Thursday, August 31, 2006

More from Beijing: Traffic, history and books

Well, I spoke too soon. The last couple of days we've been in the heart of downtown Beijing, and the traffic is constantly jammed. Cars, buses and taxis everywhere, with bicycles and scooters weaving in and out of things. Honking of horns is frequent but doesn't have a road rage connotation; it merely means, "I'm over here; be careful when you change lanes." Beijing is simply gigantic. It takes quite a while to get anywhere, minimum half an hour, often an hour or more. Our hotel is in one of the outer rings, the fifth ring, where it feels rather rural, but once we head in and cross over the fourth ring, the feel goes immediately from country to city. No suburbia in between.

This morning our group ventured to what is considered the first ring, the wall of the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. If you've seen the iconic pictures from 1989 or the movie The Last Emperor, you have a sense of what this area looks like. We learned that for most locals, Tiananmen Square isn't primarily about student revolts or the lone figure standing in front of the row of tanks. It's just one of the most prominent public places, like Central Park in New York City or the Mall of Washington, DC. Located here is the mausoleum of Chairman Mao and his preserved body on permanent display, though skeptics argue that it's most likely a wax dummy. Hard to tell.

The palaces and courtyards of the Forbidden City are all being refurbished in preparation for the Olympics. We could see the difference between some exhibits that had new signage with both Chinese and English and old signage that was just in Chinese. Some fascinating stuff, like the emperor's actual bow and arrows, with inscriptions like, "In August of the 19th year of his reign, the emperor used this bow to kill a black boar." The courtyards of the Forbidden City have no trees in them because it was feared that assassins would hide in them.

The other thing I spoke too soon about was the amount of American and Western commercial properties. Yesterday we visited several bookstores, both general market and Christian, and as we drove around we saw KFC, Subway, McDonald's, Starbucks and 7-Eleven. Nowhere near as ubiquitous as in Seoul, but still quite a presence. We had lunch at KFC, and the recipes seemed slightly spicier than what is usual in the U.S. I had a chicken sandwich that had a traditional Chinese marinade. Very tasty.

There are various kinds ways to get books in China. The national bookstore chain is state-run, with some 1800-1900 actual stores and many more private outlets that provide textbooks and government documents. We visited one of these, which was like a Borders, with four floors - music and video on the first floor, general books on the second and fourth floors and children's books and textbooks on the third floor. Another venue is the independent local bookstore, one of perhaps 40,000 in the country. At the one we visited, I bought the Chinese edition of the first Harry Potter book. Retail price: 19.50 yuan, or about $2.50.

For Christian books, there are perhaps 70 to 100+ Christian bookstores. We visited two of these, and they carried Chinese translations of many common U.S. titles, from The Purpose-Driven Life to Left Behind. We were pleased to see the licensed editions of several of IVP's books, including Loving Monday and The Story of Christian Theology and Christianity & Western Thought, vols. 1 and 2. The American edition of The Story of Christian Theology is a $37.00 hardcover; the Chinese edition is a paperback that retails for about $8.00. The whole scale of economics is different here. And China is the world's largest book market, with something like five or six billion books being purchased annually.

Besides the books sold through physical bookstores, there's also a booming online bookselling presence. And Christian books are also distributed through thousands of house churches. Many of the Three-Self Churches also sell books in their churches, though usually this is little more than an informal booktable or shelf of books.

We also spent time at our main reason for coming - the Beijing International Book Fair. This is something of a smaller version of other international book fairs. The Frankfurt Book Fair is the world's largest, with thousands of publishers in eight or nine pavilions - a veritable world's fair of books. BIBF is contained in just one hall, on three floors, with different areas featuring publishers from different countries and regions: Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Russian, North American, British, European, others. Ellen is IVP's rights manager, and she spent the last couple of days meeting with publishers. BIBF is a rights show, meaning that publishers come to license rights to books for translation into different languages. This is different from orders shows, where bookstores come to order inventory for their stores.

