After a week of controversy over Siege of Tel Aviv by Israeli-American author Hesh Kestin, which was released on April 16, publisher Dzanc Books has reverted the rights to Kestin and will not be printing any more copies of the novel. There are currently 2,000 copies of Siege of Tel Aviv in print.
The release, which was marketed by Dzanc as a “bizarrely funny” satire about Iran leading five Arab armies into Israel, destroying it, and restricting Jews to Tel Aviv with the plan of killing them all, was condemned on social media for what critics called its Islamophobic themes and content. Dzanc is accepting returns of the book, and intends to donate any profits to a Muslim relief organization.
"The author is welcome to publish the novel elsewhere," Dzanc publisher/editor-in-chief Michelle Dotter told PW in a telephone interview on Tuesday afternoon. Dotter disclosed that the decision had been made a few hours earlier after the publisher and author failed to reach a consensus on how to respond to the criticism being leveled at Siege of Tel Aviv.
While the book was endorsed by Stephen King, who called it “scarier than anything Stephen King ever wrote,” other readers have not been so benevolent. Siege of Tel Aviv has been condemned by many on social media—including Dzanc authors—as Islamophobic propaganda. One forthcoming Dzanc author, John Englehardt, tweeted that he was “very disappointed by the publication of Siege of Tel Aviv. I spent some time reading the novel online and believe calling it 'absurdism with satire with social commentary’ is beyond generous.” An Amazon reviewer complained that the novel “is a thinly veiled piece of IDF propaganda, to make Israel's horrifying apartheid practices toward Palestine seem justified. Disappointing that Dzanc Books would publish this bile.”
While explaining the rationale behind the decision to revert the rights, Dotter said that “the important thing about any book that we publish is, does it present a vision and give ideas to the world? Does it do more harm than good?” She added: “When we acquired this book [before the 2016 election] we were reading it from a different point-of-view. We intended to present it as satire. As publisher and editor-in-chief"—a position Dotter has held since August 2017—"my responsibility was to read it with a critical eye. I failed to do that.”
Dzanc’s founding publisher, Steve Gillis, acquired Siege of Tel Aviv, which is the second novel by Kestin published by Dzanc. "It was never our intent to publish a novel that shows Muslims in a bad light," Gillis wrote, in an email to PW. "We were trying to do just the opposite, as in 2016, this novel would have been perceived the way we intended as a satirical work stressing the tragic ridiculousness of the ongoing hostilities in the Middle East. Our mistake was not gauging the climate and seeing how the book would be perceived in 2019."
A Dzanc author who did not want to be identified told PW that they considered Gillis' public statement, posted on Dzanc's website, to be "appalling, a total non-apology," and even "disgusting." Another author, who also requested anonymity, told PW that a "public apology should be made for ever agreeing to publish it, particularly without the knowledge of authors who would not have signed on to this press had we known."
PW contacted Kestin through his website on Tuesday but did not receive a response to our request for an interview.
Describing Dzanc as a small press that has always “pushed boundaries in terms of artistry and new ideas, but never hatred,” Dotter said that the press has “learned our lesson” and will be more conscious about such issues while moving forward with its publishing program. One author, Emma Smith-Stevens, isn't going to wait for that to happen. Smith-Stevens, the author of The Australian (Dzanc, 2017) has issued a public statement on Facebook that she has demanded the reversion of the rights to her next book, a story collection, scheduled for release in spring 2020. Describing Dzanc's publication and initial promotion of Siege of Tel Aviv as "[aligning] with hatred and hateful acts," Smith-Stevens wrote that "already, emotional violence has been done" and that her "integrity is far more important than a book deal."
Dzanc, which was founded in Michigan in 2006 as a literary nonprofit organization, publishes primarily literary fiction. It has approximately 100 books in print, and another 300 e-books available through its e-book reissue series.
This story has been updated with further information.