The Church of Scientology will skip tonight’s National Book Awards

November 20, 2013
"Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief," by Lawrence Wright (Vintage).
“Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief,” by Lawrence Wright (Vintage)

On Wednesday night, while New York theater goers laugh at “The Book of Mormon,” another American-grown religion will be enduring far more uncomfortable attention just a few miles away.

“Going Clear,” Lawrence Wright‘s devastating critique of the Church of Scientology, is one of five finalists for this year’s National Book Award in nonfiction.

Even for a church legendary for defending itself, Wright has posed a particularly tough challenge. His credentials — New Yorker staff writer, Pulitzer Prize — are solid gold. His methodology is rigorous and exhaustive. And perhaps most formidable, his manner is calm and thoughtful. He never sounds caustic, vengeful or even impolite. He’s no spiteful apostate out to wreak vengeance. Reading his book, one senses that he sincerely wants to understand this organization and its members.

In the New York Times, Michael Kinsley wrote, “That crunching sound you hear is Lawrence Wright bending over backward to be fair to Scientology.”

So, after watching “Going Clear” receive glowing reviews since it hit shelves in January, the church must now contend with the possibility that Wright’s book might also win one of the nation’s most prestigious prizes. (If Jill Lepore wins for “Book of Ages,” Ben Franklin’s followers have nothing to fear.)

But the Church of Scientology is reacting to Wednesday night”s ceremony with studied calm.

Nicholas Latimer, director of publicity for Knopf, Wright’s publisher, told me that “they harassed us at the time of the original publication,” but since then there has been “no new trouble.”

Asked for an official response to “Going Clear,” Scientology director of public affairs Karin Pouw directed me to the organization’s Web site and a special catalogue of what she called “the more serious errors in the book.”

Referring to Wright’s “sloppy research and one-sided approach,” Pouw went on to say that the author “relies on questionable sources with axes to grind. I doubt that you or any of your colleagues at The Post would consider using such sources.”

When I asked if any Scientologists were planning protests or other demonstrations at the awards ceremony, she said: “Your suggestion is absurd and offensive. While we have no doubt Mr. Wright and his publisher would crave the attention ‘protests and other demonstrations’ would bring, we have said everything we have to say about his book.”

Given the church’s tenacity in dealing with past critics, I find that hard to believe.

Good luck, Mr. Wright.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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