Sorry for the random nature of these posts - I'm just basically downloading thoughts from our time here without much reflection or analysis. I'm also rather beat, after walking for several hours today!

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Welcome to Beijing

Ellen and I are in China now. It's the middle of the night here, which reflects my insomnia as well as some lingering jet lag. I can't sleep, so I'm blogging.

We're here with a group sponsored by Global Publishers Alliance, and this past morning we visited the Great Wall. It's a vast understatement to say that it’s rather impressive. How often do we walk on a structure that is two thousand years old? Much of the wall dates from the 13th century or so, with many places having being restored and repaired in the last fifty years. It’s quite a hike, with steep stairs as the wall winds up and down the mountains. We got to the top using a ski chairlift, and we came back down the mountain on a toboggan slide. Now my legs are sore; going to the Great Wall is an alternative to a StairMaster workout. I can't imagine the magnitude of what it took to build the wall; the work was done by hundreds of thousands of slave laborers over the course of centuries, in the midst of mountainous regions without roads or easy access.

The hosts for our trip have provided quite a bit of info about China and especially Christianity’s presence in China. They gave us a thumbnail history of Christians in China, from the Nestorians to the Jesuits to Hudson Taylor to the twentieth century. The church has grown the most during the periods when foreign missionaries have been kicked out. Less than a hundred years ago, there were about half a million Christians in China. Today, depending on what numbers or estimates you use, there are anywhere from 80 million to 120 million Christians in China, making Chinese Christianity one of the largest renewal and evangelistic movements in the history of the church.

Something that emerged was that just about everything we’ve heard about the church in China is true, somewhere. Lots of Christians are being persecuted in China – that’s true. Christians are able to worship and gather publicly – that’s also true. China is such a vast country, with a landmass about the same size as the United States and four times the population. So conditions vary widely based on local governance and situations. In some places, especially in the east and along the coast, house churches meet publicly and have signs in their windows advertising their meetings. Other areas, everything is completely hush-hush and underground. And it’s not as clear-cut a distinction between the “registered” and “unregistered” churches – our host tells us of situations where church leaders lead underground house churches during the week and also serve in Three-Self churches on the weekend.

I bought a T-shirt at a local market and paid more than I should have. I didn’t quite bargain it down as much as I could have, and I’ve been kicking myself about it. Our guide told us that we can often get things for a tenth of the initial stated price; something that is offered at 100 RMB (about $12.50) could be bargained down to 30 or even 10 RMB. But then again, if I end up paying “tourist’s prices” for things, that may not be all that bad a thing for the local merchants and economy. One of our guides estimated that these vendors make maybe a thousand dollars a month. And that’s much more than the most impoverished areas, where an income of two hundred dollars a year is standard. Even college-educated workers might only make a few hundred dollars a month, depending on where they are. Beijing, which has a population of about fifteen million, may have anywhere from one to three million migrant workers that try to find work as day laborers, maybe making $2 a day, if that. But China’s shift to a market economy has also meant that there are many people who are becoming very wealthy. Like other societies around the world, China is experiencing a polarization between the really rich and the very poor.

China is in the midst of massive renovation in preparation for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, and there’s new construction everywhere. When our plane landed, we could see an entire new terminal being built. Cranes dot the landscape, with new buildings going up all over the place, including some we saw that might be for the Olympic Village. The resort we’re staying at is charging $500 a night for the Olympics, and people must stay the entire 19 days. They’ve already booked half of their rooms, and they’re building more rooms to accommodate more guests. There are billboards all over the place with the Olympic logo; every partner and sponsor is featuring the games.

But we have not seen many American or multinational companies or businesses, at least in the areas where we've been staying and visiting so far. In one commercial district we saw a McDonald's, and there are occasional signs for Coca-Cola and Budweiser, but most businesses that we pass on the streets are Chinese. There was a Starbucks at the airport, but not on the streets. It's quite a contrast to Seoul, which had American companies everywhere.

