues for a native English speaker to master. Once a student nails the head-spinning complexities of Arabic grammar and morphology, the language unfolds across complex networks of meaning and reference that only reveal themselves over time. “There is a single word (na‘iman!) to greet the freshly shaved or recently showered,” Levinson writes. “Na’iman comes from one of the many words for paradise, but it’s silly to think paradise is invoked every time a friend trims his mustache.” Whether the author’s wonderment coheres into something more profound is unknowable based only on LitHub’s short passage, although a reader could reasonably decide that things are heading in a promising direction—or they could just as reasonably decide that they’ve had enough.
Four days later, however, LitHub issued a remarkable apology for publishing Levinson’s excerpt. Amid a revolt in the article’s comment section—and, I’d guess, beyond its comment section as well—editor Jonny Diamond and managing editor Emily Firetog wrote that the excerpt “should never have made it through our editorial process. Though the memoir in question recounts the writer’s dawning understanding of the orientalist gaze, and how corrosive it can be, in excerpting the beginning of the text without context, we let down our readers, who deserve better. The exoticizing language in any piece like this, the casual Othering, is not only a failure of literary empathy and observation, but it reinforces a toxic framework within which racism flourishes and power retrenches.” The publication did not consult with Levinson or even give him advance notice of their intention to apologize for publishing his work. Tablet reached out to LitHub Wednesday afternoon and to Firetog on Thursday morning, but has not received a response yet (Firetog has written for Tablet before, while Diamond was one of my bosses at an internship years ago).
While publications, especially in the fast-moving pace of online journalism, sometimes stumble and issue welcome corrections to errors of facts or judgment, Diamond and Firetog offer little beyond blanket statements that presume to know an author’s thoughts and intentions without, again, having bothered to consult with him. Their breezy denial that Levinson could enjoy anything like artistic license reflects a drearily closed-minded view of literature. Engagement with literature often cautions against believing that anyone can gaze into another person’s soul with total certainty. People read and write to be reminded that things have many meanings and intentions behind them, some of which we can’t always know.
But LitHub’s overseers have a instrumental view of the literary vocation. Next sentence: “As we have said before, there can be no meaningful separation of the literary and the political, and the decisions we make at this website go much deeper than buzzed-about novels and tips for finishing your book.” With steely certainty, the editors of LitHub have resolved a dispute over the relationship between aesthetics and politics that has consumed everyone from the ancients to Stanley Fish. Such a pity that Plato didn’t live to witness this auspicious day, and that Levinson didn’t get the memo that finally, after thousands of years, a work of art is now only as worthy as the politics that can be fairly or unfairly read into it.
“We live in a precarious era of untruth and weaponized language, in which life and death is often a matter of the syntactical ‘us’ and ‘them,’” the editors continue, “so it is fundamental to our job as editors to be vigilant about the power of words to harm and dehumanize, and in this case, we failed. For that, we apologize.” In the space of a couple of sentences, Diamond and Firetog have vaporized the boundary between wrongthinking and wrongdoing, asserting, in yet another departure from the healthy debate that is the staple of intellectual life, that words are tantamount to action. Even if you accept this premise, you still have to wonder if the editors even read the text that appears below their apology. “Seven miles from the deadliest attack ever on American soil,” Levinson’s excerpt reads, “the study of this language—the official tongue of the religion claimed by these attackers—carried a special emotional charge.” In Levinson’s college Arabic class in post-9/11 New York, “no one denied the impression that this was a language that represented a certain opposition—that it was on the other side of something. Many of us were drawn in because we were nosy, and we looked for bridges across the murky gap.” Diamond and Firetog never explain how, precisely, is a Jewish scholar’s attempt to learn Arabic and understand the world it helped create is a racist enterprise. With their apology, they’ve given us a master class in the power of words to dehumanize.
Lithub‘s apology recalls the controversy that unfolded over Kirkus’s positive review of Laura Moriarty’s American Heart back in October of this year. Facing an outcry that its critic had failed to condemn the novel—a dystopian re-imagining of Huckleberry Finn that takes place in a future America where Muslims are confined to internment camps—for its alleged “white savior narrative” and other related sins, Kirkus revised its review and stripped the book of a coveted “starred” rating. At both LitHub and Kirkus, online outrage helped convince the editors to denounce a work of literature based on the least generous possible reading of it, a state of affairs that does not bode well for the future of American literary culture.