Michael Cuneo: 'I Don't See Myself as a Traditional Academic'

Michael Cuneo hangs out in all-night waffle houses, bargains down the rates in cheap motels, and sleeps in his rusty 1989 Pontiac to hunt down information on American culture and religion. He's a professor of anthropology and sociology at Fordham University in New York City, specializing in the academic study of religion, but he spurns ivory tower life. 'Front-line, hands-on research,' as he calls it, scarcely seems an adequate term for the full-immersion style of investigation he uses for books like American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty (Doubleday, 2001; Broadway Books paper, Oct. 2002).

In pursuit of 'anthropological journalism or journalistic anthropology,' Cuneo applies the skills he learned as a cabdriver, and son of a cabdriver, in Toronto-hustling, working the streets, interacting with a variety of people. When he decided to move from scholarly publishing to the general trade, he saw little downside. 'I was thinking almost entirely in terms of rewards because I don't see myself as a traditional academic in the first place. I'm not really sedentary. I'm not really sedate.'

Cuneo's first two books- Catholics Against the Church: Anti-Abortion Protest in Toronto, 1969-1985 (Univ. of Toronto; 1989) and, with Anthony J. Blasi, The Sociology of Religion: An Organizational Bibliography (Garland Pub.; 1990)-were hardly geared for the masses. But when he was at work on a project for Oxford University Press, his children said something like, 'That looks like it might be interesting. Why not write it so somebody would want to read it?' The result was the well-received (Oxford, 1997; Johns Hopkins Univ. Press paper, 1999), about U.S. Catholic conservatism.

That is where Cuneo says he made a breakthrough. He already had started to mix up his reading, alternating between academic and well-written popular books, Max Weber followed by Janet Malcolm. Then, at 3 a.m., while laboring on Smoke of Satan, he struck on a passage. 'Michael, just be a writer,' he told himself. He started believing he could do it. 'That was a real turning point,' he says. People who work in general trade publishing read that book, and while Cuneo was conducting research on Americans' fascination with exorcism he received a letter from Doubleday editor Andrew Corbin expressing interest.

Cuneo says now he lets his excitement about a subject carry him, and doesn't worry about his reputation as a scholar. 'I never write my books looking over my shoulder, looking for approval. I never ask permission,' he says. 'I'm never asking myself, 'I wonder what the academy is going to think of this.'' Though a lot of academics believe that the conventions of academic writing can be stifling and suffocating, he says, 'cultural elitism'-the sense that you're writing for people who are intellectually superior-keeps many of them writing only for scholarly audiences. Moreover, it's safer to write for your tiny universe of peers.

In August, Cuneo was praised at the annual meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion in Chicago but he knows it could easily go the other way. 'I'm sure there are other scholars-and I'm sure I will be hearing from them-who would argue that my writing is not sufficiently academic, that it's too freewheeling and lacks the proper deference to the traditions.'

Traditional academics would write a formal proposal and look for funding, he says. Their first impulse is to speak with other scholars. Cuneo, self-described 'scholar-cabdriver,' hits the road without money, rents showers in truck stops, and does most of his writing while drinking coffee in diners. 'To me that's so inspirational: writing on the move,' he says. He's 48, and the oldest of his four children just got married, but Cuneo says he still views himself as a guy in his 20s, just hitting his stride.

Cuneo's next book, scheduled for cloth publication by Random House's Broadway in January 2004, delves into a triple homicide in the Missouri Ozarks, set against a backdrop of Pentecostalism. Cuneo says the pope makes a cameo appearance.

Cueno didn't buy a new car with his Doubleday earnings. He recently put the Pontiac, now with 330,000-plus miles on it, in the shop because he wants to keep the old sedan going. 'I can't see myself changing my style.' -- Juli Cragg Hilliard

John Esposito: 'It's Risk-Taking to Write for a Broader Audience'

A scholar of Islam who's become a familiar face on American airwaves since September 11, John Esposito tells this story on the world of the academy. 'Somebody gave me a backhanded compliment once,' he says. It was a time earlier in his career when he was less securely and fortunately positioned, and a more senior colleague introduced him at a university function, saying, 'I've noticed how prolific you are and how well you write for a general audience.'

Now a Georgetown University professor of religion and international affairs and founding director of the university's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Esposito says, 'I could have responded, 'I notice you've written things only six people could understand.' ' But the junior scholar held his tongue. 'That mentality is out there,' he says of the academic bias against writing for non-scholars.