As our plane was landing, I could see dozens and dozens of apartment buildings and high-rise complexes, all in orderly formation. It looked like a Legoland. Not surprising, considering that just in the past few decades China's population has grown from one billion to 1.3 billion, meaning that it has increased by the size of the entire U.S. But surprisingly, the roads are not clogged with traffic. The highways are wide open and move swiftly. I had envisioned high densities and masses of people everywhere, but many of the places we've been feel quite rural, even though it's still technically Beijing. We'll probably see more of the high-density areas when we head downtown for the book fair.

The food is great. A dozen or more dishes at every meal, with everything from Peking duck to candied apples. I've been thrilled to have access to authentic Chinese food, and I've seen several things here that I've not had in years, or since visiting Taiwan when I was a teenager. Most Chinese restaurants in the U.S. usually tone things down a bit for American eaters - not so here. Dinner was Szechuan, terrifically spicy stuff that freaked out many of the folks in our group. I loved it. More later.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Dispatch from South Korea

Last Thursday morning Ellen and I left home and flew four hours from Chicago to Los Angeles, and then another twelve hours to Inchon, South Korea, and then took a shuttle bus to Seoul. It was over a full day of travel between the time we left our house and arrived in our Seoul hotel room Friday evening local time. We’re headed to the Beijing International Book Fair this week, and since we were in the region, we spent the weekend beforehand in South Korea to visit several of the Korean publishers that Ellen works with. While I’ve been to Taiwan a couple of times in the past, this is the first time either of us have gone to Korea or China.

Seoul is an amazing city. It has a population of about twelve million, which is a quarter of the people in South Korea. It has multiple “downtown” areas and business districts, tons of high-rise apartment buildings, and a mix of traditional markets and modern shopping. Taxis and buses are everywhere. And Seoul’s subway system is quite impressive, with floor-to-ceiling shielding at the platforms so people can’t fall onto the tracks.

Our hotel is nearby several universities, so there are a lot of students and twentysomethings in the area. Kind of fun to observe the crowds and see similarities and parallels to youth culture in the United States. We saw one woman with a T-shirt that said “I ♥ ME.” Several of our publishing contacts told us that a publishing and cultural trend right now is self-happiness, and when we visited a general market bookstore, books like Joel Osteen’s Your Best Life Now were on the bestseller shelves. (About 40% of the titles published in Korea are translations of American or British books.)

Globalization and American influence are certainly visible in Seoul. Much of the signage in Seoul is in both Korean and English, and there’s no shortage of American franchises all over the place – Pizza Hut, Baskin-Robbins, FedEx Kinko’s, 7-Eleven. One of our hosts told us that Starbucks and Coffee Bean are fighting it out and putting in new shops constantly, much like how Starbucks exploded onto Chicago in the mid-90s. The menu at Starbucks seems identical to those in the States (with the same new Frappucinos being featured), while other companies have some degree of cultural contextualization. One of our appointments took place at an Outback Steakhouse, and while they still have Bloomin’ Onions and Drover’s Platters, they also have ribs and chopped steak that are marinated with a Korean galbi sauce and are served with kimchi. Dunkin' Donuts has green tea donuts and rice flour pastries more akin to traditional Korean recipes. Very yummy.

On Sunday morning we visited Yoido Full Gospel Church, which is the largest church in the world, with hundreds of thousands of members. The senior pastor, David Yonggi Cho, happened to be speaking at the service we attended, and we were able to listen to the sermon with English translation headsets. The two-hour service was extremely well-executed. We enjoyed being able to worship with this part of the global church, joining together in things that Christians around the world hold in common, like the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed.

South Korea has a much higher percentage of Christians than other Asian countries – something like a quarter of the population are Christian, compared to percentages in the single digits in Japan or elsewhere. There are several dozen Christian book publishers in Korea, publishing hundreds of Christian books. We visited several Christian bookstores and saw books by IVP authors like John Stott, J. I. Packer, Eugene Peterson and Becky Pippert, besides the many local Korean authors that are being published.

