OBSO

Oxford Biblical Studies Online is a subscription service for institutions that gives access to many biblical studies resources produced by the press.  It also features current essays that stand on this side of the paywall, written on contemporary issues.  In a shameless self-promoting plug, I’d direct you to this link to see my latest publication.  You see, I’m not alone in looking at Bible through the lens of horror.  As the acknowledgements to Holy Horror reveal, many conversations were going on that led to that book.  While the ideas contained in it are my own, I’m by no means the only one to have noticed that the Good Book makes guest appearances in genre fiction.  One of the points I made to my students when I held a teaching post was that the Bible is ubiquitous in our culture, whether we know it or not.  Just look at the Republican Party and beg to differ.

The idea is not without precedent.  For those who read the Bible real horror isn’t hard to find.  The Good Book can be quite a scary book.  Consider for just a moment the final installment—Revelation, apart from being full of amazing imagery, is an amazingly violent book.  Attack helicopters and atomic bombs may not yet have been invented, but there was no shortage of ways to kill people in the pre-gunpowder world.  Revelation paints the world in the throes of horrible suffering and death.  Indeed, the completely fictional Left Behind series rejoices in the death of the unrighteous who are, well, left behind.  Even today there’s a significant segment of “Christianity” that rejoices in the chaos Trump has unleashed.

In the OBSO article I sketch a brief history of how this came to be.  The history could work in the other direction as well.  The fact is the Bible and horror have always gone fairly well together.  Among genre literature, however, horror is a distinctive category only after the eighteenth century (CE).  Early horror novels, under the guise of Gothic fiction, often involve religious elements.  Culture was already biblically suffused then.  This is a natural outgrowth of a would steeped in violence.  Personally, I don’t like gore.  I don’t watch horror to get any kind of gross-out fix.  My purposes are somewhat different than many viewers, I suspect.  What we do all have in common, though, is that we realize horror has something honest to say to us.  And it has been saying it to us since from in the beginning.

Not about Pigs

Pseudepigrapha always struck me as a great name for a pet guinea pig.  Neither members of the porcine family nor from Guinea, these rodents are remarkably companionable.  But like the word pseudepigrapha, this post isn’t about guinea pigs.  I’ve been reading various documents among this sprawling category of texts, and I can see the fascination they hold for scholars of Second Temple Judaism.  My own specialization was on the earlier end of the spectrum—Ugarit had ceased to exist even before a first temple was built and provided clues to how this whole religion got started in the first place, but that’s a story for another time.  The account of the pseudepigrapha  cannot be summarized easily.  Some of the documents have been known to scholars for a very long time.  Others have been (and continue to be) discovered, some quite recently.

Not a pig.

The documents classified as pseudepigrapha generally bear the name of someone who couldn’t have been their “author.”  We now know that ancients didn’t think of writing the same way we do.  They didn’t publish books like modern writers do, and scholars have been exploring how the category of “book” distorts even the Bible, let alone books that didn’t make the cut.  None of this diminishes the intrigue of these ancient texts.  The world into which Jesus of Nazareth was born contained many texts and traditions.  There was no Bible as we know it today—it was still being written (or compiled)—and no canon, literally a measuring stick, existed to determine what was holy and what was not.  

As discoveries in Mesopotamia have made clear, although few could read or write, writing itself was prolific, at least given the technological limitations.  Today if one wishes to specialize the literature of one subsection of one time period, and probably even some subdivision of that, has to be selected.  Universities don’t see the point, and much of this ancient material is understudied because there remains money to be made in looking at economically viable topics.  The pseudepigrapha have nevertheless come into their own.  Perhaps because some of the stories these documents contain have made their way into pop culture.  Even as I make my way through many of these texts that are young in my eyes, I realize the proliferation of writing made such growth almost inevitable.  There remains, however, a high-pitched squealing that demands attention, regardless of what the exact genus and species of the creature may be.

Instant Gramification

To be a writer these days, so industry publicists tell us, one must be savvy on social media.  But do not spend too much time, they tell us, on that same media.  What publicists don’t understand is that social media has become a zero-sum game.  It demands your time.  Just for instance, I was trying to get set up on Instagram.  Why?  Because, apparently, there is a large presence of those who like looking at pictures of books on Instagram.  The real problem for anyone who writes is to let people know when you’ve got a book out.  (By the way, I have a book out.)  Print catalogues and newspaper ads don’t have the same punch they used to, and social media is the reason.  So I tried to get set up on Instagram.

