Not an easy blog to write…

By , 27 February 2009 6:59 pm

There’s a lot of things I would like to discuss rather than this but I thought I’d better write what I have to say here for the simple reason I want advice from you, readers. The basic fact is that it has been obvious for some time that the Lamb Among the Stars trilogy has not been selling at all well. You don’t have to be a genius to read the Amazon sales figures, and although the reviews are splendid (thank you all very much), when your book drops down to around 300,000th place on the charts you know that things aren’t good. You also know it when you don’t hear from your publisher from months on end.

Anyway about ten days ago I e-mailed my editor asking basically what was going on and whether they were thinking up any innovative solutions to the sales situation. I will simply say it took a week to get an answer and only then by dint of contacting the author liaison person. (I now know what leprosy feels like.) The answer was not at all encouraging. Hardback sales are bad, science fiction and fantasy worse. Any plans to do the series in paperback (‘softcover’ Americans call it) have been scrapped. In other words, frankly it’s the end of the line.

I feel pretty unhappy about this. The books had a ropey start with a teen fiction imprint of the publishers that soon went belly up. It didn’t do anything for sales and simply gave them that damning descriptive label ‘youth fiction’. (I know I should have refused the offer when they said ‘it’s our new youth fiction imprint’, but I was anxious to be published). I’m grateful that, when the the youth fiction venture folded, the books were remarketed for adults, but I think by then the damage was done. Significantly, the books have never been reviewed by any formal reviewer and certainly never made it into the substantial fantasy world. Enough said.

Anyway, dear friends, readers and supporters, what do I do? The present trajectory is plain. The books are no longer in shops and presumably I may expect ever diminishing sales until at some point I get some pathetic letter that says that they will no longer be held in the inventory. (I wanted to get some of the extra copies from the States, but the postage is astronomical because US mail services have stopped shipping by sea.) And that is that.

My problem is not, I think, simply personal pride, let alone greed, but irritation and frustration. Some books deserve to fail. I do not think from the reviews that these do. I know there are many people out there who would love to read them but do not even know that they exist. So what do I do about it? Several possibilities are kicking around in my mind but I have no clarity on any of them. Do I try and get the rights back and find someone else who will publish these books? (I could tidy them up into a cheap single-volume massive paperback.) Do I try and get them electronically published? Volume 1 free as an iPhone book?) Do I scream and shout to other contacts in the publishing company that these books have never ever had a chance? Or do I do shrug my shoulders and ‘say so be it’ and let the series die. I do have to say that I am very negative now about Christian publishing and fiction. (And please don’t talk to me about Left Behind, The Shack and This Present Darkness, etc: such books sold in large numbers not because they were stories but because they were believed to be revelations into spiritual reality.)

I really don’t know what to do. I would be grateful for your prayers: you can probably imagine my frustration and dismay. You can always e-mail me with contacts and bright ideas, if you have any.

With every blessing

On Darwin

By , 20 February 2009 6:00 pm

Astute readers that you are, you will have noticed that we have recently had the 200th[I meant to say 150th]  anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species and the 250th anniversary of the author’s birth [I meant to say  200th!]. There is a lot that I could say about Charles Darwin. After all, as you probably know if you follow this blog or read my website, I am (somewhat uncomfortably) in the middle of some of the big debates that have come to focus on this man.

On the one hand, I think much of what Darwin came up with is correct. It would be a very clumsy Creator indeed who did not build into species the ability to adapt to changing environments. I certainly have no problem with vast amounts of geological time and I do have an infinite number of problems with the wretched lunacy of flood geology and the young earth fantasies of certain people.

On the other hand, I find it equally ludicrous to believe that Darwin’s evolution is anything other than a rather basic description of how things work. It certainly does not explain why things work and I am not convinced that it is a totally adequate mechanism for explaining all the glorious complexity and diversity of the biosphere. As someone has said Darwinism ‘explains the survival of the fittest but not the arrival of the fittest’. I certainly do not see it satisfactorily explaining the large-scale creativity within the organic world.

Let me make two observations. By chance, I heard one of our more prestigious palaeontologists, Simon Conway Morris, give a sermon on the radio about Darwin. A Christian (but probably not an evangelical) Professor Conway Morris pointed out that although an excellent observer, Darwin was a rather poor philosopher and rather out of his depth when it came to discussing the big issues raised by his own theory. He also seemed to hint that Darwin had rather let his own faith slide (if you remember, he had been intending to train as a clergyman) and that the rather pitiable confusion that the old man found himself in his latter years was a problem that was, to some extent, of his own making. This fits with the comment I read a number of years ago from someone that Darwin was the classic example of the ‘use it or lose it’ nature of faith.

The second observation is the fascinating way in which various people have been trying to elevate Darwin to the role of prophet. If ever you wanted proof that atheism is a creed just like any other religion then the rather feverish attempts to elevate Charles to sainthood (at least) would give it you. I have been almost expecting to read how wise men visited him while he was a baby and how ancient prophecies were fulfilled in his birth. To listen to the adulation from some quarters you feel that they didn’t so much want him buried in Westminster Abbey as elevated above the altar. It may or may not be significant too that the commonest images of him are not of the young and rather handsome scientist but as an old man looking distinctly patriarchal and doing a passable imitation of Elijah’s third cousin once removed. Of course, elevating him to this exalted rank does him no good whatsoever. For one thing, it makes discussing his theories in a neutral way very difficult. It also means that he is forced to stand in comparison against Jesus. Here you have to feel sorry for poor old Charles; that is a comparison no one can bear.

