Juan Williams and others: does controversy produce good books?

Juan Williams, Muntadhar al-Zeidi, and Eva Gabrielsson all landed recent book deals fueled by highly publicized controversy.

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    Juan Williams, fired from NPR for his on-air remarks about Muslims, has signed a two-book deal with Random House.
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One made prejudicial comments about Muslims on national television. Another threw a shoe at a sitting US president. And yet another is embroiled in a fierce battle over the inheritance and publishing rights of a recently deceased bestselling author.

All have been rewarded with book deals and plenty of publicity. It’s a common practice in publishing – turning adversity or even bad behavior into hyperpublicized book deals. It makes good economic sense – but what kind of books does it produce?

Exhibit A: Crown Publishers announced that Tuesday Fox News analyst Juan Williams has signed a book deal with Crown, an imprint of Random House. He will write two books for the publisher, one on his controversial NPR firing earlier this year.

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NPR fired Mr. Williams after he said on the Fox News Channel that he gets nervous when he sees people with Muslim clothing on a plane.

“But when I get on a plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they're identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous,” Williams said in an October taping of the “O’Reilly Factor.”

NPR said Williams’ remarks violated its standards for on-air opinions given by its personnel, although the organization has since said the firing was poorly handled.

Williams’ first book, scheduled for a summer 2011 release, will undoubtedly center on the NPR firing controversy. “[It] will focus on free speech and the growing difficulty in America of speaking out on sensitive topics; Williams will argue that the American public benefits from a vigorous and full-throated debate on hot button issues of political and cultural import. Williams will chronicle his own first-hand experience of the consequences of crossing the line in public expression, as well as the stories of other individuals who have been criticized and retaliated against for expressing views that are deemed politically incorrect,” Crown said in a statement.

Exhibit B: Meanwhile, in the Middle East, journalist Muntadhar al-Zeidi, aka the Iraqi shoe-thrower, is signing copies of his first book, “The Last Salute to President Bush.” The book chronicles the moments leading up to the infamous Baghdad press conference during which Mr. Zeidi became famous by hurling his shoes at Bush and calling him a dog, the Washington Post reported.

In the book, “he recalls the revulsion he felt when he saw Bush at the joint Baghdad press conference with Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki,” the Post reported. "In these moments, everything I had seen and heard about the massacres against Iraqis this man had committed came to my mind ... and I felt a thunder in my body," Zeidi wrote of the moments leading up to the infamous act. Moments later, he sprung from his chair, threw his shoes toward Bush and shouted, "This is your farewell kiss, you dog!"

The incident, of course, couldn’t possibly fill all 100-some pages of the book. Zeidi also explains the motivations behind the outburst, including the 1991 Gulf War and subsequent Iraqi suffering.

Zeidi’s Beirut signing of the book was timed to coincide with the second anniversary of the shoe-throwing.

How readers will feel about the idea of Zeidi's book will likely depend on their politics. Some undoubtedly see him as a hero while others will label him a criminal. (He served nine months of a three-year jail sentence as a result of the incident.) Either way, the profits from his book, he has announced, will go to a charity he has established for Iraqis who have suffered from US occupation.

Exhibit C: Yet another controversy and yet another book deal. Eva Gabrielsson, longtime partner of Stieg Larsson, has written a book chronicling her life with the Swedish crime novelist and his creation of the megahit “Millennium” series. Most toothsome for Lisbeth Salander fans, the book, which is scheduled for release in the US in June, will also provide clues to the mysterious fourth novel in the series, according to publisher Seven Stories press.

Rumors had swirled for years that Mr. Larsson penned a fourth book in the popular "Millennium" series before he died in 2004. Those rumors were given further credence earlier this year when Larsson’s brother and father said they had seen the manuscript on a laptop that is now in Ms. Gabrielsson’s possession.

But a nasty fight has broken out between Gabrielsson and the Larsson family over the rights to that manuscript. When Larsson died suddenly without a will, his family – and not Gabrielsson, with whom he had lived for decades – became his heirs. In the family's view, control of any unfinished writings of Larsson should belong to them. Gabrielsson disagrees.

It probably doesn't matter how Gabrielsson addresses that controversy in her book – or even if she addresses it at all. All around the globe eager fans of the first three books of the "Millennium" series (which have been been translated into 44 languages and have sold more than 46 million copies worldwide) will buy it regardless. But certainly the legal battle over Larsson's unfinished business has been helpful in keeping the story in the headlines and giving it added sizzle.

Certainly, highly publicized book deals, motivated – or at least enhanced – by a controversy of some kind, are nothing new. But once the books hit the market, it's up to us readers to decide: Do these authors have constructive messages and legitimate stories that we care to hear?

In the case of Williams, Zeidi, and Gabrielsson, what do you think? Are you a potential reader of one or all of these books – and if so, what are you hoping they will deliver?

Husna Haq is a Monitor contributor.

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