Fame, Indirectly*

Academics (like me) are supposed to be immune to the allure of fame. After all, they purposefully choose to write books that only a few people will actually want to read, many of whom they already know. If we (academics) wanted fame, surely we would write something less obscure, more salesworthy, right? Well, maybe. All writers want an audience, including those of us who spend our time researching what to others may seem obscure, even (heaven forbid!) narrow questions, hardly the stuff to show up on best-seller lists. Because, of course, to us the questions really aren't narrow, otherwise we would hardly spend our lives thinking about them. We want people to read our books and we work very hard to write as well and clearly as we can. And yet, we are very lucky indeed if our books ever make it below the 100,000 mark in Amazon.com's Sales Rankings; even luckier if they manage to stay there for more than a few days.

Imagine, therefore, how we feel when mainstream writers happen upon our topic, read half a dozen (or even a dozen) books and are showered with kudos for the depth of their research. Not to mention selling thousands or tens of thousands or even millions more copies of their books than we do. Can you say "catty"? I'm sorry to say that that's the way I felt (and I have it on record, thanks to Facebook) just this past April when I happened across an article reviewing Anne Rice's new series of books on the life of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Here are a few snippets from the reviews up on Amazon: "Rice's painstaking historical research is obvious throughout" (Publisher's Weekly); "....the historical and cultural details are authentic and well done..." (School Library Journal); "Critics agree that Rice’s studious research into subjects as diverse as Jewish groups and daily life has produced visceral, historically convincing scenes..." (Bookmark Magazine).

"Oh, yeah? [I snorted to myself and, indirectly, to my Friends--I didn't actually mention what book was winding me up] So Anne Rice, she of the vampire and mummy thrillers, has written a first person account imaging what it must have been like to be God, has she? I'm sure she's done as much research as I have on the ways in which Christians have tried to do this over the centuries (not!). Just reading the excerpt on Amazon.com, I can tell which apocryphal gospels she's cribbing from. Give me a break, this is hardly news. So Jesus killed one of his playmates and brought him back to life, did he? That's a hoary one. And for this she gets all this media attention? Please." I was--I'm not a little bit embarrased to have to admit--seething.

Because, you see, that's what my first book is about. Okay, not exactly, but it is most definitely a study of the way in which a number of medieval commentators used the Song of Songs to imagine the life of the Virgin Mary and Christ in the first person, directly (as it were) from the mouth of the Holy Spirit, albeit speaking through Solomon, the purported (human) author of the Song of Songs. You want juicy details, I'll give you juicy details. Never mind childish pranks with clay sparrows, my commentators cut straight to the good stuff. To give but one example, here is William of Newburgh (d. circa 1200) imagining what Mary must have said to her Son when he was about to go up to Jerusalem to die:

"Son, if it is possible, let this cup pass from you and from me. Nevertheless not as I will, but as you and the Father will... Son, if this cup cannot pass [from me] unless you drink it, if the predestined salvation of the world cannot take place except through your blood, then your will and the Father's be done, to which I must submit. Drink therefore and let me drink with you willingly by dying with you, so that just as once by believing so great a thing was in me, I cooperated in the mystery of your holy incarnation, so even now by suffering with you as much as I have it in me, I may cooperate devotedly in the human redemption...." (my translation, p. 405).

Move over, Mel Gibson, you want historic details about how Mary suffered as her Son died? This is the stuff of Scripture, straight from the Spirit's mouth! Okay, by way of William's exegesis, but it's definitely the stuff on which our tradition of trying to get inside Christ's and Mary's heads was built. It's my book that should be on the best-seller list, if this is the kind of meditation that readers want. I'm the one who has done the "painstaking historical research," for goodness' sake. I'm the one whose "studious research" has shown how medieval Christians pioneered the imagining of such "visceral, historically convincing scenes." Why is she (Anne Rice, not Mary) getting all the attention when I am the one on whom authors like her must ultimately depend?

Here's where it gets embarrassing: she did (depend on me, that is). Last night I had a hard time falling asleep (we had a tournament at our club yesterday; enough said) and was trawling Google for references to myself (you know you do it, stop giggling), somehow to reassure myself that I have done something in my life that might actually impress someone or at least leave a mark on the Internet. And so I went over to Amazon.com to check my sales: dismal (I've crossed the 1,000,000 mark after hovering comfortably in the 500,000's for five or six years, sometimes even dipping below 100,000 but that looks likely to be a feature of the past). Trying perhaps to find something other than non-existent sales on which to hang my self-esteem as an author, I for the first time kept paging down through the books that have referenced mine.

And there it was, at no. 21: Anne Rice, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt: A Novel, Excerpt, Back Matter, p. 350: "Readers interested in this subject might want to consult Art & the Christian Apocrypha by David R. Cartlidge and J. Keith Elliott, or The Apocryphal Gospels of Mary in Anglo-Saxon England by Mary Clayton, or The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Theatre. Also of interest: From Judgement to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary 800-1200, by Rachel Fulton...." Gulp. My book is one of the half dozen or dozen books that best-selling authoress Anne Rice actually recommends. And her book isn't even about the Middle Ages.

I still feel jealous that as of today her Sales Rank is 7,583 when mine only seems to be dropping, but I can hardly say now that at least one mainstream author hasn't taken note of my work. Okay, okay, I'm thrilled. It's made my whole month. Best-selling authoress Anne Rice (whose The Mummy or Rameses the Damned [1989] has got to be one of the most spine-chillingly erotic books I have ever read) says that my book is "also of interest." Well. I'll take my foot out of my mouth now so that I can keep smiling. And I should probably go add to her sales.


  1. Funny, I would have the opposite reaction. Knowing she was skimming the cream off my work would make me MORE ticked off, not less. Sheesh, she should at least comp you an autographed first edition. Hey, why not ask?

  2. Now, there's a thought. But whom do I ask?

  3. That is a great post. You should write a book for non-specialists. I study medieval religion so I loved your book, but you could write a 'popular history' on medieval religion. I loved Gibson's movie too.


  4. Thanks, Matt! I'm so happy to hear that you enjoyed my book. I would like to try to write a book for non-specialists; indeed, it's one of the reasons I started the blog, to help me find a way to write something that might speak to a larger audience. You've given me courage to keep trying!

  5. Like Matthias above, I'd really like to read a book aimed at the Random Layperson that I am, before digging deeper. It could be like for Peterson: everyone read his lighter book, and then quite a few of them bought the old one, to the point it became another best seller despite it being a specialist book.


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