Korea is a gift-giving culture, and we were honored to exchange gifts with our various hosts. It's very customary to give and receive gifts at such meetings. One of our publishers, besides treating us to an elegant Korean dinner complete with a traditional dance performance, also took us shopping and sightseeing. We went to the top of a mountain in the center of Seoul and could see the entire city from an observation deck at the top of the N Seoul Tower.

Other random things - Business cards are frequently exchanged, even between people who are not "officially" meeting, in some ways to establish rank and status. One publishing house president, upon hearing that I had gone to Wheaton Grad School, shook my hand and said "Alumni!" He had also gone there years ago for a degree. We visited one host's home and saw their collection of over 4000 LP records and 2000 CDs. And our hotel room toilet had an electronic seat warmer and bidet, which was . . . different.

All in all, we thorougly enjoyed our weekend in Korea. It was all too brief, and we wished we could have stayed longer and seen more. We're so grateful for our brothers and sisters in Christ who so graciously welcomed us. Kamsahamnida!

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Burb magazine review of The Suburban Christian

Burb magazine, an excellent, thoughtful gateway to articles and links on all things suburban, has just posted a review of my book:

At the heart of many critiques of suburban life is a critique of the suburbs' soul--or the lack of one. So books like "The Suburban Christian" by Albert Hsu, an editor at Intervarsity Press, are more pertinent than its parochial title may suggest. Devout Christians are particularly out of sorts in the suburbs; the emphasis on prosperity and acquisitiveness is the opposite of the Christian ideal of service and sacrifice. But suburban values concern faithful and secular suburbanites alike. And Hsu, who grew up in Bloomington, Minn., has a native son's affection for malls and megachurches that moves him to look for real, and sometimes surprising solutions.

Hsu's respect for the suburbs sets him apart from other Christian takes on the burbs, like Dave Goetz's fizzy "Death By Suburb: How to Keep the Suburbs from Killing Your Soul," published earlier this year, which seemed to draw its moral situations from soap-opera suburbs. Hsu also distinguishes himself from heavy-hitting academic and media prognosticators by having a little, well, faith in the suburbs.

The suburbs, in Hsu's vision, ought to be more than neatly arranged nodes of convenience. "Instead of the job being the lead factor [in where you live], how about having community be the decisive factor. ... Choose your community, live there, work there, worship there and minister there." Hsu wants us to be intentional about where we live, and not abstractly. Investing ourselves in the physical place, in Hsu's vision, can be a route to spiritual investment. He is tempted by the idea of ditching single family homes, with their impractical land use and outsized mortgages, in favor of suburban-futurist ideas about "sixplexes," where one house holds six families with a common kitchen and living areas (New Urbanists: how's that for density?), or private homes surrounded by communal land.

Hsu presents the shortcomings of his own Christian community too, warning that megachurches—Christian mallls that entice suburban parishioners with shopping, entertainment and worship—risk becoming the culture they seek to change. Worried that suburban Christians are too comfortable, he wants them to turn back to the cities they have left to experience hardship and suffering and help heal it.

At times, Hsu allows the suburbs to stand for too many of the ills of our current culture, overemphasizing the racial and economic homogeneity or portraying materialism too strictly as a suburban phenomenon. And too much of the book is taken up with statistics and trends any newspaper reader (or pew denizen) will have already absorbed. Both these sins are available in nearly any current treatise on the suburbs. What you won't always find are Hsu's optimism and exhortation to positive action.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Thoughts from our church book discussion

Last night our church had a discussion group about my book, The Suburban Christian. We spent about two hours talking about various topics - suburban anonymity, recovering the "third place," community, ministry and much more. We didn't go through the book systematically or have a list of discussion questions or anything; folks just talked about whatever issues they had been thinking about.

As the conversation began, people talked about their own experiences of suburbia. One woman talked about growing up in post-WWII suburbia and witnessing the shift from city to suburb. Former missionaries shared how suburban Chicago contrasted with their experience in Latin America. Several people talked about being former "urban snobs" who felt conflicted about having moved to suburbia. This reminded us that suburbia is not some abstract conceptual topic - it's an embodied, experiential one, and all of us interact very personally with suburbia based on our own life history and experience.

