I had a phone conversation this week with Paul Young, author of the runaway bestseller, “The Shack.” In a future book review, I’ll explore in-depth the book itself. For today, however, in this setting, I want to focus on my impressions of the entire “Shack” phenomenon.
By now, most of us know the bare story: Young wrote a story for his children, to explain something of his earlier life, when he suffered sexual abuse. The son of missionaries, no less.
I saw Young two years ago at the Christian Bookseller’s Association convention in Orlando. He had been invited to speak at a breakfast and the ballroom was packed (or as packed as one can be during these days of economic turmoil).
Bill Anderson, the recently retired association president, had invited Young to the convention. Given the controversy surrounding Young’s theology, I was surprised.
For 20 seconds.
As I sat in the front row, it dawned on me why Young had been invited: he’s a celebrity. He’s a draw.
The author of “The Shack” (“well over 10 million now in print” he told me without a hint of conceit, in answer to my question) was very good in front of this audience of Christian booksellers and publishers. Baring his soul about his childhood, Young had the audience eating out of his hand. I heard weeping behind me as he spoke about abuse.
And that’s the “secret” to much of his success, I contend. The guy is just Everyman, and while he is becoming media savvy, he still appears to be somewhat amused as he squints into the lights of literary celebrity.
Young appears to be self-effacing, but also clever in how he answers critics. Since most of his critics come from the evangelical Christian community (although several literary critics have weighed in, but much of that can be chalked up to sour grapes, in my opinion; there’s nothing like a terrific writer/critic who can’t get arrested when it comes to sales of their own work. It tends to color their reviews of rival authors), Young is becoming adept at handling them. If you are one of these critics, consider yourself warned: the brainchild behind “The Shack” is not likely to get hot-under-the-collar and flustered if you challenge him about orthodoxy.
Remarking on an exchange he had with one of these angry Christians who do not like what appears to be Young’s pluralistic tendencies when it comes to faith, he said:
“A woman emailed me to say that ‘The Shack’ is a juvenile piece of trash,” he said. “I answered by telling her that I was impressed she had the confidence to communicate her view. I said, ‘You go, girl.’”
The woman responded a few days later and “asked for my forgiveness.” The guy could have disarmed Pancho Villa and saved Blackjack Pershing the trouble.
Thus we see how skilled Young has become in dealing with critics of the book that portrays God as Papa, a black woman.
(A truly amusing aside: some of Young’s critics are simply hilarious. “One person contacted me and asked how I could portray Jesus as a Middle Eastern man!” – He was, of course.)
“The Shack” was virtually destined for Kinko’s when a couple friends of Young decided to be a bit more ambitious, sinking some investment money into it. Next thing you know, the book has legs and eventually a partnership was formed with Hachette Book Group, a French-based publisher. That kicked distribution into warp-drive and according to Young, there are all sorts of publishing successes for “The Shack,” around the globe:
“It’s now in 25 languages and by next year, the goal is to have it in 45 languages.”
Incredibly, the book is the first to sell one million copies in a year’s time in Brazil. Truly, the project has gone global.
Book success has allowed Young to get off the rat wheel, and today he has time to reflect and plan. He is working on an autobiography and another work of fiction, although it is not a classic sequel to his blockbuster. Clearly, Paul Young’s writing career is taking off in middle age. He has bridged the secular and religious writing world.
There is an interesting blurb on the Hachette site, which announces the partnership with original “Shack” publisher, Windblown Media:
We have long been frustrated at the divide between Christian publishers and secular ones, feeling it an artificial one of convenience and consumerism rather than a true service to readers. We are convinced that there are a lot of people who are seriously asking questions about their spirituality and want thought-provoking and creative literature that neither pander to the religious audience nor dilute the powerful yet simple message of the Jesus of the Bible. Windblown Media is designed to publish books for the spiritually hungry, and we are convinced that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is the only true God and source of life for those seeking spiritual answers. We are interested in having that discussion with people who may not agree with us, but want an intellectually honest and artistic approach to how we live life in his reality. We also realize that a lot of Christians are growing disillusioned with the religious constructs of our day that too easily rob people of the depth and vitality of the life that Jesus offered us. We publish for hungry hearts and minds looking to sort out spiritual realities amidst the fast-paced and often shallow world in which we live.
For several years, there has been dialogue and then actual partnership between the Christian publishing world and the world of books found in New York City. The big boys saw that there was cash in the Bible Belt. Christian publishers all of a sudden were faced with offers of more money than they’d ever seen. The outcome was inevitable. Howard Books and Multnomah were bought by large New York houses.
Now, Young’s success has further cemented the marriage between the evangelical world and the larger world. In the coming weeks, I’ll write about this again, for the implications are staggering.