It took a few hours before I realized that Instagram is meant only for mobile devices.  My phone is several years old now and although it does (mostly) what I need it to do, it has trouble with upgraded apps.  Instagram, for instance.  You might say “it’s time for a new phone, then,” but I don’t like feeling coerced into upgrading when an iPhone 4S is already smarter than I am and it functions just fine as a phone.  And a camera.  And a GPS.  And a tape recorder.  What it doesn’t do so well is social media.  Ah, yes, and that’s what got me into this mess in the first place.  My thumbs aren’t dextrous enough to text, let alone post.  I feel old fashioned because I use a computer.

After a few hours, during which Dropbox kept telling me my storage was almost full and for a recurring charge I could upgrade it, I finally managed to get a photo (not my best) posted on Instagram.  I can’t access my “library” where a number of decent photos dwell.  It complains vociferously if I try to access said photos.  I’m not even sure it will do any good to bring awareness to my recent publication.  Our publicists like Twitter better anyway.  You can’t tweet during the day, however, when people from your company follow you.  Herein lies another of the dilemmas of a working writer.  You’ve got to manage to keep your day job.  Writing books, unless you’ve got an agent, doesn’t bring in enough money to pay your electric bill, let alone your mortgage.  And besides, work is where I learn such valuable things from publicists, like using social media so that I have a readership for my reduced time to write.

Book Birds

I just read an interesting article about how social media, and the internet in general, hijacks our time.  If you’re reading this, no doubt you’ll agree.  Those of us who write books on our “free time” know that the way books are both found and sold is on the web.  Publishers  encourage authors to build a social media platform, usually involving Twitter.  Academics are often hopeless at social media—they’re lousy at following back on Twitter, as I know from experience.  There is a kind of self-importance that comes with higher education which makes many of the professorate assume the work of others is less important than their own.  It’s more blessed to be tweeted than to tweet others.  After all, such-and-such university has hired you, and that proves the value of what you have to say.

Head-banging tweeter

Book publishers, however, will be looking at how many followers you have.  Not that all of them will buy your book, but at least a number of them will know about it.  Curiosity, indeed, drives some sales.  Just like many academics, I’m jealous of my time.  I’m also conscious of that of others.  These blog posts seldom reach over 500 words.  I tweet only a couple times a day, although I understand that’s not the way to get more followers.  You need to tweet like a bird, often with images or memes, but try explaining that to your boss when each tweet is time-stamped.  The academic is uniquely privileged to be given control of their time outside of class and committee meeting.  Tweet away.  That doesn’t mean they’ll follow you back.

The reason for tweeting is, of course, self-promotion.  45 may understand little, but he understands that.  You can commit treason and people will overlook it if you tweet persistently enough.  My own Twitter activity is like the eponymous birds after which the site is named; it is active before most people are awake.  And it, like this blog, is not designed to take up your time.  Since my tweeting during the work day is limited, my tweets are seldom picked up.  I try following other academics, but often they don’t follow back.  After all, what does a mere editor have to say that could possibly be of interest to the high minded?  Alas, I fear my advanced studies of the Bible have become bird-feed.  And my forthcoming book won’t get noticed.  I only wish more colleagues would consider the adage, tweet others as you would like to be tweeted.

I’ll Be Googled

It’s a strange sensation to do an innocent web search only to find yourself cited.  (And no, I was not googling myself.  At least not this time.)  I was searching an obscure publisher and my own pre-publication book, Holy Horror, came up on Google books.  Now, the computer engineers I know tell me that Google remembers your searches, and this has a way of being unintentionally flattering; when I search for my book it pops up on the first page because I have searched for it before.  Still, it was a bit of a surprise to find myself where I had no idea I’d been cited.  All of this drew my mind back to my “post-graduate” days at Edinburgh University.  To how much the world has changed.

One of the first things you learn as a grad student is you can’t believe everything you read.  Granted, most of us learned that as children, but nevertheless, with academic publishing a new bar is raised.  That which is published by a university press is authoritative.  So we’re led to believe.  But even university presses can be fooled.  This prompts the fundamental question of who you can really believe.  Our current political climate has elevated that uncertainty to crisis levels, of course, and the vast majority of people aren’t equipped to deconstruct arguments shouted loudly.  Where you read something matters.   Even publishers, however, are fallible.  So what am I to make of being cited by the web?  And is my book already available before I have seen a copy?

