Dan Rhodes is an award-winning writer, one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists of 2003 and author of the painfully funny Little White Car. But when it came to getting his latest book into print, every publisher balked for fear of being sued.
The problem is the central character of When the Professor Got Stuck in the Snow. He is a pompous atheist academic who is taking a train to Upper Bottom to deliver a lecture entitled Science and the Non-Existence of God. He is then stranded in a snowdrift and forced to stay at the local vicarage. His name? Professor Richard Dawkins.
Publishers all over town, including his usual home Canongate, turned it down, scared that the lampooning of Dawkins would result in legal action. Rhodes resorted to self-publishing 400 copies — some now trade on eBay for more than £100 — and Dawkins never responded to his letter requesting permission to publish.
Finally, one plucky publisher has taken on the challenge of the book hailed by Michael Holroyd as a satire “as devastating as Candide”. Scott Pack, at new imprint Aardvark Bureau, will be putting out a full run in the autumn.
Will Dawkins sue?
After all, Dawkins never envisioned this happening when he wrote:
I am more interested in the fence-sitters who haven’t really considered the question very long or very carefully. And I think that they are likely to be swayed by a display of naked contempt. Nobody likes to be laughed at. Nobody wants to be the butt of contempt.
You might say that two can play at that game. Suppose the religious start treating us with naked contempt, how would we like it? I think the answer is that there is a real asymmetry here. We have so much more to be contemptuous about! And we are so much better at it. We have scathingly witty spokesmen of the calibre of Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. Who have the faith-heads got, by comparison? Ann Coulter is about as good as it gets. We can’t lose!
However, if he sues, he will bring more attention and publicity to this book. What’s more, Rhodes’ book sounds like the verbal version of a cartoon. Won’t it be difficult to argue that it’s okay to make funny cartoons of Mohammed, but not Dawkins? Will Dawkins really oppose free speech?