Nightmares with Nightmares

Although some staff members are furloughed, Nightmares with the Bible is still going to press.  Unlike many authors, I realize that Covid-19 has had a stifling effect on publishing, starting with bottlenecking books at printing houses.  Printers (along with publishers) were non-essential businesses and since you have to be physically present to run a printing press, the virus literally, well, stopped the presses.  Many publishers could work remotely, so the projects began piling up before printing houses reopened.  All of this is preamble to saying I am gratified that work with Nightmares is continuing.  Yesterday, however, it led to a nightmare of its own.

One of the reasons I don’t fight awaking early is that it is uninterrupted writing time.  Most of the rest of your time zone is asleep at three a.m., so I can write in peace.  Yesterday, however, I had to divide my manuscript into chapter files and resend it to the publisher.  No problem, right?  Technology, however, has made this once simple task a burden.  I use a Mac, and so my word processor is Pages.  Not only that, but the constant systems upgrades require me to empty space on my hard drive—really, the only stuff I keep on here are my writings and those pictures I snap with my phone.  Still, I had to load my external drive to access the final file sent to the publisher two months back.  With Pages you can’t select material from page-to-page in the thumbnails.  No, you must “physically” go to the start of the chapter, click, scroll to the end of the chapter, and shift-click to highlight and then copy it.  Then you have to open a new file, select a template, and paste.  Save and export as a Word document.  The process took about two hours.


Now, I get up this early to write and do a little reading.  Yesterday I could do neither.  Instead I was cutting and pasting like a manic kindergartener, trying to get my manuscript printed before the second wave comes and shuts everything down again.  Talk about your nightmares!  Technology has made the industry much swifter, no doubt.  When I first began publishing articles you had to send physical printouts through the postal services and await either a rejection, or acceptance, through the mail.  Book manuscripts required large print jobs and keeping duplicates (at least we didn’t have to use carbon paper!).  All I lost was a morning of writing before the work bell rang.  Still, nightmares come in all sizes, some of them quite small.

Trading Ideas

Sometimes you read a book where the author seems to have your same experiences.  I suspect that’s why many of us keep reading, looking for connection.  I just finished Scott Shibuya Brown’s The Traders and immediately began wanting more.  Anyone who’s faced teetering stacks of rejection letters from agents will appreciate the story of Cecil Po, a bookseller in Tandomon.  Like many of us who wind up in book-related industries, Po is at heart a writer.  Like most writers, he’s down on his luck.  When he discovers a deceased, truly third or fourth-rate writer who’s acquired some level of fame, a wild plot begins to hatch.  The story is so compelling that I spent much of this past week wishing for just a few more minutes to read.

One of the things the story does exceptionally well is to point out the foibles of scholars.  Self-important and self-focused, they often fail to see the obvious right in front of them.  There are some laugh out loud moments here for anyone who’s spent time in academia.  Po’s laconic commentary is no-nonsense and witty.  It also seems to contain a rebuke for the big publishing houses that effectively limit what gets read.  Anyone who’s tried to navigate publishing knows the truth of this tale.  There are those who decide which writers will get noticed and then build them up to continuing successes.  It even happens in academic publishing.  Po, talented but uneducated, and—more importantly—unconnected, has resigned himself to a life of peddling books while knowing he has written better than some of what he has read.  Brown takes the gloves off, but gently and politely.

There are tonnes of great, but undiscovered writing out there.  Even those of us in publishing (perhaps especially so) find it difficult to spend the time we wish to on reading.  There is reading and then there is reading.  If people did more of it there might well be less pandemic to go around.  And if more people read for pleasure there would be more demand for books.  It might also lead to more people writing.  The Traders is a fascinating little parable that draws you in with possibilities.  Cecil Po is like so many of us who dream big but live small.  I won’t put any spoilers here since the novel deserves to be widely read.  And it’s just possible that the reader will discover a bit of him or herself between the covers along with Po.

Insubstantial Reading

Because of the shortness of time, I recently bought an ebook so that I could get it done under deadline.  Although the coronavirus still has book delivery slowed down, things are much improved.  There was a book, however, I absolutely needed to read for my current research that is available only in ebook form.  Sighing, but emboldened by my recent experience, I began reading it electronically.  Shortly after I started my critical faculties kicked in and I began wondering whether the book was fact or fiction.  The author has an internet presence but is seldom addressed by scholars.  I found myself thinking, “if this was a real book, I’d stop right about now and examine my physical copy for clues.”  I’ve done that more than once when it comes to questionable material.  Books, you see, come with built-in indicators of their trustworthiness.