Two themes emerged from the conversation. One was intentionality. We often don't realize how suburban culture is shaping us, and countering those forces requires the intentionality of practicing particular spiritual disciplines and practices like creativity, generosity and hospitality. The second theme was community. Intentionality must be paired with community, so that we are part of a like-minded cohort of people who help each other in this journey. We can't do it on our own.

Because many folks in the group also happen to be leaders in our church, the conversation naturally gravitated to what our church can do to be a "third place" and have more ministry impact in our local suburban community. There was much appreciation for our habitual practice of dinner gatherings after church on Saturday nights, and some brainstorming about different ways we can connect with various people in our area. This seemed to be where the conceptual became practical, translating ideas from the book to our actual ministry context. I'm hopeful that other churches will likewise have similar discussions about how they can have strategic ministry and mission to and from their suburban areas.

Our group concluded with our hosts modeling one of the practices we had talked about, generosity, and sharing tomatoes and cucumbers they had raised in their garden. They have very intentionally used their new and spacious suburban home for the purpose of building community and ministry, hosting various events for our church, including this year's Easter Sunday service. As I've said elsewhere, all of us suburban Christians have a choice - we can either choose a self-centered suburbanism that just gets sucked into all the consumerism and materialism and status climbing and whatnot, or we can choose an other-centered Christian suburbanism that seeks the welfare of the suburbs and practices countercultural disciplines of simplicity, generosity, hospitality and community. I'm grateful that my church is a community that is intentional about trying to live out that kind of suburban Christianity.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Chicago Tribune's Oil Safari: A Travelogue of Addiction

The Chicago Tribune has put together an amazing multimedia piece of investigative reporting on the realities and complexities of our societal dependence on oil to sustain our commuter culture. Tribune correspondent Paul Salopek traced the roots of a tank of gas at a gas station in suburban Chicago, working at the station itself as well as going to the sources of the oil in the Gulf Coast, Nigeria, Venezuela and Iraq. The articles themselves are available here as a PDF, and there's a full-blown interactive special report with video and photos.

Of particular interest to me are the observations relating to suburban commuter culture. Here's a quote from a suburban real estate agent: "Few people here go into downtown Chicago anymore. When they relocate, it's between suburbs. When they go to work, it's between suburbs. And when they commute it's in all directions. This makes mass transit impractical." This real estate agent's family owns three cars, one of which is a Hummer that gets about ten miles a gallon. They considered buying a hybrid, but got a luxury sedan instead. One of the employees at the Marathon gas station says that a third of her take-home pay is spent on gasoline - she has a two-hour daily commute, about 40 miles each way, in a Chevrolet Suburban that gets ten miles a gallon.

Salopek investigates the economic, environmental and political impact of the oil industry in originating nations, as well as how it plays out here in the United States. The full report, over sixty pages long, is quite sobering. By all accounts, we're consuming oil at unsustainable rates. Modern industrial society is built on cheap energy, and some speculate that oil sources could run out within forty years.

I'm not sure what to do with all this. All of our individual alternatives - carpooling, bicycling, hybrids, recovering a parish concept, etc. - seems so insignificant in light of the larger systemic and global forces at work. Everybody's hoping for affordable alternative energy sources to be developed in the near future, but even the experts are pessimistic about our chances. What to do?

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Global Rich List: Just how rich are we?

A few months ago I posted links to some demographic tools for understanding our neighborhoods. When I plug my home address into one of them, I find out that according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median income of households within a one-mile radius of my house is $66,508 and the average income is $75,559. Extending out to a five-mile radius, the average income is $85,413.

Then just yesterday I came across the Global Rich List site. This blew me away. I had seen statistics demonstrating some of this, but not this kind of online calculator to put things in perspective. Go to and plug in your respective data.

What do we do with this? How should suburban Christians wield all the resources and wealth that we have access to? What does Christian stewardship and generosity look like in a world of this kind of disparity? Reflect and discuss.