On teaching and entertainment

By , 13 February 2009 8:08 pm

An hour ago we started half term. Hurrah! I have to say I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bunch of teachers quite so ready for it. My colleagues are universally excellent and committed teachers and our students are some of the best in Wales but there seemed to be a general sigh of profound and exhausted relief all round today. There are several reasons for the general mood of tiredness: a late-night parents’ evening, uncertainties over whether or not College would be closed due to snow and some pretty heavy and unpleasant colds and coughs. But there are other stresses.

One subtle stress for us to make our teaching entertaining. Now don’t get me wrong, I loathe the idea of boring teaching, I don’t do it and I have a reputation for being one of the livelier teachers around. (Mind you it helps doing geology; I’d hate to teach French verbs.) The problem is that today in Britain – even with relatively well-behaved children – teaching has become almost a branch of the entertainment industry. We must vary what we do, must constantly stimulate and indeed should consider giving them kinaesthetic learning that involves touch, smell, sound and (should health and safety considerations permit) taste. Of course, this is all very difficult. For a start, television with its carefully scripted presentations, skilled presenters and large-scale special effects has set an impossible standard. For another, this is not a carefully controlled stage situation: we grapple with dodgy digital projectors, students arriving late, less than totally satisfactory rooms and so on.

One of the big problems with this is that it’s all rather like sex and violence in films and books; the pressure is to go further. The public demand for entertainment is effectively insatiable. Today’s youth becomes bored so easily that it is hard (nay impossible) to be consistently and permanently entertaining. I have considered a clown suit just to make the point. Indeed the demand seems to be becoming more pressing: what was amusing five years ago is no longer amusing today. This whole matter is very close to the ongoing British debate about ‘cutting-edge humour’. The problem is that was yesterday’s cutting edge is today somewhere pretty close to the blunt end of the blade. The result is that if you’re not careful you end up doing more and more things just to increase the amusement coefficient. It’s all wearying. Increasingly I feel like something like an actor forced to do matinee and evening performances day after day. Another problem is that this permanent attempt to achieve a lightness of touch is very misleading. Most of my students are going on to university and presumably all are (hopefully) going on to the world of work. There they will have to come to terms with tasks that are frankly not amusing or entertaining anyway but which still have to be done.

Anywhere, I realise that this is all rather disjointed. But I think there are interesting questions that can be asked of almost everything we do. Do we have to be entertaining and amusing? Isn’t truth of whatever kind sufficient to hold our attention?

An odd parallel between Uniformitarianism and Evangelicalism

By , 6 February 2009 9:18 pm

Well it’s been an interesting and rather frustrating week. As many of you may be aware we have had an unusually cold winter in the UK and this week it really hit us. The problem was that the weather was rather unpredictable and, in fact, unsporting. So we had snow when we weren’t supposed to have it, and didn’t have it when we were. Because my college has a very large catchment area extending into the foothills of what we call mountains but Americans would probably dismiss as ‘lumps’, we have to be very careful about weather alerts. No one wants several hundred students camped overnight in a freezing college. The upshot was that the teaching week essentially fell into times when the students were either absent (or distracted) because of the expectation of snow, absent because of snow, or disinclined to work because other people were absent because of snow or the fear of it. Out of five working days, I feel I taught only about two properly. As a geography teacher remarked somewhat sourly ‘this would happen the very year they have put global warming on the syllabus’.

Anyway this week I thought I would share with you a curious coming together of something in geology and preaching. In Geology I was discussing the fundamental principle of uniformitarianism; the great rule that we interpret the past according to present-day processes. A key point of uniformitarianism is that it majors on steady and predominantly gentle processes. As an aside I made the point that this idea had really come to prominence in 19th-century Britain and that our society then had welcomed a concept that elevated slow steady change over drastic, traumatic upheaval. The memory of the French Revolution just across the water haunted 19th-century British culture, particularly the aristocracy. (Incidentally to spare some of you writing to me; I have no doubt that most of the time uniformitarianism is the correct view and no doubt whatsoever that the Earth is very old indeed.)

On the Sunday evening following I was preaching on Jesus as Prophet and in passing touching on the extent to which we were to be prophetic within the church. Now my understanding of prophecy is that it is primarily forth-telling more than fore-telling; speaking God’s Word to a particular situation in the present is probably more important than some word about the future. I then made the point that evangelicalism tends to be rather cosy and well mannered, an attitude which often prevents us from being as blunt and open about such matters as social wrongs as perhaps we ought to be. And feeling a vague sense of déjà vu, I realised that the formative years of British evangelicalism were exactly those of geological uniformitarianism. In other words, it was probably not just geologists who had decided to be nice and cuddle up to society but also evangelicals. What we have assumed to be an evangelical standard is probably not that at all, but a two-hundred-year-old cultural one.

It is probably a minor insight but it is possibly a helpful reminder that we need to be very careful to examine what we stand for. Perhaps more often than we realise, our values may be culturally rather than biblically determined.

Have a good week.

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