In a typically sharp marketing move, JAMIE BYNG of Edinburgh's Canongate Publishing has taken the world's best- selling title and given it a hip new feel. The idea looks set to be fruitful and multiply. So who's creating over it?
Words: Brian Donaldson
THE WORD MADE FRESH
YOUR MISSION IS TO MAKE THE BIBLE more accessible to a contemporary audience. Tricky. How about turning the most famous and. at times. most weightily ponderous tome in history into bite-sized instalments. get ‘name' writers to compose the introductions. put killer designs on the covers and sell them for a quid. Bob is most certainly your uncle and. thanks to Edinburgh- based Canongate — who are calling the series Pocket Canons — you’ve got yourself the biggest publishing story of the year. The question is why no-one thought of it before.
And all it took was one phone call. ‘A friend called me up one afternoon and said he'd been looking for a specific book in religious bookshops.‘ recalls Canongate’s director Jamie Byng. ‘lt occurred to him that it would be an interesting way to read them rather than plough his way through an entire tome. and he realised that there was nothing out there. He just said “how about it?“
The real selling point of the new editions is their prefaces. whose writers all have a high profile in secular life. “It stresses the fact that it can be taken on a literary level rather than just seen as a religious text.‘ says Byng.
It‘s not been an entirely smooth ride from the genesis of the idea (January ‘97) to the books‘ public revelation (October ‘98). Some of the people Byng wanted to pen the introductions weren't keen.
'The first writer I approached about it was Roddy Doyle and he said. “No fucking way am I introducing that book — I had it rammed down my throat".' Byng recollects. ‘I think he quite liked the idea and I told him we were interested in a personal response to an individual book but he just had a
12 THE LIST 24 Sea—8 Oct 1998
big problem in terms of his own experience of it.
’Julian Barnes felt he didn‘t have anything to say about it: and Richard Ford was another I'd have loved to have written about it. but he read it again and he just couldn’t handle all the “thous” and "thees" — it was just too dull to him.’
Still. the roster of comperes is impressive enough. Will Self. Fay Weldon. Nick Cave. AS. Byatt. Louis de Bernieres and Richard Holloway. Edinburgh’s controversial Bishop. are among those making a contribution.
But as you would expect. not all of
their views are what you would call traditional.
And lo. before you could say ‘Christ on a bike'. a fundamentalist uproar had erupted. A group of [Essex— based Christians have attempted to wield both faith and law to prevent what they saw as a heinous blasphemy. A long and detailed letter arrived at Canongate from Bennetts Solicitors in Harlow.
The letter complains that the Bible’s content is described as ‘legend'. ‘fable' and ’myth’. insisting that 'not one verifiable historical fact in the Bible has ever been disproved.‘ Further there are objections to the characters of God and Jesus being linked to words such as ‘unjust'. 'trickster'. ‘brutal'. ‘sarcastic'. ‘megalomaniac'. 'bombastic‘. ‘blood- thirsty' and ‘hectoring‘.
To press home the point. a detailed analysis of the introductions and their writers is held up as evidence. 'Steven Rose is a “Jewish atheist" and evolutionistf states Bennetts. 'l)avid Grossman is a Jewish writer.’ he continues. placing (irossman in the same ark as most of The Bible's numerous authors. ‘Richard Holloway
is. of course. the Bishop of
introductions stress the fact that The Bible can be taken on a literary level rather than just seen as a religious text.’ Jamie Byng
Edinbttrgh.’ Bennett points out. ‘and has recently campaigned prominently for practising homosexuals to be accepted as Christians.‘
Holloway himself is non-plussed by the criticism. 'That comes from standard Christian fundamentalism which takes a very narrow view of The Bible.. he argues. ‘All it does is draw more attention to the product they are trying to ban.‘
Within the correspondence lies the dark spectre of the law of blasphemy. still enshrined in British law. It is not a threat that worries Canongate much. ‘I spoke to a solicitor who is as up-to- speed on blasphemy as anyone.’ says Byng. ‘His view was “nil chance". and you very rarely get that from a lawyer. The last case was in '79. and that was a pretty explicit cartoon about Christ being sodomised and being pulled off the cross. And that hardly got anywhere.'
The PUt‘kt’I Canons. meanwhile. are set to go much further. Publishing rights have been sold in Spain. North America and Australia. while an audio version should be available neatly in time for Easter and a new series of twelve books should be on the shelves by next September.
‘We have one rock star of major proportions who is about to confirm. Ruth Rendell is doing Romans. Peter Ackroyd lsaia/z. Alasdair Gray wants to do .lona/i. Joanna Trollope is doing Rat/I and [SKI/It’ll.
In the light of Canongate‘s once- ailing past. you could be tempted to suggest that some tiny miracle has occurred.
The first batch of twelve Pocket Canons is published on Thu 1 Oct, priced £1 each or £14.99 for a boxed set.