The fact is, many fancy white authors were jealous of Rushdie’s somewhat precocious success, and his lack of humility about it.
Writers frequently wish their rivals dead at the best of times.
And, frankly, some of his critics made valid points.
Rushdie had explicitly, intentionally written a book valourizing British Muslim immigrants; they declined to be duly grateful, to say the least; Rushdie, in turn, expressed disappointment that they weren’t sufficiently appreciative of his exhaustive literary efforts on their behalf.
So… who was the coming the patronizing colonialist?
The irony is that while Rushdie is more or less free to say what he wishes today, those comments by Spender and Waugh would get them a secular fatwa if uttered today.
London literary society took sides.
“Nobody has a God-given right to insult a great religion,” John le Carré bellowed in The Guardian, “and be published with impunity.” He also proposed that Rushdie do the right thing and withdraw the book. V. S. Naipaul, who felt he had been taken to task for his own acid portrait of Khomeini in Among the Believers, decried the support for Rushdie as hypocrisy: “Certain causes are good, and then other causes become good. Now the good people are saying something else. I wish the good people were a little more consistent.”
Germaine Greer (that good feminist) would eventually mock Rushdie as “a megalomaniac, an Englishman with dark skin.” John Berger (that good Marxist) urged Rushdie to tell his publishers to cease and desist so as to stop a “holy war” before it started.
Roald Dahl (beloved children’s-book author, professed anti-Semite) was the most open in his contempt. “Clearly he has profound knowledge of the Muslim religion and its people and he must have been totally aware of the deep and violent feelings his book would stir up among devout Muslims. In other words, he knew exactly what he was doing and he cannot plead otherwise.” The Satanic Verses was selling strongly, and Dahl insisted that Rushdie had stirred up trouble to get “an indifferent book onto the top of the bestseller list.” Dahl added dismissively: “He seems to be regarded as some sort of a hero. . . . To my mind, he is a dangerous opportunist.” (…)
Viking’s Nan Graham and Chuck Verrill got an idea. Maybe the king of horror fiction could make this particular horror story turn out right. They reached out to Stephen King [who shared a publisher with Rushdie]. And King called B. Dalton’s chief, Leonard Riggio, the same day. King gave Riggio an ultimatum: “You don’t sell The Satanic Verses, you don’t sell Stephen King.”
B. Dalton carried The Satanic Verses—and sold it by the thousands.
“You can’t let intimidation stop books,” King now says, recalling the episode. “It’s as basic as that. Books are life itself.” (…)
Rushdie embraced Islam; then, just as suddenly, he turned away. Many in England’s Old Guard rounded on him, having figured out that he was a popular cause but not a popular person. Sir Stephen Spender coolly explained that “it is mass immigration that has got him into the trouble in which he now finds himself.” Former prime minister Edward Heath lamented that Rushdie’s “wretched book” had cost Great Britain “masses of trade.”
Auberon Waugh asked “just how much we should exert ourselves, as deeply stained white imperialists, to protect him from his own people.”
Hugh Trevor-Roper trumpeted that he “would not shed a tear if some British Muslims, deploring [Rushdie’s] manners, were to waylay him in a dark street and seek to improve them.”