Jacob Neusner, Victim of Authoritis

By John "Birdman" Bryant


Note: Jacob Neusner lives a few miles down the road from me. Both of us are writers and both of us have been profiled in the St Petersburg Times. Awhile back I asked him to review my book Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Jews (he's Jewish), but he never answered. Maybe I'm still pissed off. But actually, I love people like Neusner -- they stimulate my flow of bile.

Jacob Neusner, 'distinguished research professor of religious studies', is '[o]ne of the most honored professors ever to teach at the University of South Florida', according to a recent article ("Honored professor leaving USF", St Petersburg Times, 3 Mar 2000: 4a). What is more, '[s]ince 1960, Neusner has written more than 750 books.' Now if you happened to ask me whether my crap detector was vibrating something awful, I would have to say Yes. First of all, what in hell is a 'research professor of religious studies'? Is religion really something you 'research', like science or history? I always thought it was one of those things made up out of thin air, and the huff and puff of an overworked imagination strung out on constipation, hemorrhoids, and a touch of the grape. Sure, I guess you can read religious books and make commentaries on them, but research? That has the same bullshittical ring as religion itself.

OK, but that is only the appetizer. The article says Neusner has written more than 750 books since 1960. Which is to say he has written 19 books a year, or close to three books a month for the last 40 years! And that's in addition to teaching and a whole dumpster-load of other stuff. Now are we beginning to think something is wrong here?

Yes, it is said that the writers of women's romance novels can write one a week if they dictate to a secretary, which makes four a month if they don't get hoarse (They get two weeks' vacation). But women's romance novels are created out of thin air, ie, the imagination. Which is to say, they are just like religion. So maybe if Neusner is writing religious fantasies -- which he probably is -- then maybe he really has written more than 750 books.

But I don't believe it. What I am more willing to believe, however, is that he has followed a program of regularly cannibalizing old writing to mix with the new under entirely new covers, plus engaging in 'editing' a raft of books on which he has managed to get his name without doing any work.

But whether I am right or wrong about how he has managed to tally the Big 750, or whether he is lying thru his bicuspids about the numbers, there is one thing I know for certain -- Neusner is a Boring Old Fart. I know it because I have seen enuf of his columns in Chronicles to know that, with perhaps one exception, his writing is as somniferous as a Salpetriere hypnotist -- or a distinguished lecturer in religious studies.

Let me put it this way: As the French writer Celine said, writing is an act of excretion. But more than this, writing -- real writing, that is, and not just fantasy or cut-and-paste jobs -- has to be based on knowledge and experience. (As Dr Johnson said, a man may have to 'turn over an entire library to write just one book.') But three books a month, plus a teaching schedule, doesn't allow for the basic experience or thinking time that a real book requires, to say nothing of the time needed to fill the excretory organs. So the only conclusion possible is that Neusner's books are empty of content -- as empty as his columns in Chronicles -- and that his real goal is just to leave his mark in the Guinness Book of World Records.

For myself, speaking as a fairly prolific writer (40 books in 15 years), let me say that I would rather write a book -- one book -- that people would read and remember. Or even just a book that one person I respect would read and remember. Neusner, however, seems to believe that the cabalistic numerology which he follows, and which involves the constant addition of zeros to zero to obtain the Big 750 and more, can transform a truckload of tinsel into gold.

And maybe he's right -- provided you mean fool's gold.

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