The ebook, however, gives you scant information.  For example, this one has no copyright page.  I may be a publishing geek, but a copyright page is essential for determining what kind of book you’re reading.  Then I would, if this were an actual book, close it and look at the back cover.  There in the upper left I would look for the BISAC (Book Industry Standards and Communications) code.  These are the words that classify the genre and subject of the book for you.  It is often a publishing professional, such as the book’s editor, who assigns the BISAC code, so depending on who the publisher is, you have an accurate description.  This ebook on my Kindle software has no BISAC code.  The publisher itself often tells you something about a volume, but this is a small press without much online information available.

I’m walking you through this because of our current crisis of critical thinking.  With a president unwilling to stick to facts and crying out “fake news” when empirically proven realities don’t match his liking, being able to assess our sources is essential.  Ebooks have eroded the possibilities.  I read esoteric stuff, I admit.  The authors had to have convinced a publisher (and don’t get me started on self-published books!) that their project was viable.  The book in my hands has a number of ways to assess whether it is accurate or not.  The ebook on my lap does not.  I’m working on a longer article on this topic.  Our ability to think critically includes the necessity of assessing the clues as to the nature of our reading material.  Right now I’m reading an ebook stripped of the helpful clues of the print book and fact-checking is limited to Google.  The truth may be out there, but if this were a printed book chances are it would be right in my hands.


Indexing Life

I’m thinking about indexing my life.  It might help to keep things organized, don’t you think?  One of those odd disconnects that a biblical studies editor faces is the discipline’s love of indexes.  I have volumes on the shelf behind me right now that have five or more indexes.  You can look up subject, author, biblical citation, non-biblical citation, and even for some, places mentioned.  The thing is such books were produced before the internet.  If you’ve read a few of my posts you know that I’m no fan of ebooks.  I like a book in my hands, and a book, in my definition, is made of paper.  Still, I do occasionally look things up in an index.  If at all possible, however, I try to find an electronic copy so I can type what I’m looking for in the search box and come up with the exact reference.  In this I’m not alone.

A great deal of my editorial time is spent trying to explain this to other biblical scholars.  In the post-Covid world academic libraries are going to be closed for quite a while.  They’ll likely increase their electronic holdings while cutting back on paper books.  When someone wants to look something up, they’re not going to scroll to the index and scroll back through countless pages to find it.  They’ll use the search function.  That’s what it’s for.  So it goes.  When I index my life, the early part will be all about looking things up manually.  The latter years will be searchable.  To be fair, I would’ve never come to know this if it hadn’t been for working in publishing.

Indexing points to milestones.  Earning a Ph.D. from Edinburgh was one, I suppose.  For a guy who grew up with ambitions to be a janitor, that’s something a little different.  Some things I’m not sure how to index.  The abrupt transition from professor to not-professor, for instance.  What are the keywords you’d put down to search for that?  Or the part about being treated like a lackey by former colleagues?  I guess that’s not really a milestone anyway.  Besides, it’s in the internet half of life, the searchable bit.  The earlier years, many biography readers note, are the most interesting.  They set us on a trajectory that we type up in our curricula vitae.  When I write my fiction the characters are often janitors.  Unless I put my pen-name in the index nobody will ever know.  Of course, I haven’t got to the last chapter yet.

Eternal Returns

Nightmares with the Bible has been submitted.  Those of you who read this blog regularly know that it is my fourth book and that it is a kind of sequel to Holy Horror.  Nightmares looks specifically at demons.  I was inspired—if that’s the right word to use for it—to write the book because the chapter on possession movies in Holy Horror was clearly overflowing.  Not only that, but at the time I started writing the book not many resources were out there on demons.  Almost nothing, certainly, that asked the big question of what they are.  To answer that we need to go to the movies.  People get their information from popular culture, especially when it comes to trying to understand the arcane and even esoteric field of theology.