Friday, August 11, 2006

The tyranny of consumer choices

My personality type likes to try new things, so I'm often a sucker for new products. I noticed this recently because this summer, Starbucks introduced four new flavors of Frappucinos. I don't go to Starbucks very often and struggle with the stewardship of paying four bucks for a drink, but I do like Frappucinos. So I immediately felt like I had to try all four new flavors before the end of the summer. Sure enough, over the past few months, I've tried all four. If they had only introduced two, I would have just had those two and that would have been it. If they had introduced six or eight, I probably would have tried them all. I am such a sucker.

This is why every field, every industry, comes out with new versions of its products every year. Car companies, breakfast cereals, even staples like toothpaste and toilet paper come up with new permutations in hopes of catching new customers. Mountain Dew now comes in Code Red, Pitch Black, Live Wire and Baja Blast. Candy bars mix and match white chocolate, dark chocolate, cookies 'n' creme, almond, caramel, etc. VW Bugs and iMacs come in six fun colors - collect them all! While in Denver a few weeks ago an industry friend and I went to a Jamba Juice for a break, and they have some thirty kinds of smoothies and juice drinks. I wanted to try them all. I don't want to miss out on anything. This means that even if I enjoy whatever drink I choose, I feel vaguely disappointed or dissatisfied because I didn't get to try the others. Sigh. Consumer culture is based on perennial dissatisfaction and insatiability - infinite choices to reel in repeat customers that can't possibly try everything that's offered.

My wife has the opposite personality in this regard - she will tend to stick to the tried and true rather than the new fangled option. Both of us need to be careful of our default tendencies. She needs to be careful not to keep on buying a certain kind of product simply because it's what she's used to, when something else might be a wiser option. And I need to beware getting suckered into buying things simply because they're new and cool. At some point I need to just avoid the commercial messages and advertisements for whatever new thing is out this season and just say enough is enough. You're not going to get me this time.

Oh, but Panera has this really good I.C. mocha almond drink . . .

Monday, August 07, 2006

Calvin seminar: Further thoughts on Christian writing

Nathan Bierma, one of my fellow participants in the Calvin seminar on writing as Christian proclamation, has posted some notes from the second week of our seminar. One of the topics that came up was Alan Jacobs's notion of a hermeneutic of love rather than a hermeneutic of suspicion. We discussed the challenges of approaching texts with which we disagree or find distasteful for one reason or another, whether they be too polemical or too simplistic or too conservative or too liberal or whatever. What might it look like to offer a "charitable reading" of such texts? More significantly, for Christian writers and bloggers, what is "charitable writing"?

Andy Crouch offered the concept of journalist (and any writer) as servant, in which the writer serves the subject matter (including sources and interviewees), as well as the reader and the truth. An example of this might be Crouch's Books & Culture essay "Omit Unnecessary Words" comparing the Jerry B. Jenkins Christian Writers Guild with the Calvin Festival of Faith & Writing. While it would have been easy for Crouch to do a hatchet job on Jenkins, what emerges is a charitable portrait of Jenkins's intent and work with hopeful writers. While it's clear by the end of the article that the Calvin Festival is a far more thoughtful environment for Christian literature, Crouch has served his readers well by treating his subjects with dignity and respect.

Not that this means that Christian writing must degenerate into nicey-nice lovefest puff pieces. We also debated (somewhat vigorously at times) the role and place of Christian satire and sarcasm. Is there room for such styles and genres when thinking of writing as Christian proclamation? While we didn't arrive at any settled conclusion, several of us felt that there is a difference between satire and sarcasm, that sarcasm tends to be destructive while satire can be intended for redemptive and constructive purposes. The etymology of "sarcasm" derives from the Greek word sarx for flesh, specifically a verb form used in classical Greek literature to describe wild dogs tearing out flesh. Christians must wield sarcasm carefully, lest we tear out the flesh of our brothers and sisters!

