Scholarly and professional publishing: a question of strategy

As a publisher, I’ve often been consulted by researchers pondering the question of whether to write for a scholarly audience, a popular one, or both. Much research is potentially of interest to both types of audience: what then should the researcher as author do: choose one audience and forget the other? Or try to reach both in the same work?

My response to these question varies according to the circumstances. However, I rarely suggest trying to reach both types of audience through the same work: too often that strategy leads to a book falling between two stools.

Often the strategy I suggest is to write a scholarly work first – that helps establish the author’s credentials and helps the author to get the story straight. This then makes it easier  both to write and to publish a popular work.

I

In view of such discussions, I was interested to hear – during a talk at Heffers bookshop – Professor Alister McGrath’s solution for his work on CS Lewis.

McGrath chose to produce two works simultaneously. He wrote a biography, CS Lewis: a life, for Hodder & Stoughton, aimed at the trade market.

Whilst working on the biography, McGrath decided there were many scholarly questions about Lewis that required further exploration.

Yet he felt such exploration would be out-of-place in the biography – it would clog up the action and restrict the interest of the book.

McGrath’s solution was to publish with WileyBlackwell what is, in effect, a monograph: The intellectual world of CS Lewis.

The book comprises eight essays on such topics as Lewis’s use of imagery and the relationship of his work to early twentieth century Oxford philosophy.

II

How well does this strategy work? For the biography, pretty well. There are moments where McGrath seems to forget his audience, assuming an academic literacy on the part of the reader, but they are few and far between.

Oddly, the monograph is less successful. It’s not a bad book – McGrath is, after all, an erudite and articulate author – but neither is it a very good one. In places it deals with questions of some scale and substance: is Lewis a theologian and, if so, of what kind? What is his relationship to Anglicanism?

In other places, the discussion feels pedantic and even somewhat trivial. The chapter on Lewis’s optical imagery, for example, establishes the centrality of such imagery in Lewis’s thought, but it’s not clear to me that anything very enlightening emerges from the analysis. 

Strangely, it is in the most academic of chapters – “The ‘New Look’: Lewis’s Philosophical Context at Oxford in the 1920s” – that McGrath’s grasp seems least secure:

When intellectual life began to resume in Oxford in early 1919, the dominant philosophy remained…the idealism of T.H. Green..Yet the Oxford situation was fluid and unstable, with new ideas and influences combining to overthrow Green’s influence. A new form of realism, originally associated with the Cambridge philosophers G.E. Moore (1873-1958) and Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), foreshadowed in the 1910s by writers such as G.F. Stout (1860-1944) and Thomas Percy Nunn (1870-1944), began to gain influence at Oxford. This was initially championed by John Cook Wilson (1849-1915)…Lewis…became an enthusiastic advocate of this form of realism, which was quite distinct from the forms that were then associated with the University of Cambridge on the one hand, and Vienna or the other.

It’s rather like sitting on a train that whizzes through stations so fast you’re not sure you’ve read their nameplates correctly. Green? Whoosh! Realism? Whoosh! You end up not being sure where you are. What precisely all these -isms are, how exactly they all relate to each other, and what all this has to do with CS Lewis are unclear. 

There may be an interesting story to be told of Lewis’s relationship to the Oxford of Cook Wilson, Prichard, and co., but telling it would require an altogether firmer treatment.

Overall, the disappointment that comes from reading The intellectual world – the sense that it could and should have been much better – seems to me to stem from something like a (literary) critical failure. Is Lewis’s optical imagery really that interesting? Does his ‘argument from desire’ (in Surprised by Joy) merit the kind of erudition McGrath lavishes on it?

And, in contrast, doesn’t McGrath’s insight in the chapter on Lewis as theologian – 

As a young theologian, I was taught to despise Lewis…As I listened to then-fashionable…voices faulting and dismissing him, I heard a deeper dissenting voice within me. All this may be true, I thought, but Lewis seems to have seen and grasped something that you have missed

– merit greater exploration?

III

So McGrath’s publishing strategy has produced uneven results. But let us return to the biography, which is a success. The main reason I often encourage scholars to differentiate their audiences is precisely to help them free their popular writing from a creeping academicism. That, I think, McGrath’s strategy has achieved.

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