By Joel Hartse
A few months ago, I got a message from Hannah Notess (you may know her as a recent Milton Fellow and contributor to Image) alerting me to the impending release of a book she thought I might be interested in. And indeed, at almost any other point in my life, I would have been looking forward to reading Matthew Paul Turner's memoir Hear No Evil with great anticipation, since it's a book about two of my biggest interests—faith and rock n' roll.
But when I clicked on the Amazon.com link, the words that came to mind were "Oh no! That's my book!"
I have been somewhat seriously working on a book about faith and popular music for the better part of a year (and the lesser part of maybe six years, to be honest), and had, until recently, been relieved to find that no book-length works treading the same ground as mine had been released. There were a few that came closer, Mark Curtis Anderson's enjoyable Jesus Sound Explosion chief amongst them. Anderson's story, though similar to mine (Attending a Christian college with a no-dancing policy, playing the drums, falling in love at church camp), took place a good fifteen years before I had ever heard the words "Audio Adrenaline." I was safe.
Until Turner came around. The book's cover, depicting a nerdy guy with glasses holding a record (me, basically), and its subtitle ("my story of innocence, music, and the holy ghost"), felt like a message from the universe to me, and that message was "this is what you get for all those mornings wasted playing the guitar and reading Pitchfork Media instead of writing. Somebody else who grew up in the 90s beat you to it. Neener, neener."
I was devastated. My book would come out (assuming I get it finished—I'm supposed to be finishing the final chapter as I write this) about six months after Turner's: nobody would buy it, because they'd already bought his; no media outlets would cover it ("Sorry, we can only devote so much space to Christian rock memoirs, and we've met our quota for this year already"); no reviewers would like it ("Hartse tries—and fails—to bring out the humor and pathos in the world of Christian music, a task much more ably met by Matthew Paul Turner's excellent Hear No Evil.")
This was before I actually read the book. With a mixture of camaraderie and jealousy, I emailed Turner to let him know I was looking forward to his book, and felt a little disappointed about it, and within half an hour got a reassuring reply: our books weren't all that similar. His had more to do with his belief, as a child, that God wanted him to become the Fundamentalist Baptist version of Michael Jackson; mine has more to do with a lifelong obsession with the minutiae of pop and how it has shaped my faith.
Turner sent me a copy of his book, and I was relieved to find that it was not my book at all, and that it was really good and funny and poignant. I read voraciously, from the laugh-out-loud scene in which Turner finds himself in a cafe between a Christian rock star and Jack White of the White Stripes, to the moving final conversation with a gay praise-and-worship leader. Turner has lived things I've only heard about, like super-fundie churches, editing CCM Magazine, and meeting Amy Grant. My own story may not have these impressive highlights (I did meet Sixpence None the Richer when I was fifteen, though!), but it has not been written already.
My editors keep telling me to be less self-deprecating, which is tough, because I have a tendency to write like an unholy hybrid of Dave Barry, Anne Lamott, and Chuck Klosterman. What I don't have in common with those authors, however, is the confidence to relax into a kind of knowing self-mockery; it's easy to poke fun at your own writing when bazillions of people buy your books.
"You can make fun of yourself in the stories about growing up," they tell me. "People will like that. But don't make fun of the actual book while you're writing it. Why would they want to read it if you're telling them it's no good?"
Why indeed? Truthfully, I don't think what I write is no good; it means a great deal to me. I'm just always sure it will not mean much to anybody else. But Matthew Turner's book, instead of destroying my ego, gives me hope: if I wanted to read his book, there must be somebody out there who wants to read mine.