Movies, studies have shown, often participate in the reality our brains conjure.  Back when Reagan was president—is it even possible to believe those seem like halcyon days compared to these?—he was caught occasionally citing events from movies as historical realities.  We all do it from time to time, but then, most of us, if pressed, can tease movies apart from facts.  Church attendance has been going down for some time (and on Zoom you can tune in and tune out without having to “stay in the room”), and so people have to get their information on demons somewhere else.  Reality television and the internet also play into this as well, of course, but Nightmares sticks with movies because I’ve only got so much time.  The message is pretty straightforward though, we must consider where people get their information.

After you submit a large project, if you’re anything like me, you’re mentally exhausted for a while.  I’ve been working on this book for nearly five years—I started it before Holy Horror was submitted to McFarland.  I had already begun work on my next book, but I yet have to decide which one it will be.  I have several going at any one time.  Hopefully this next one won’t be coming out with an academic publisher.  I’d like it to be priced in the realm where individual buyers might consider it worth the investment.  I know from experience that even books just over twenty dollars are a stretch for most people, especially if they’re on academic topics.  Nightmares will come back, I know.  There will be proofs and indexing and all kinds of further work to be done.  I’m hoping that by that point I will have the next book nearly done.  If only I could decide which one it will be.

Honey and Wine

Academic writing tends to be limiting.  Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy reading a well-crafted academic work, but when facing a new one I always experience that sinking feeling that this will be difficult work.  That doesn’t stop me from getting a little thrill when something academic I’ve written appears.  Pickwick, an imprint of Wipf & Stock, recently released the cover of Some Wine and Honey for Simon, the Festschrift for Simon Parker to which I’ve contributed.  As I’ve written elsewhere, this was an orphaned article that required some polishing up to be able to submit.  Thinking back on it, I reflect on how much has changed since then.  How I’ve left the land of Festschriften.  How my own research has changed.

Research, traditionally wrought, requires an academic library and lots of time.  You need to be able to spend your hours requesting books and articles that you can’t afford—really publishers?  $40 to purchase twenty pages that I won’t even enjoy reading?  Access to JSTOR will cost you if you don’t have a university post.  Now I trawl hoping to catch what I need in my net.  Sometimes it works.  Other times you bring up a coelacanth.  That’s the way of research outside the academy.  Also, I find myself reading books that appeal to me rather than strictly books on topic.  Many of them aren’t academic, but they are informative.  Part of research, it seems to me, is learning to access sources you wouldn’t normally find.  There’s the element of discovery.

Monsters appealed to me as a research area since there hadn’t been much written on them academically and I’d read most of what had.  The field is starting to take off now, which means  high-priced monographs and inaccessible research.  Working in publishing I think I understand the mindset—employees are expensive, especially in the United States.  They require salaries so they can live, and medical coverage so they can continue to live.  And most books sell so few copies that they really aren’t profitable.  But I like to think people would read about monsters, if they were priced down around the level of the demographic that appreciates them.  So one of my academic articles is about to be released to the world along with some wine and honey.  I’m still trying to sort out how to contribute from the margins.  And I hope Simon, who was always kind to me, appreciates the effort to honor a scholar and a gentleman.

Is It Real?

I’ve been reading an ebook and I feel lost.  I resorted to the ebook because I was invited to join an informal virtual bookclub.  Book discussion group may be a more accurate description.  Since I don’t see many people this seemed like a good idea.  Although I often take recommendations, reading a book someone else chose is kind of an infringement on my already crowded “to read” list, but connection is connection.  The problem was I couldn’t get a physical copy of the book delivered before the first meeting.  I struggled with whether or not to buy the ebook for hours.  I just can’t get over the feeling that I’m paying for something that can disappear at the next upgrade and all my effort in reading it will have been lost.  I’m a book keeper.  (Not a bookkeeper.)

After a morning of angst, I finally clicked on “buy.”  I’ve been reading the book but I’m finding it disorienting.  When I read an actual book, I quite often take a look at the physical object and assess it as I’m reading.  Appraise it.  Who is the author again?  Who published it?  When?  In the ebook world that information is obviously available, but it’s not where I expect to find it.  And there’s the matter of pages.  I measure my progress of book reading by the location of my physical bookmarks.  I can tell at a glance to the top of the book how my progress is.  A slider bar just doesn’t do it.  I click out of it and check on Amazon.  How many pages does this book actually have?  Why does my e-version have a different number?  Won’t that confuse the discussion?

