It's a marketing triumph no book publicist or agent could have dreamt up: appear on Fox News, patiently endure a markedly confrontational line of questioning about one's religious affiliation, and wait for the whole thing to go viral.
But it's precisely what has happened for Reza Aslan, an Iranian-American scholar of religion, who appeared on a weekly Fox News webcast on Friday to promote Zealot, his controversial new biography of Jesus, only to be asked—repeatedly, for several minutes—why he, a Muslim, would be writing about Jesus. After the interview made its way to BuzzFeed and racked up four million page views, The Atlantic Wire's Connor Simpson predicted that the unexpected blowup would be good news for Reza Aslan.
He was right.
Since Sunday, Zealot has been perched at the No. 1 slot on Amazon's best sellers list, bumping last week's media sensation,
Robert Galbraith's J.K. Rowling's The Cuckoo's Calling, out of the way. (Though unlike The Cuckoo's Calling, which was lodged in obscurity before the revelation that Rowling had written it, Zealot was selling reasonably well before this round of press, The New York Times points out.)
"It's been a bit of a whirlwind," Aslan told The Atlantic Wire in a phone conversation on Tuesday morning. "It's kind of interesting to me how this interview has really captured the zeitgeist in a way. It's like a weird sociological experiment."
Aslan anticipated that Fox would try to trap him into admitting a bias against Jesus. But he didn't realize how big the interview would be until the following night.
"I did a little fundraising dinner for the Los Angeles Review of Books and when I got home from that dinner, I happened to go to my Twitter and noticed I had all these new followers and I was like, 'Wait, what's happening here?'" Aslan recalled. "That's when I saw Andrew's [Kaczynski] post at Buzzfeed. And I was like, 'This could actually be something big.'"
Since then, the book's publisher, Random House, has been happily forced to increase the book's distribution.
"We had 20K [copies] already scheduled to come in today since the book was selling before the weekend," London King, the Deputy Director of Publicity at Random House, explained in an email to The Atlantic Wire. "We just went back for another 50K today because of what happened over the weekend and that will arrive at the end of this week. That brings the total up to 150K in print (as of now)."
The sudden spike in interest has spread to brick-and-mortar shops as well—though perhaps less markedly so.
"Numbers-wise, we've seen an increase over the past week," said Emily Simpson, of Manhattan's The Strand, when asked about the book. "We sold three or four more copies from the previous week." Mark Laframboise, a staff member at Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C., reported a more dramatic uptick. "We sold out," Laframboise said. The store ran out on Sunday, but some of those books sold in the week prior to the Fox News appearance, since Aslan is conveniently slated to speak at the store in September. "We have many, many more books coming," Laframboise confirmed.
"We've been selling it and people have been asking for it and we just got a big shipment in," confirmed yet another bookseller, from BookCourt in Brooklyn. And at Powell's Books in Portland—where Aslan is speaking today—a clerk confirmed that the book has become the store's second-biggest seller since Friday but declined to reveal precise figures.
Still, Aslan pointed out that the discussion has gone well beyond selling books.
"It's not even about me anymore, or whatever benefit the book may have had," he said."What's fascinating is we're having a serious public conversation about these heavy topics, like journalistic integrity and the role of faith in the marketplace of ideas and issues of who does and who does not have a right to talk about religion and faith." (And indeed, that has attracted a new volley of Islamaphobic attacks from right-wing critics, who Aslan says "have been hounding me for a decade.")
But of course, that controversy has generated a major round of publicity for Aslan himself. Last night, at a reading at the Seattle Public Library, "the overflow room had an overflow room." And Aslan obliged requests for a Reddit AMA yesterday afternoon. The session produced a curious mix of questions, which can easily be sorted into two groups: those pertaining to the author's scholarship of world religions, and those pertaining to the Fox News appearance and its aftermath. Aslan, at least, seemed to relish the opportunity to answer questions that didn't focus overwhelmingly on his religious background. Here he is answering whether or not he was surprised by Lauren Green's line of questioning on Fox:
I had some indication of what was about to happen from the attack piece they did on me a few days before the interview. I assumed that we would deal with that at first and then move on to the book. It was only about half way thru that realized what was happening.
Asked if Fox ever reached out or apologized in the wake of the interview, Aslan simply answered, "Nope." Upon being praised for his ability to remain relatively calm during the appearance, Aslan explained, "When you are a brown Muslim man from Iran talking about Jesus you must always remain calm." As for those who feel attacked by his book, which challenges well-established beliefs about Jesus, Aslan answered:
Look, I get it. There are people who are afraid and who feel attacked by a book that questions some of their most basic beliefs. But Jesus said to build your faith on the rock, not on sand. If your faith is strong, then nothing I say should be able to shake it. So relax. Pick up the book. Debate its arguments. But don't be afraid.
But he holds no grudge against Green, who, unsurprisingly, has been a major target of criticism since the interview. (She has not spoken publicly since then, nor have Fox representatives responded to The Atlantic Wire's request for comment.) In fact, he told the Wire, he understands where she was coming from.
"The problem with Lauren Green is that she was speaking from a position of fear," Aslan said. "I totally get that. When I was 15-years-old I was a fundamentalist evangelical Christian. If my 15-year-old self was confronting by some 40-year-old Muslim man from Iran claiming to be an expert on a scripture that I based my life on and questioning some of the fundamental beliefs that I hold, I'd also be afraid."
But Green is not a teenager.
"She has a responsibility to be able to overcome the religious bias," Aslan added, "just like as a scholar I can overcome my religious position to write objectively about these religious issues."