Also, context is critical for satire to work well - certain genres, like the political cartoon, have established expectations for critiquing the status quo, and particular publications, like The Onion, and The Wittenburg Door have carefully cultivated brand identities where their readers expect and anticipate satire as commentary and critique. However, what works in The Door is not likely to fly in Christianity Today, as that is not its historic identity. Satire probably works best as a form of protest literature, speaking truth to power and critiquing institutions that are not receptive to ordinary dialogue. In that regard it stands in continuity with the biblical prophetic tradition. But satire/sarcasm probably should not be the default setting for Christian writing that is intended to provide pastoral care or priestly ministration.

Of course, some of us are by nature more sarcastic than others, and some readers appreciate sarcasm more receptively. But overall I'm not convinced that Christian witness is very winsome or effective when it is snarky. Jesus could be very biting in his attacks on religious hypocrisy, but he was not so toward the poor and the needy. From my location as a book editor, I think satire/sarcasm tends to work better in brief op-ed columns, articles, blogs and perhaps even sermons than it does in most book-length formats. Or, if used in a book, it can be more effective if used sparingly and selectively. Otherwise it can become wearisome.

We also discussed such topics as fiction, film and the internet, and I will have to save some thoughts for other posts. I'll just conclude my overall reflections with the theme that emerged for me over the course of the seminar: incarnation. Christian writing is incarnational, and the best kinds of Christian writing provide a holistic, embodied window into the human (and spiritual) experience. Regardless of genre, whether memoir or fiction or creative nonfiction or essay, incarnational writing takes abstract concepts and embodies them in words and print, illuminating true beauty and life. I often exhort my authors to "show, don't just tell," and this is a critique that I need to heed myself, since I tend to explain and tell rather than describe and show. As followers of the Word made flesh, Christian writers likewise are called to be incarnational through fully-orbed wordsmithing that demonstrates the power and appeal of the Christian story.

Friday, August 04, 2006

How much space do we need?

During the Calvin seminar, our family stayed in a two-bedroom campus apartment, and the boys shared a bedroom for the first time (apart from previous trips with hotel room stays). At first we worried that it wouldn't work, that Elijah would keep Josiah awake or vice versa, but as it turned out, they got along fabulously as roommates. Instead of having two separate bedtime routines, we combined them, reading books and Bible stories for both of them together. Josiah told us that he really liked sharing a bedroom with Elijah. So much so that when we came home, he said, "I don't want to be alone. Can Elijah be in my room?"

So we rearranged everything, put Elijah's crib in Josiah's bedroom, moved around dressers and the diaper changing table, and put Josiah's train table and toy bins in what was Elijah's room. Now the boys have a bedroom together, and the other room is a playroom. No idea how long this arrangement will last, but so far, a week into it, both boys are enjoying it.

All this made us realize that we had had some default assumptions about kids each having their own rooms, which is a fairly individualistic, Western notion of privacy and personal space. American houses are larger by far than those in other societies - the average size of an American single-family home has increased from 983 square feet in 1950 to 2,329 square feet today. The typical American has 718 square feet of living space per person, compared to 442 square feet in Canada and just 170 square feet in Japan. Most American suburban homes, if set in other parts of the world, would be used to house multiple families. The authors of Suburban Nation write, "There is not another nation on earth that houses its citizens as we do, and few could afford to."

The accommodations for the Calvin seminar also gave us a chance to practice a temporary form of voluntary simplicity. Just one set of plastic plates and cups in the kitchen. Just a week's changes of clothes. Just one bin of toys for the kids, not four or five. No TV. And a new city to explore, so we visited the zoo, the children's museum, the beach and so on. (Because Grand Rapids is smaller than Chicago, instead of taking half an hour or an hour to get anywhere, most of our trips only took ten or twenty minutes, max. Very nice.) Josiah went blueberry picking and got a whole pound of blueberries for just one dollar.

