“Oh, that old thing,” Salman Rushdie groans when you bring up the fatwa issued against him by the Ayatollah over his depiction of Mohammed in his novel The Satanic Verses, recently the subject of a lengthy and oddly nostalgic Vanity Fair piece. “It was 25 years ago!” he says. But Vanity Fair says he still has an aura of danger! “I think if you spent five minutes in my company, you would see that I have no such aura,” the author told this reporter, who a few weeks ago saw him padding around the West Village in the vicinity of Sammy’s Noodle House.
Tonight, Rushdie will be honored at the PEN American Center annual Literary Gala alongside a more current, if less … wordy, literary revolutionary: Dick Costolo, the CEO of Twitter, a medium about which Rushdie has mixed feelings. On the one hand, as the Pen Foundation says, Twitter is “an enabler and a guardian of free speech. “It was an influence in Egypt,” says Rushdie. “And now, you have Turkey, as it enters a more repressive phase, trying to ban Twitter. [Editor’s Note: Turkey eventually lifted its Twitter ban.] People fear it, because it can’t be controlled by authority. That is of great value in the world we live in, which is a more and more censorious world.”
On the flip side: “There is a lemming thing that happens,” he goes on. “Everyone rushes in the same direction, and there is very little effort to establish truth. There’s a lot of what George Bush referred to as truthiness in social media.” Not to mention a lot of what the equally relevant cultural figure Mike “the Situation” termed “Haterade.” A few years ago, Rushdie briefly became known as a provocateur to a whole new generation when he used the platform to publish things like limericks about Kim Kardashian. The backlash was swift. “Once, somebody tweeted at me, ‘Why wasn’t I tweeting about important things?’” he says indignantly. “I’m allowed to be interested in pop culture. A novelist is interested in how people live and think and speak, what do they talk about and why and what is actually the nonsense in people’s heads.” Lately, his account has remained mostly dormant. “To tell you the truth,” he says, “I got a little bored with it.”
* Rushdie misremembered the origin of the phrase “truthiness.” It was pointed out to him.