I don’t feel so guilty about marking up an ebook, I’m finding.  Highlighting in a print book always annoys me—I don’t want some previous owner telling me what I should remember.  This ebook won’t get passed on to anyone else (that’s the genius of the business model—the ebook isn’t available for resale, which more durable, actual books are).  As I’m doing this I recollect that I’ve only ever read two ebooks before, both fiction.  They didn’t make much of an impact because it was only in writing this post that I remembered them at all.  The world of the coronavirus has taken its toll, I guess.  I’m reading an ebook and I can’t wait to finish so I can get my hands on the real thing again.

Paper or Electronic?

Publishers are scrambling (and who can blame them?) to get ebooks out.  Since bookstores have been closed (I’d classify them as essential businesses, in an ideal world), they need to get “product” to customers.  Still, I’m thinking back to my recent interview with an undergraduate about Holy Horror.  She told me the cover really generated interest as she walked around school with it.  (This was before the pandemic.)  That’s old school book advertising.  Although I do learn about lots of books online, I very, very seldom buy ebooks.  It seems like buying air to me, and I wonder if publishers are missing out on the free advertising of the person carrying an interesting book around.

Back before the pandemic I’d noticed how just about everybody was walking around with that awkwardly proud “I’ve got a cup of Starbucks in my hand” look.  It was everywhere.  No matter where I went, for there was free travel in those days, people had only one hand free, showing the world their craft coffee.  If only it were so cool to be seen carrying books!  I stopped commuting about two years ago, for all practical purposes.  When I did get on a bus, however, I always had a book in my hand.  Did publishers see any bumps from curious New Jerseyans who saw the strange cover of the weird book I happened to be reading at the time?  You never got a seat to yourself on New Jersey Transit, and I know I was always curious about other readers (there weren’t many).  I hardly have the profile to define “cool” and “some guy on the bus” probably doesn’t cut it for many people, but still, the thought of someone curious about a book because of the cover is very compelling.

Book covers are artworks.  At least some of them are.  I recall the ennui I felt approaching some academic books with just words on cloth for the cover.  (I later found out the cloth is usually paper made to look like cloth—there are layers in everything.)  It was difficult to muster the energy to open the book because you knew there would likely be hard slogging ahead.  That’s why I decided to stop writing academic books.  The next trick is to find nonacademic publishers so that prices in the range of real readers might be offered.  If people opt for the ebook version, how will others see it?  And viruses only last on paper for about a day.  That’s a quarantine I can live with.

Ancient History, Part 3

It was an old idea.  I had it when I was still teaching at Nashotah House, that’s how ancient it is.  It seemed to me that if brains evolve with the rest of us, our perceptions of gods might change over time.  I’d been working on this for an Ugaritic conference held in Sherbrooke, Quebec.  The conference took place, but I’d been ousted from my position at Nashotah House.  The conference organizer, in what was an amazingly magnanimous move, came up with funding for me to attend.  I delivered the paper and Jean-Marc Michaud, of blessed memory, encouraged me to submit it to the tome with the very academic title Le Royaume d’Ougarit, de la Crète à l’Euphrate. Nouveaux axes de recherche, Actes du Congrès International de Sherbrooke 2005, Faculté de théologie, d’éthique et de philosophie, Université de Sherbrooke, 5-8 juillet 2005 (Coll. POLO–Proche-Orient et Littérature Ougaritique 2).  Unemployed and unable to access libraries, I had to decline the publication.

In one of those great ironies of life, I began to be approached to take on projects after I lost my academic position.  (This continues to happen; I received an invitation to contribute just last week.)  I often have to turn them down because I still have no access to an academic library and academics generally have no idea just how draining a nine-to-five is, with or without the commute.  In any case, a Festschrift for Simon B. Parker was announced.  I knew Simon as a student at Boston University School of Theology, and he wrote many letters of recommendation for me.  His sudden death shocked many of us.  Herb Huffmon, of Drew Theological Seminary, asked me to contribute to the Festschrift.  I still had this article that required some work, so I decided to try to finish it.  I received a note that the volume is about to go to press with Pickwick.  Academic publications won’t let me go.

