BOOKS: FOR HEAVEN'S SAKE ; Publishers May Worship Mammon but There's Still Room in the Marketplace for Religion, Argues Peter Stanford. Could It Be Time for a Second Coming?
Stanford, Peter, The Independent (London, England)
When the prize-winning British religious historian, Karen Armstrong, has a book out in the US, her publishers usually arrange an extensive tour with signings and talks. "On my last trip," she says, "I rarely spoke to fewer than 500 people." She is not being immodest and it was in the aftermath of 11 September. Her point is to highlight the contrast with back home where, when the same book appears, there isn't the interest in such events. "I'll occasionally do the literary festivals, but I never go and talk or do signings in bookshops. It would be pointless. No one would turn up and I couldn't bear the embarrassment."
It is not simply a question of bashful readers, missing sales potential or even a prophet being without honour in her own land. Armstrong's highly acclaimed History of God, for example, was on the bestseller lists on both sides of the Atlantic. The problem is one of how religion is perceived here and there - both by publishers and by the book-buying public. In America, despite a constitution which separates church and state, religion remains at the heart of national life and debate. Here, we have an Established church but increasingly label religion as a private matter and thereby avoid discussing it at all costs. "Somehow British publishers have got it into their heads," says Armstrong, "that books about religion don't sell. And even when they are presented with evidence that contradicts that - for instance, I do notice at the books festivals that the tent is often crammed when I speak - they stick to their own perception of what the public wants."
There is indeed plenty of evidence this Easter of the exile of religion from the mainstream of British publishing. HarperCollins has recently dropped its religious division, though, in what might be taken as a sign of the times, Thorsons, its mind, body and spirit offshoot, continues to thrive. Over at Hodder Headline, the other major publisher with a long- standing religious list, the in-house God squad does not enjoy the high profile within the organisation that it once did. In general, religion has become a publishing ghetto, serviced by small firms, preaching to the converted, operating on a shoestring and supplying a network of specialist shops.
However, the melancholy, long withdrawing roar of the sea of faith, at least in printed form, is not, some believe, inevitable. "The problem," says Robin Baird-Smith, managing director of Continuum, now the only large- scale operation producing religious books for the mass market, "is that publishers worship at the shrine of the god of growth, and religion is not seen as a growth area. When I was editorial director at Collins, religion made up 25 per cent of the firm, but it didn't grow while other divisions did. By the time it had got down to 5 per cent, it was so unimportant that it was inevitable that it should be axed. Part of it is, of course, how the outside world now looks at religion, but a bigger part is how publishers with an interest in religion are frightened to take on those prejudices. They're frightened of the modern world. They put up the shutters and keep turning out what used to work but doesn't any more."
As an example of how decline can be addressed, he quotes his own Easter series, New Century Theology. Five new titles - God, Inspiration, Secularisation, Incarnation and Sin (all pounds 12.99) - by theologically literate but also well-known writers, like the Daily Telegraph's Edward Norman, are, Baird- Smith says, aimed at the widest audience. The approach is roughly similar to that taken by the Pocket Canons series, which, in 1998-9, presented beautifully packaged individual books of the Bible with forewords by big names ranging from pop stars Nick Cave and Bono to novelists AS Byatt and Joanna Trollope.
Behind the impression then of institutional decline, there are examples that suggest hopes of a second coming may not be misplaced. Rather as the decline in church attendance figures can give a misleading impression of our spiritual health, so too can the marginalisation of specialist religious divisions in publishing. For, just as people continue to explore spirituality in their homes and hearts rather than in houses of God, so too do major publishers find room for the fifth dimension within the context of general lists and often in a form that is designed to appeal to a generation of devout sceptics. This Easter sees Hodder Headline's literary Review imprint publishing Alexander Waugh's God (pounds 18.99), part biography, part personal search, dispassionate and polemical in equal measure. A little heavier but still aimed firmly at a general audience is Keith Ward's God: A Guide for the Perplexed, published by Oneworld (pounds 15.99) whose catchline is "Books for Thoughtful People". It tries manfully to disentangle the founder from those who now claim institutional ownership of the name.