'That mentality' is among the professional challenges faced by Esposito and others who have chosen to seek audiences beyond the jury of their scholarly peers. Questions can arise, sometimes sotto voce in university departments and on the professional circuit: is someone who can simplify a subject for the masses just an intellectual lightweight? The concern for academic rigor and standards is legitimate, says Esposito, author or editor of 25 books, including a four-volume reference Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World (Oxford, 1995) as well as his newest, What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam (Oxford, Nov.). 'You have to be able to develop a corpus of work that meets the requirements and standards necessary to credential yourself,' he says, noting his authorship of reference works on Islam. 'But for a variety of reasons some academics find they're not capable of it or it's not worth it for them. Some are very happy in a narrow world.'

Esposito decided early in his career that he wanted to write for more than six people. 'With a few exceptions I've tried to frame most of my books in a way that would appeal both to academia and the educated broader audience,' he says. Events of the times have also shaped and supported that choice. The niche Esposito has occupied since he began his career in 1974 in Islamic and international affairs has periodically been tapped when major events in the world called for expert analysis and comment. He likes to say that he was the Maytag repairman waiting for the phone to ring until it did, loudly, in 1979, when religious conservatives toppled the Shah of Iran and the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Since that time, affairs in the Middle East and the Islamic world-from the condemnation of Indian novelist Salman Rushdie for blasphemy to the rule of Afghanistan by the Taliban-have increasingly claimed American attention and raised puzzling questions. But while Esposito had grown accustomed to the sound of his phone ringing, it was off the hook after September 11. Now on any given day Esposito and other colleagues at the Georgetown center can spend from four to eight hours on media work. Then there are presentations to members of Congress, the Bush administration, the military. The pace of his writing has also quickened.

The publication of What Everyone Needs to Know comes only months after Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam (Oxford, May) appeared. The latest title represents yet another attempt to make things accessible without dilution or dumbing down. It's a frequently-asked-questions book drawn directly from his post-September 11 experience of fielding questions from every quarter. Esposito saw not only a way to summarize the questions and provide the answers-he credits his wife Jean with helping him to see that the Q&A format itself also fit the American penchant for short, focused answers. 'Most people see themselves as fast-paced professionals, always looking for executive summaries,' Esposito says. 'I tried to write in a style that makes it maximally accessible.' And he says early feedback from colleagues tells him it has worked. He's also been able to point to key summaries in media interviews as a way of cutting through a lot of explanation and saving time.

Even beyond the efficiency of communication that popular scholarship can attain, Esposito has another reason to engage in broad-based dialogue. Information-rich Americans should be contributing to discussions in the world about the world. 'We have a moral obligation,' says this student of world religions, who spent 10 years of his life in the Capuchin Franciscan religious order, 'to say what we have to say in the broader society. I see myself as having a moral obligation to do what I think any citizen of the world should do.'

There is a downside to a fully engaged public intellectual's life. 'I'm very tired,' Esposito admits. Ironically, shortly before September 11 he had resolved to try to 'cut back on my manic lifestyle.' Then there is the free-fire debate zone that American public life can sometimes become, as opposed to the occasional potshot from another academic. To maintain personal balance, he has an effective solution. 'I will continue to run my eight miles a day when I can,' he says. 'You can get rid of a lot of aggression that way.' -- Marcia Z. Nelson

Tikva Frymer-Kensky: Aims for 'Good Ideas, Well-Written'

Not too long ago, Frymer-Kensky was told that writing popular books would ruin her scholarly reputation. Now it's simply expected that the University of Chicago professor produce works intended for both general readers and academics. Her latest is Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of Their Stories (Shocken, Aug.).

'When I was in school there were people who were scholars and there were people who were popular writers,' says Frymer-Kensky, linguist, feminist and professor of the Hebrew Bible at the university's divinity school. She credits Samuel Noel Kramer, author of The Sumerians: Their History, Culture and Character (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1963), with helping to change attitudes by demonstrating he could present solid scholarship in a manner that appealed to a wider audience.

Frymer-Kensky says she reaches out to the general public because she believes religion doesn't belong just to scholars. 'I felt it was very important with a field like the Bible not to be segregated from the rest of the world.' But she says she has found it difficult to conquer the general trade publishers' apprehension that if the book is 'too serious,' the American public won't go for it. Her experience is that people are interested, provided they know about the book. She assumes in her writing that she is speaking to an intelligent audience, but one that knows nothing about her topic. 'The big difference is you can't take shortcuts. You can't use technical terms that prevent you from having to explain an idea.'

When Frymer-Kensky took her (Free Press, 1992; Fawcett Books paper, 1993) to the general market, she was told she was risking her scholarly standing. 'People said to me, 'You're going to be laughed at,'' Frymer-Kensky says. 'But the same people who warned me loved the book and became big supporters of looking at the ancient texts in a new way.' The same criticism came into play when she took up the subject of pregnancy for (Putnam, 1995; Riverhead paperback, 1996). Now Frymer-Kensky tries to speak to both markets as a matter of course. 'It's not that I think that everything I have to say is going to be interesting to everybody,' she says, 'but that I want my research projects to be culturally significant.'