If I had my druthers, I’d be getting along with my fiction.  I’ve had over twenty short stories published, and I’ve got many more in the works.  Every time I think, “Now I’m in the clear, I can focus on writing that is fun to read,” I get another academic invitation.  Those invitations don’t come with job offers, so I wonder why I have such trouble saying “no.”  Anyone who writes wants to be remembered.  We have ideas that we hope others will find engaging.  In academia you publish to keep your job.  Most of your work will be forgotten unless you’re groomed as an academic superstar (yes, they exist!).  I’ve never been groomed.  I write because I have ideas that beg to be expressed.  One of those ideas, many years old, will soon be available for consumption at Pickwick Press.

Without Peer

Peer review makes the world go round.  Well, at least the academic world.  It’s based on a simple enough premise: if your academic work is passable other scholars will be able to tell.  It’s a process fraught with peril, however.  Scholars, being human, are subject to fits of pique or of hypersensitivity, or just having gotten out of the wrong side of bed that morning.  Perfectly good projects can be shot down with a single, well-placed arrow.  Or even dart.  Problem is, there’s no better system for deciding if academic work is adequate, or even good.  There may be some objective measure out there in the universe, but if there is we don’t have access to it.  We have to rely on peer review.

During my teaching years, which numbered nearly twenty, I was never asked to peer review anything.  My first invitation came while I was working as an editor.  Of course I said “yes.”  A number of scholars, however, don’t share the basic reality that if nobody peer reviewed their work, they’d never get published.  Many scholars decline offers to review their colleagues’ work.  I even had a very senior scholar once blithely tell me that he had his own research to do, so why should he take time to review that of others.  Professional reserve prevented me from pointing out that if his colleagues felt the same way he’d be as unpublished as a fresh doctorate-holder.  Scholarship is a cooperative venture, no matter how many Lone Rangers ride the cuesta.  So why is it so difficult to find peer reviewers?

I’ll read your book if you’ll read mine!

Something I’ve noticed is that many scholars are coddled.  Constantly told that they’re brilliant and gifted, they come to believe it like miniature Trumps.  More to the point, perhaps, is the shrinking number of academic positions.  The few who hold actual jobs are bombarded with other tasks, including committee work, advisory duties, and sometimes even teaching (depending on the adjunct pool).  I know it’s tough.  Been there, done that.  Nevertheless, academia cannot survive without the basic peer reviewer.  Education is a cooperative venture.  We may imagine the academic alone in her or his study, but breakthroughs generally come through when people work together.  Of course, my job is one performed in isolation.  Increasingly, academics can be found not in their offices, but working remotely from home.  Is the sense of “peer” itself breaking down?  My own book, Nightmares with the Bible, was slowed down by peer review.  In a sense I’m glad it was.  Hi ho Silver, away!

Voice of Experience

Trust your publisher.  Well, if you have one, that is.  I’m not the only erstwhile academic to have ended up in publishing, but what constantly surprises me is that academics care little about those who give voice to their ideas.  Now this blog is self-publishing.  It contains my ideas, but they are free for the taking, and here’s a bit of useful advice: trust your publisher.  These days with easy online publication and formatting that makes your posts look like a pro (not here, mind you), it’s sometimes difficult to realize that publishers actually provide more than just an imprint.  They offer services to make your book look serious, scholarly, and also to be useful to others.  Those of us who write books are often far too emotionally involved to see this.

I regularly run across academics who tell publishers how the text should look on the page.  I’m not talking about those weird and wonderful sections of ancient texts with <lacunae>… ellipses… [brackets] and whatnot.  No, there are those who want to control kerning, leading, and all sorts of things.  There are those who want practically every single word indexed, although research shows that most researchers access searchable PDFs rather than wasting their time thumbing through pages to find a reference.  And that traditional chestnut, “written for general readers.”  Publishers have access to book sales figures (at least of their own books).  There’s no need to bluff; if your book is only for scholars (does it have words like “reify” or “heuristic” in it?  Be honest now!), publishers know how to handle that.

We’re all nervous when our book gets through the acceptance process.  Peer review always breaks me into a cold sweat.  Believe me, we understand!  Take a soothing sip of tea.  Go for a walk.  Better yet, jog.  Scholars tend to be precise thinkers.  We get that.  When, however, is the last time someone used a map from a Bible for navigation?  Most of those cities don’t even exist any more!  This strange mix of online savvy and adherence to the old ways of print (which I love and of which I shall never let go) clash in ways that cause publishers great stress.  You can find a YouTube video on how to make your own book.  Those of us in the biz can tell at a glance if a book’s self-published or not.  And believe me, we’re rooting for you.  We want your book to succeed.  Why not trust those who know what they’re doing?