And to this roll-call of endeavour I should, in the same spirit of modesty that Karen Armstrong mentions audiences of 500, add my own Heaven: A Traveller's Guide to the Undiscovered Country (HarperCollins pounds 17.99). I never wanted the book to be part of their now defunct religious list - for precisely the reasons that they axed it. The challenge with any "religious" topic is to convince a secular audience that it can be interesting and relevant to them - that it isn't, in their terms, religious.
With heaven, it shouldn't be that hard. We are the only creatures who have to live with the knowledge that one day we will die. At some stage in our lives, all of us will consider the possibility of an after-life. According to surveys, 70 per cent of us still place our faith in some notion of ever after, however vague. If we live in the West we will cast at least a cursory glance over the charms of the traditional Christian paradise with its harps and eternal peace. If you bring in Eastern faiths, with their notions of reincarnation and nirvana, plus some of the more colourful recent attempts of spiritualists or the Near Death Experience movement to get a sneak preview and "proof" of the hereafter, there should be something for everybody.
Yet because of the current climate, it is not that simple. We live in an age where science has taught us that everything we might believe in can be tested and proved or disproved. So with heaven, I am forever being asked "Do you believe in it?" When I explain that I'm more interested in why and in what form we believe than in whether it's true or not, I apparently risk alienating at a stroke both the God-fearing and the sceptics. As in politics, it appears hard to find an audience for the third way.
Yet if religion is to thrive in the mainstream, it has to find that third way. It exists already in certain niches. There is the religious thriller, for want of a better description, tales of ancient riddles or biblical mysteries, unravelled with reference to lost continents or even millennia, as pioneered by Graham Hancock whose latest, Underworld (Michael Joseph pounds 20), plumbs the depths, quite literally, with the tale of a submerged civilisation. A slightly more upmarket version of the same style of quest is Paul Kriwaczek's In Search of Zarathustra (Weidenfeld pounds 20), trawling the past for the lost prophet whose ideas inspired Judeo- Christianity.
Then there is the popular but academically rigorous approach, mastered triumphantly by Karen Armstrong and other mainly American writers like Elaine Pagels and the Pulitzer prize-winner, Jack Miles, whose Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God is published by Heinemann (pounds 18.99). There is also a limited market for straight biographies of major religious figures, taking personalities who are in the wider public's eye and trying to explain them by way of their spiritual motivations. Pope John Paul II, Mother Teresa and Robert Runcie have each had at least four biographers, some of them well-known writers like Carl Bernstein and Humphrey Carpenter. Yet none set the bookshops alight, and it is now hard to see any large publishers queuing up to sign up George Carey's memoirs.
Finally there is scope, often within the context of fiction, for playing with religious ideas. Anita Diamant's The Red Tent (Pan pounds 6.99) takes what she describes as "a hint in the Bible" that Jacob had a daughter as well as 12 sons and creates a parallel narrative to the Technicolor dreamcoat story from the point of view of Dinah and her four mothers. Though the book has been much garlanded in the States and is being pushed hard here, it took two years after its publication in America for word of mouth to get it on to the bestseller list - reviewers had largely ignored it.
Diamant's success in the US was achieved by throwing caution and biblical fundamentalism to the wind. This is instructive because it is too easy to imagine that the reason why religion thrives, in publishing terms, in America is because of the large fundamentalist audience there. The people buying The Red Tent and filling bookshops to listen to Karen Armstrong are, it seems, not religious bigots but rather everyday readers, believers or not, who simply see religion as something worth discussing publicly and exploring through books. It doesn't sound too unreasonable as a description of a potential UK audience. Perhaps, rather than write off religion, more publishers and authors here might see this as an under-serviced market.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: BOOKS: FOR HEAVEN'S SAKE ; Publishers May Worship Mammon but There's Still Room in the Marketplace for Religion, Argues Peter Stanford. Could It Be Time for a Second Coming?. Contributors: Stanford, Peter - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: March 31, 2002. Page number: 15. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.