Reading Rooney

…Or not, depending on your politics.


Some of the historic battles through the ages concern attempts to censure books. When they happen, booklovers especially have joined the fight against burnings, banning, and censorship. So it comes as a shock when an author contributes to the ageless attempts to dictate who may or may not read their work.

The novelist Sally Rooney instructed her publisher not to sell the Hebrew translation of Beautiful World, Where Are You? to her past publisher in Israel. Her act was, she claimed, part of a program of boycott, divestment, and sanctions to punish Israel for its oppression of Palestinian peoples.

“I have chosen not to sell translation rights to an Israeli publishing house,” Rooney explained, saying she was showing solidarity with the Palestinian people “in their struggle for freedom.”

Replying to criticism that Rooney’s decision not to sell translation rights to an Israeli publisher was anti-Semitic, her agent reportedly said Rooney wasn’t prohibiting a Hebrew translation, only a translation by an Israeli publishing house. Hebrew translation rights are still available.

Cynics might ask: How likely is it that any other than an Israeli publisher would produce a Hebrew translation? Israel is essentially Jewish and the home of publishers who work in Hebrew.

Rooney defenders claim anti-Semitism was not the author’s purpose, saying that she realizes other countries are guilty of far more grievous human-rights offenses than Israel, and that she was simply responding to Palestinian calls to boycott her book.

But would Salman Rushdie, Toni Morrison, or James Baldwin see that distinction between politics and literature when their own books were banned? Should authors play the same banning games that libraries have tried?

Is playing politics with the issue of who may not publish one’s books a fundamental misuse of authorhood? Presumably, Rooney holds her books’ translation rights. In the alternative, if her publisher, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, holds them, should it go along with its author’s preference regarding where to publish a translation?

Books should be for all readers and not subject to idiosyncratic lists of authors’ prejudices (or librarians’ or politicians’). The open marketplace should govern. Israeli publishers don’t usually pay much to translate novels into Hebrew. Rooney lost little money for her public stand against Israeli translation rights, but her point should trouble not only Israeli readers.

Years ago, I was counsel to a civil-liberties organization in Manhattan that wanted the city to ban a speech in a public park by right-wing provocateur George Lincoln Rockwell. I persuaded them that a wiser course was allowing Rockwell to have his license to appear but urging people not to attend. Same here with Ms. Rooney. Israelis — and anyone else affronted by the politics of Rooney’s sole publishing ban — can simply not read her book.

Ronald Goldfarb is a Washington, DC, attorney, author, and literary agent. His newest book, written as R.L. Sommer, is Courting Justice.

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