She has learned that not everyone can or will make the commitment to read a 'thick book,' and that the American public is turned off by footnotes in the text and prefers them in the back of the book. Having decided that 'large, intense books' put off some readers, she has taken as examples the 96-page The Prayer of Jabez (Multnomah, 2000) and the 94-page Who Moved My Cheese? (Putnam, 1998) for a little volumeshe is writing based on the biblical Witch of Endor. 'I wouldn't know how to do pap, but would take one small story and draw out explicitly the lessons for today,' Frymer-Kensky says.

She wants to finish that book, which she hopes will build a market for her longer ones, before seeking a publisher. She also has at least three other books in progress: a commentary on the biblical Book of Ruth to be published in 2003 by the Jewish Publication Society; a work on the ancient judicial practice of ordeals by water, also for next year, by the academic press Styx; and a tome, still in her head, on the first 11 books of Genesis.

Frymer-Kensky wistfully speaks of scholars knowing nothing of marketing, and wishes that universities who already help professors from scientific and technological fields capitalize on their innovations would do the same for humanities professors who produce 'good ideas, well-written.'

But, at least she no longer faces discouragement from colleagues about writing outside a strictly academic audience. 'I had to prove that it could be done, that I could do it, and scholars have been very supportive of it.' -- Juli Cragg Hilliard

Mark Noll: 'It's a Way of Showing Gratitude'

For Mark Noll, there's no disconnect between writing for a general trade audience and an academic one. He's taught at Wheaton College since 1979, where he is a professor of history and McManus Professor of Christian Thought. But Sunday mornings find Noll lecturing to adult education classes at Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Warrenville, Ill. These two very different classrooms reflect his ability to write fluently for both academic and trade readers.

For Noll, it's plain logic. 'I see all of the writing I've done coming out of a sense of vocation, the sense that I am called to be a historian who is a Christian,' says Noll. 'The question of whether it is a popular book or an academic book is secondary. I want to write both kinds.' Another reason Noll writes some books for a more general trade audience is simple: he's grateful. 'I'm strengthened by my own association to the Christian community, and writing for them is a way of showing gratitude,' he says.

Noll may be best known for his book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Eerdmans, 1994), selected a Book of the Year by Christianity Today magazine. Far from diluting his reputation in the academic world, however, his ability to publish for both the trade and the academy has earned him respect.

'He is, simply, a working academic in very high standing,' Rudy Faust, publicist for Oxford University Press's academic division. 'For the increasingly well-educated evangelical Christian market, Noll is the most prominent public intellectual-academic.'

Writing for both markets keeps Noll busy, and a quick look at his vitae confirms it. In the past decade, he has authored and edited more than 20 books. Noll finds that using good, clear language is important when writing for any audience. 'Writing for the academy is more a question of the amount of detail, coverage, and complexity of the explanation than of changing your prose,' he believes. Noll says Wheaton College is a teaching institution that encourages academic work. 'If I were in an elite research university, there might be more potential for tension,' Noll admits, but adds, 'Even in more strict research settings, I don't feel the need to apologize for the different writing I do. It can be complementary.'

His most recent book, America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Oct.) is a doorstop at 650 pages. It is intended for a more academic audience, Noll says, with crossover appeal for readers interested in history. (It earned a starred review PW, Oct. 21.) OUP academic division publisher Niko Pfund cites an 'aggressive' publicity campaign that emphasizes 'the sweeping historical scope of the book, the magnum opus quality of the work, and most importantly, the significance of the argument being advanced.'

Advertising for Noll's newest includes print publicity in the New York Review of Books, Christianity Today, the London Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Oxford also plans a major debut for Noll's book at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature in Toronto this month, according to Pfund. Although the first printing of America's God is a conservative 3,500, Pfund says Oxford hopes to sell 8,000-10,000 copies in hardcover before publishing the paperback edition. The price tag should help: the enormous hardcover retails at $35. 'Books of this quality-this breadth and depth and lasting appeal-also serve as a flagship for the press, if published in the way they deserve,' Pfund says.

Noll says one of the many reasons he publishes with Oxford is loyalty. Despite small sales potential, Oxford published several symposia he edited on narrow, fairly technical topics. 'I am grateful to Oxford,' Noll says. 'I don't primarily consider myself to be a writer-rather, I'm an academic who writes. I don't have to worry about getting the last possible dollar on a contract.' -- Cindy Crosby