September 29, 2011
Spicing Up the ATA
In the book industry we call it the ata, “about the author,” the little blurb on the dust jacket (or in the catalog or on the website) that gives a snapshot of the author’s life or some relevant portion thereof. Academic ata’s are the most predictable and dry of the ata’s. They basically try to establish the academic creds of the author—“got her PhD there, teaches here, has written this and that.” It feels transgressive to go beyond that—“has ten kids, drives a cobalt blue BMW, roots for the Bears”—conventional wisdom says that kind of stuff would diminish the stature of the author. We couldn’t take the author seriously.
But maybe expectations have changed in this day of Facebook and tweeting and all. Shouldn’t we be prying open a little slit in the fence around the academic author’s life? There’d be risk in this—some of our readers might get the wrong idea when they learned the author likes to sip bourbon while playing poker. But who knows? Maybe we’d gain more readers than we’d lose.
In our publishing house, it’s the editor who generally writes the ata. And the editor doesn’t want to stick his or her neck out by being overly creative with the ata. We might embarrass the author and lose the opportunity to publish their next book.
F. F. Bruce was Rylands Professor of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis at the University of Manchester, England, and a leading evangelical biblical scholar. He was the author of numerous biblical studies and commentaries on the New Testament. Bruce seems to have had a policy of not smiling for his author photos. But in our archives we have a photo taken by retired IVP editor Jim Sire, who surprised FFB by pulling out a second camera after taking the first shot. He smiled! We would show you the photo, but Sire wants a scholar's ransom for the rights. Besides, it might erode Bruce’s carefully cultivated “grouchy” image.
C. H. Dodd was a leading New Testament scholar of the twentieth century and the author of notable works on early Christian preaching, the parables of Jesus and the Fourth Gospel. A close friend wrote a limerick that played off Dodd’s small physical stature:
George Caird was Dean Ireland’s Professor of the Exegesis of Holy Scripture in the University of Oxford, and the author of several studies and commentaries on the New Testament, including The Language and Imagery of the Bible. One of his doctoral students described him as “a tall figure who seemed to walk faster than anyone else, black Oxford gown trailing him in the breeze . . . always seemed to be out of the lecture hall before his listeners had written down his last word or had the opportunity to consider the meaning of what they had just heard.” 
Austin Farrar taught at Oxford University and was warden of Keble College. His writings range over philosophy, theology and New Testament exegesis, and are characterized by brilliant independent thinking and even whimsy. A student of his relates, “Farrer lectured with his back turned to the five of us who attended, while his fingers fiddled with the door knob.” 
C. S. Lewis taught English at Oxford and then Cambridge and is widely known as a defender of orthodox Christianity and as the beloved author of the Narnia books. But as one observer put it, "For curtness, it was hard to beat C. S. Lewis when he was present at his legendary Socratic Club. Forget about suffering fools gladly, he did not suffer very intelligent people gladly. If someone asked him a dumb question, Lewis would snap his head off.” 
By the way, we have nothing against British authors. We would gladly publish C. S. Lewis any day. And we'd do it headless if we had to.
 Dictionary of Major Biblical Interpreters, p. 382.