Funny thing about freedom of speech.  It doesn’t really exist in a capitalist system.  Words, I suspect the powers that be know, are extremely potent.  Any system that brooks no rivals will insist on silencing dissidents.  And not just on a national scale.  Several years ago I was interviewed by a Catholic magazine for an editorial position.  I was between jobs and this looked like a good fit; in fact, the woman who arranged the interview told me that if this position didn’t work out they’d likely be able to find a different one for someone with my particular skill set.  When the power that was interviewed me, however, he noted that I had a blog.  “If we hire you, you’ll need to take it down,” he said.  It would confuse readers who might think I was speaking for the Catholic Church.  My candidacy did not proceed.

In a job I would eventually get, in academic publishing, a similar concern was expressed.  Although I hold an earned doctorate from a world-class research university, my opinions might be mistaken for those of some true authority.  Problematic.  This issue keeps coming up.  I write fiction and publish it under a pseudonym.  Sometimes I think about coming out of my literary closet, but the issues pour in hard and fast when the door’s opened.  What would those who read my nonfiction (both of them!) think?  Would I discredit myself because I have too much imagination?  What would an academic employer say?  If I ever went back on the ordination track, would a congregation of any sort understand a clergy person who thinks such things?  I get enough flak from writing about horror films.

The fact is, freedom of expression is very, very limited.  Capitalism measures all things by the bottom line and anything that might cause that trend to waver is forbidden.  Lack of team spirit.  If you want to publish, don’t work in publishing.  It’s like saying (if I might be so bold) that you shouldn’t teach if you earn a doctorate, because you might actually contribute to what we hopefully call knowledge.  This dilemma has become an entrenched part of my psyche.  I grew up innocently writing fiction.  I completed my first stories about the age of 12 or 13.  I was eventually groomed for the ministry and so the fiction had to be set aside as one of those “childish things.”  Was it?  Perhaps.  More likely though, it was simply a lesson that I would find repeated throughout my adult life.  Give lip service to freedom of speech, but don’t ever use it.

Qohelet’s Advice

Academic hypersensitivity.  I fear it’s on the rise.  I know I’ve experienced it myself—that flushing rage and disbelief that someone has written a book on the very topic on which you also published a book, and didn’t cite you.  How could they have overlooked your contribution?  I’ve seen scholars angered to the point of wanting to ruin someone’s career for not citing them.  Now academics can be a sensitive lot.  Remember, some of them specialize to a point of general social incompetence.  Anyone publishing in their specialization is like making a claim to have slept with their spouse.  This subject is theirs!  They’ve spent years reading and researching it.  How dare some new-comer not know this!

One thing many academics don’t realize is just how much material is published.  The flip side of this is just how obscure their work is.  Trade publishing and academic publishing aren’t the same thing, and the former are the books that really get noticed.  When I wrote my dissertation, back in the early 1990s, I had read everthing I possibly could on the goddess Asherah.  When I proposed the dissertation topic there had been a total of about three books written on Asherah that I knew of.  Enough to have a research base, but not enough to suggest it was a crowded field.  While I was whiling away my time in Edinburgh, another American ex-pat was writing on the same topic in Oxford.  The day of my doctoral defense, the outside examiner came in with a book just out on Asherah—in German, no less—and asked how my dissertation related to it.  Even today when I see a book on Israelite religion I flip to the back to see if my book’s listed.  Generally it’s not.  Today it’s impossible to read everything published on Asherah.

In my own case, however, I’m slowly coming to perceive the reality of the situation.  Books continue to be produced.  Articles are published at a blinding rate.  Even Google has to take a little time to find them all.  An overly inflated sense of self-importance can be a painful thing when it meets with the sharp pin of reality.  Your academic book may well go unnoticed.  Even if it’s good.  It may be priced at over a hundred dollars—I still pause and fret and kick the dirt a few times before buying any book that costs more than twenty.  Silently and slowly, I suspect, the frustration builds.  You see a book, then two, then three, that seem to be oblivious to your contribution.  A new book for review lands on your desk and Vesuvius erupts—why am I not cited?!  Has my work been forgotten?  Calm down.  Breathe deeply.  The book of that neophyte before you will also become obscure in due course.


