Stunt Books: Can Change Be Forced?

I promised a review of Jen Hatmaker’s book 7 and here it is. Sort of.

What I really want to talk about isn’t so much the content or quality of the book (It’s a pretty well-executed treatise for living a simpler life in an excess culture) but rather the book’s hook.

It’s a stunt book.

Stunt books are driven by some sort of experiment. Maybe the author decides to “live Biblically” for a year or to read the entire Oxford English Dictionary or to only eat locally grown foods. Writers use these “stunts” as catalysts for writing, hoping an extreme behavioral change will jumpstart some sort of illumination.

A.J. Jacobs, author of 22 stunt books or articles the most famous being “A Year of Living Biblically,” recently defended the oft-criticized stunt genre in Wired magazine. He wrote, “Done right the literary stunt can still be entertaining, illuminating, even sublime.”

Hatmaker’s stunt was to pinpoint seven areas of excess in her life and spend seven months, one month for each area, engaging in a “radical” purge of some sort. For one month she gave away seven possessions every day. For another, she ate only seven foods (Those were two of the more extreme months).

I am currently very interested in the stunt genre as I’m being encouraged to write a stunt book. The advice I hear again and again is to use my clothes project as the core of a book about clothes and God. It’s a good hook: Four outfits. 365 days. That sells.

But here’s the thing… I don’t like stunt books. 

Reading Hatmaker’s book reminded me of why. I have several reasons—and I’d LOVE it if we could discuss this genre at length in the comments—but here’s my biggest beef:

Jacobs says in the article I cited above, “A successful stunt requires a writer who is passionate and open to change. In fact, change is crucial, almost mandatory—without it you won’t have much of a story.”

Because change is essential to a good book, I don’t see how readers of a stunt book can buy change in the author as authentic and lasting. It seems, well, too convenient. Isn’t it wonderful that this project you created and plan to execute in a mere seven months just happened to prove your hypothesis and change your entire world view? 

Did I mention I’m cynical?

Still. It’s one thing to undergo an experience and decide post-experience that perhaps it warrants a book. But to think up a project and secure a book deal before you’ve even begun—what are you going to do if nothing happens? What if eating seven foods doesn’t change you in any meaningful way? It seems to me like there’s no room for that outcome. 

I think I’m exceptionally leery because four months after my own stunt, I’m feeling like some of the things I “learned” haven’t exactly stuck. I thought, surely I’ll be able to keep my wardrobe small, but in four months I’ve accumulated half again as many clothes as I’d hoped to own in total. I’m also finding myself drawn back into the cheap clothes world and compromising on my decisions to buy fair trade and organic whenever possible. I’m realizing a year of living a certain way doesn’t forever change a person. It’s choosing to live that way every day that makes a true and noticeable difference. 

And that’s what I want to encourage in my book. I want people to commit to a different way of living, a way I’ve discovered (and am discovering) not in 365 days of experimentation but in 31 years of living. 

God’s people (aside from a few OT prophets) aren’t called to be stunt men. They’re called to daily obedience, to gentle and quiet lives, to perseverance. That’s my audience and I want to give them something they can use.