Even credibility can be bought and sold.  Colleagues make a much better living than me with the same level of training, but with more influential connections.  It was just this reason that I decided to try to shift my writing to these who don’t need credentials to impress each other.  Some of the smartest people I ever knew were the janitors with whom I started my working life.  As a fellow post-grad in Edinburgh once said, professors are always ready to fail you for your lack of knowledge but most can’t tell you what an immersion heater is.  (That’s one of those Britishisms that no amount of graduate courses at Harvard will teach you.)  I suppose when it’s all said and done nobody else will ever search for the obscure publisher that brought my book to Google’s attention.  No matter, at least Google will always flatter me.

Editing the Week

Every great once in a while I have to pull my head from the clouds and remind myself I’m an editor.  Actually, that happens just about every Monday morning.  Surprisingly, academics who have trouble getting published don’t bother to consult editors for advice.  Having sat on both sides of that particular desk, I certainly don’t mind sharing what I’ve learned since publishing isn’t as straightforward as it seems.  It has its own mythology and authors—I speak from experience here—feel extremely protective of their books.  Nevertheless, editors are under-utilized resources when it comes to figuring out how to approach a topic.  They often possess valuable advice.

It’s easy to think publishing exists to preserve and disseminate ideas and insights, tout court.  The idea that if you get past your dissertation committee you’ve done service that requires wide readership is natural enough.  Publishers, however, have other angles to consider.  Books incur costs, and not just paper, glue, and ink.  There are many people involved in bringing a book from idea to object, and each of them has to be paid to do their part.  (Many academics in the humanities may not understand the concept of “overhead,” but it’s an everyday reality in the publishing world.)  Not only that, but even the book itself is a matter of negotiation.  My latest book (and I suspect well over 90 percent of the authors with whom I work have no idea that I write books as well) had a chapter expunged and a new one written at the behest of my McFarland editor.

One of the pervasive myths in this business is that authors write whatever book they want and then find a publisher.  Sometimes that works.  Often when it does the authors are disappointed in the results.  There are presses that specialize in cranking out such works, slapping an enormous price tag on them, selling them to libraries, and then letting them go out of print.  I’ve been there.  I know.  Academics want prestige presses to take their books to a higher profile, but without having to change things according to the advice of an editor.  There are hidden lives of editors.  I can’t share much of that here, but I can expound its corollary—taking advantage of free editorial advice makes good sense.  I wouldn’t be bothering you with such mundane thoughts on this blog, but when I rolled out of bed today I learned it was Monday morning.

Time Taking

Publishing is a slow business.  In a world of instant information, such plodding may appear to be old-fashioned.  Outdated.  Each step of the process takes time and anyone can sit down and type thoughts directly into the internet, so why bother with traditional publishing?  These thoughts come to me as I read through the proofs of Holy Horror, and work on the index.  This is time-consuming, and time is hard to come by.  That, I suppose, is a major reason for doing things this way.  Ironically, people don’t have a problem seeing that handmade items—which tend to take time and be less efficient than machine-made articles—are more valuable.  They represent care and quality, things that a machine can’t assess well.  This is the world beyond math.  It is the human world.

Those of us born before computers took over sometimes have difficulty adjusting.  The world of the instant goes well with inflation—the myth that constant growth in a limited world is possible.  The fact is that value is a human judgment and we value things that take time.  It’s true that most non-fiction books are instantly dated these days.  Often it’s because information flies more quickly than pre-press operations.  It takes a couple years to write a book and a publisher takes a year or two getting it into print.  Back when the process was invented news traveled slowly and, I venture to say as a historian of sorts, didn’t often carry the dramatic shifts we witness today.  A book could take a long time to appear and still be fresh and new when it did.  For the internet generation it may be hard to see that this is an issue of quality.

Most of us are content with the satisfactory.  We’re willing to sacrifice quality for convenience.  We do it all the time.  Then, in the recording industry, vinyl starts to come back.  Corporate bigwigs—for whom fast and cheap is best—express surprise.  Why would anyone buy a record?  The question can only be answered by those who’ve listened to one.  There is a difference, a difference that we’ve mostly been willing to jettison for the convenience of the instant download.  Our lives are being cluttered with disposable-quality material.  Even now I’m writing this daily update for my blog rather than continuing the drudgery of working on an index.  We all have expectations of alacrity, I guess.  The slower world of publishing is more my speed.