Shack Attack – and books on the way out?

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The Shack
Christian Marketplace, September 2008

As I write I have four magazines spread out before me: September’s Christian Marketplace; October’s Christianity; the Bookseller, 12 September 2008; and The future of books, a special issue Sunday supplement from The Independent, 14 September 2008, which asks, “Can intelligent literature survive in the digital age?”

If we take ourselves seriously as Christian booksellers, it’s a question we can’t afford to ignore. It’s not so much that books per se are doomed: we haven’t quite reached our “iPod moment” yet; it’s intelligent literature that John Walsh, the Independent‘s writer, believes is under threat — books that require us as readers to engage our brains. As with the mainstream bookselling marketplace, there’s no evident threat to the fluff and froth that some publishers seem to want to swamp us with.

And the source of the threat? You’re reading it: the internet. Online writing styles that focus on soundbites and feed on short attention spans… leading to even shorter attention spans until we reach the point where the only things we’ll be reading are the opening sentences of the book reviews… short sharp snapshot summaries swallowed wholesale before — like frogs snapping down flies — our eyes fasten on the next flashing headline.

Walsh cites an article by Nicholas Carr — Is Google Making us Stupid? — to coin the phrase “power browsing”: whizzing through the online information stream at high speed, never settling on anything long enough to focus. Suddenly my mind does a double-take and that image I’ve just painted flips as we become flies snapped down by the frogs…

So I move on quickly to my other three magazines. All three have this in common: The Shack. It’s the book of the moment, the new big Christian publishing phenomenon: endorsed on the cover by Eugene Peterson, endorsed here by Max Turner, Professor of New Testament Studies at London School of Theology, where I’ve now lost track of the quantity sold. I order it in batches of 10 and they fly off the shelves so fast that I have to reorder it the next day: how long have we got before Hodder run out of stock and we face the inconvenience of waiting for a reprint? If anyone from Hodder is reading this, please take note and get that reprint underway now.

I was in W H Smith’s at Waterloo Station earlier today and The Shack was at #24 in the fiction bestsellers.  The Bookseller has it in the #1 position in its “Top 20 Fiction Heatseekers” chart with sales of 3,791 copies.  Christian Marketplace reports that “The Shack makes the Independent” (Industry News, p.7) although, somewhat ironically, a search for The Shack on The Independent online today yields no results and I found no mention of the book in today’s books special supplement (though there’s an interesting review on p.30 by Salley Vickers of Richard Holloway’s latest, Between the Monster and the Saint — Canongate, £14.99; one to stock, perhaps?).

But I’ve saved the best until last: if you haven’t reserved yourself a copy of October’s Christianity magazine, I’d suggest that you do so. Inspired by The Shack‘s success, Andy Peck, the magazine’s former deputy editor, offers us an in-depth feature (pp.14-18) entitled “A new chapter in Christian fiction?”

“Bad Christian fiction,” Andy tells us, “is barely read and when it is good, it is scrutinised within an inch of its book jacket for errors.” (p.15). Quite how that measure applies to a paperback that’s less than half an inch thick escapes me, but I take his point: the Christian Thought Police are out there, eager to protect the rest of us from potentially liberating ideas. Consider: “Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill Church, Seattle, believes it contains heresy, especially regarding its view of God, and discourages his church from reading it.” (p.14).

That, to me, says it all: if people like Mark Driscoll disapprove, The Shack‘s author must be onto something: go read it. Today.

9 thoughts on “Shack Attack – and books on the way out?

  1. (Before we start and right here I raise my hands and admit I haven’t yet read any of the articles you cite so I am just going on thought stream here – oh and need to say my natural state of thought is probably similiar to google power browsing, in my family they refer to it as a grasshopper brain jumping all over the place! so here goes).
    Ok well that’s interesting but how are we quantifying ‘Intelligent Literature’ exactly – because length does not make it intelligent – war and peace is long but largely unintelligable to me! and that quote about ‘Bad Christian Fiction is barely read’!! well (excuse me for any offense caused in advance!) but was the man absent when all the Left Behind series was whizzing of the shelves in the thousands, now I read those books along with secular same types such as the DaVinci Code, but come on it disproves the statement that Bad Christian Fiction is barely read and upholds that Intelligent Literature is on the way out.
    But then again I come back to how do we quantify intelligent or for that matter good!
    For me if it makes you think, question and ponder then its probably intelligent, if it makes you read and want to keep on reading then its probably good!

  2. ‘Christian’ fiction = rubbish fiction. The speed of flight-from-the-shelves is not related to the quality of the literature.

  3. Phil,
    I think I was thinking of using quantify in terms of ‘logic’ ie limiting the variables of a proposition by prefixing some sort of operator etc in order to ascertain what qualifies as intelligent literature… or some guff like that – so yeah ok how are we qualifying intelligent literature, especially bearing in mind I just proved my inability to be intelligent so am wiped out from the ability to do so anyway!

  4. Melanie: I’m sure you could have got away with recycling the old Alice through the Looking Glass Humpty Dumpty quote: “When I use a word it means exactly what I want it to mean, nothing more and nothing less” … or you could have claimed a woman’s prerogative (ouch! I felt that: OK, OK: I apologise)…

    Ally: Mark Driscoll. What can I say? My impression is that the man’s a misogynist and a control freak. Of course, I could be wrong, but I do know that his ways are not my ways…

    Joe: to trash all Christian fiction with such a broad stroke strikes me as kinda harsh… are you including CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia in that generalisation? What about Paul Kercal’s Sylver Chronicles? And a whole raft of other Christian fiction writers?

    That last link includes a lot of “non-Christian” fiction but I deliberately mix them up: I like to be able to offer Christian perspectives on mainstream literature as well as reviews of the Christian stuff… which I think begs another question: is the distinction between sacred and secular literature a valid one? Surely the whole of life is sacred, not just the bits we choose to label ‘Christian’? As the old hymn writer put it, “Seven whole days not one in seven…”

  5. Phil – I implicitly agree with your last paragraph, which is why I do not accept a difference between secular and sacred fiction. It is either good or bad, fullstop. If the authors cannot make it in the rigours of the book market, why should anyone read it simply because it is ‘Christian’ – and anyway, I would dispute that things like left-behind are anything to do with the Christian faith?

    Non-fiction I would probably look in a different light, although much of the output of Christian non-fiction appears to have much in common with self-help books and little to do with considered Christian practice and theology. There are exceptions of course.

  6. I think i’ll go with Ally Simpson’s statement about the shack. As far as fiction goes its not the best!

    I’m also not sure about recommending a book on the basis of it’s critics?

  7. Pingback: Shack Attack 2 - and the web is where it’s at! « UKCBD: The Christian Bookshops Blog

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