The other day I had a hankering for Religion Index One.  I don’t think it exists anymore, at least not in the format I once knew it.  RI1 was a print volume produced by the American Theological Libraries Association, or ATLA.  This tome was an indexed list of journal articles that had come out on any given topic in the past year or so, and it stretched back to the 1940s.  The idea was that it was as close to “one stop shopping” as a scholar could get for finding publications while doing research.  I suspect it’s all done online now.  One of the tricks of the trade I’ve learned from not being part of the academy is that if you maintain membership in one of the larger bodies—the American Academy of Religion, or the Society of Biblical Literature—you can find out who’s working on what by searching the programs of their annual meetings.

This may sound like a terribly geeky thing to do; admittedly it is.  Nevertheless, I’ve uncovered lots of information by doing just this.  If you want to know who’s been researching a topic, look for who’s presented a paper on it over the past few years.  It’s not failsafe, of course.  Some of us aren’t really encouraged to give papers on company time anyway (and what time isn’t company time?) but we nevertheless research anyway.  All the journal articles and book chapters that I’ve contributed over the past six years or so have been invited submissions, with one exception.  Ironically, I taught and published full-time for nearly 15 years with no outside invitations made.  Once I was no longer in a position to access RI1 people started to invite me to submit papers.  It’s pretty difficult to do in current circumstances.

With the continuing factories churning out doctorates in religious studies—itself a stagnant job pool—there’s plenty being published.  Online sources mean even more venues to get things “in print.”  There really is no clearinghouse to find it all, beyond Google.  ATLA still exists, and they now produce a searchable database.  Like JSTOR, however, it’s only available to the traditional academic and the occasional wealthy bystander.  Since the AAR and SBL programs are open to the public for searching, even sorts like me can gain access to a small wealth of knowledge.  Or at least a wealth of papers and publications, which may not be the same thing.  Still, in quiet moments I reflect on walking to a physical library and thumbing through a book made of authentic paper, and feeling, at the end of the day, as if I’d accomplished something.

Writing Prophets

So I was sitting at a table with two writers I’d just met.  It was at the Easton Book Festival and since I’m new to the area I was very aware that I didn’t know anybody.  I was also aware that my book, Holy Horror, wasn’t on anybody’s radar screen, despite it being mid-October.  As we were talking my two interlocutors mentioned the advances they’d received for their books, one of whom was able to buy a house with said advance.  As I listened I kept my mouth shut, because that’s polite, even though my jaw was slack.  The other person hadn’t been able to buy a house, but after writing on a topic so obscure I can’t remember it, had been able to do something noteworthy with the advance.  My royalties from Holy Horror wouldn’t have covered the cost of this dinner.

In the weeks following the festival—always busy with AAR/SBL looming, then Thanksgiving, then December—I began some soul-searching.  What was I doing wrong?  I also did some web-searching.  One of the articles that came up, written by a business writer, suggested pulling up your socks and getting to it, demanding money for your writing.  I don’t see anywhere to put a coin slot on this blog, which is more of a labor of love than anything anyway.  Then the kicker came.  This business writer cited Hosea 4.6, “My people are destroyed for a lack of knowledge,” as the basis of why people would pay for content.  Now pardon me for taking things a little literally, but I doubt Hosea was in the business of giving business advice.  The knowledge people lack, in context, is knowledge of Yahweh.

Now here I was back on familiar territory.  I’ve taught classes on Hosea, and this intriguing prophet was commenting on Israel’s lack of knowledge of God’s ways.  There were some folks akin to prosperity gospelers back in the pre-Gospel days, suggesting that if you kept God happy rewards would roll your way, but history had other plans.  Israel fell to the Assyrians shortly after Hosea’s time, his writing advice apparently unheeded.  As I revise Nightmares with the Bible for publication—the reviewer felt it was too tradey—I have to wonder about my conversation back in October.  Neither book of my conversation partners was one of broad appeal.  In fact, the second was rather technical.  They had, however, been paid for their work.  Academic publishing is built on the paradigm that the writer already has a university job and doesn’t need the money.  Hosea also said, if I recall, something about what happens if you sow the wind.