I love going away and having a change of scenery, meeting new people, having new experiences, etc. After the fun of being away, I've been feeling a little blah this week, as we've quickly gotten reabsorbed into our daily routines. But time away can indeed change how you see your usual surroundings. When we got back home and started rearranging the boys' rooms, we looked at all the stuffed animals that they never play with and decided to purge some. We gathered a whole pile of things to give away. We try to do that periodically anyway, but the Calvin trip made me realize anew that we have way more stuff than we need. Simplify, simplify.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

78 Reasons Why Your Book May Never Be Published

I'm back home in Chicagoland now, and it’s been a hectic time of getting resettled, going through piles of mail and messages, and fighting off hordes of ants that seem to have moved into our living room. I have not really had much time or space to reflect or blog further on the Calvin seminar. I'll try to get to that soon.

In the meantime, let me recommend 78 Reasons Why Your Book May Never Be Published & 14 Reasons Why It Just Might by Pat Walsh, who’s the founding editor at MacAdam/Cage. It was not part of our seminar reading, but I borrowed it from a colleague, brought it along and read it during the trip. This book demystifies the book publishing world, explains why book proposals are rejected and unpacks the behind-the-scenes of the business of publishing. A few excerpts that ring particularly true:

The main reason your book, after you have written it, will not be published is because it is not good enough—it probably even stinks. When I say your book probably stinks, I mean statistically, it probably stinks. Of the roughly four thousand submissions our publishing house receives a year—unsolicited and unagented—at least half reek of bad writing and sorry story lines. Another thousand significantly lack in one area or the other. The next eight hundred are not horrid, just not good enough—mediocre efforts, rife with clich├ęs and tired plots. Of the two hundred left, I would say a hundred and fifty have some real merit but are a good idea badly executed or a bad idea nicely realized. From the fifty remaining, forty are heartbreakers—almost but not quite there. In some way, that is difficult to explain other than to say it usually manifests itself when a reader puts down the manuscript and is not excited about picking it back up. Or they fall apart at a crucial stage in a way that is difficult or impossible to fix. The remaining ten are very good and a few of them are exception. This crap-to-gem ratio is the reason why most publishing houses do not read the slush pile seriously and why agents depend on referrals to find clients.

The defining characteristic of publishing, particularly fiction, is subjectivity. What is pure gold to one reader can be utter rubbish to another. . . . One of the worst moments editors face is finding a manuscript they love and then having all their coworkers and bosses hate it. There has never been a book published that every single reader has loved.

How an editor’s book sells is the final number. You do not get judged on how the book reviewed, or how smoothly it went through production, or how happy the author is. It has to sell. This is a business.

The saddest victims of publishing’s cyclical whimsy are those who write the dire and tragic memoir, stories of cancer and the Holocaust. Terrible as it is to say, a Holocaust survivor’s cleanly written memoir recounting brushes with death and memories of loved ones probably will not be published today unless it has a hook we have not heard before. Cancer is another topic that publishers are overwhelmed with. It is kind of sick and I feel bad about it, but if an editor tries to sign up a book about surviving the Holocaust or cancer, there had better be a new take on the story or the higher-ups are going to roll their eyes: Not another one. The sad truth is that the genre is currently considered overpopulated.

Brutal stuff, but very true. Several times during our seminar discussions we praised particular books for their literary merit, but the sad fact was that several of these books had not found much of an audience. Sometimes authors were reclusive and not inclined to promote their book (it is an ironic rule of thumb that many of the best writers are introverts who are averse to self-promotion and marketing). Other times the books were oddly crafted or positioned and did not signal its uniqueness or contribution to the reader. Bottom line - if a book does not sell enough to stay in print, then its ministry value (for Christian books with the goal of Christian witness or proclamation) will be quite limited.

As an acquiring editor, I look for books with fresh, substantive ideas that flow out of the author’s expertise and experience, and ideally they should fill a gap in the marketplace and be written by self-motivated, networked and “platformed” authors who have mastered the craft of writing and are media-savvy enough to distill their book-length work into sound-bites for radio interviews. How do publishers find these kinds of authors? If I knew, I wouldn’t tell you!