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.