Thursday, October 4, 2012

Reviewing Christian Fiction: How Far Is Too Far?

How would you feel if someone gave your book a negative review – in the sight of every potential buyer?

Yesterday I reviewed The Tide of Unmaking. While writing that review, I struggled to both give an even-handed opinion on the book and keep my critique in check. (While The Tide of Unmaking had many, many good points, and had a good rating from me, I'm able to articulate critique much better than praise.) I actually cut three or four paragraphs that imbalanced the review by focusing too much on the negatives. And while writing that review, I kept thinking, “How fair is this to a hard-working Christian author?”

These thoughts aren't new. I thought them, in a different way, while reviewing a book called Behemoth for BookSneeze. I wrote a 2.5 star review, which I posted both to Amazon and my blog. What made it worse is that I had gotten the book for free, and I felt obligated to help out the author in some way. The review, however, was one of the most negative I had written. My opinion was, in summary, that it was a creationist tract that was dressed up like a novel. I know of several people that decided against buying the novel as a result of my review.

Another example would be a book (which I'll leave nameless) that I reviewed for a fellow young Christian writer. It was a negative review, and I felt bad that I couldn't give it a better rating, but there were elements in the book that I simply couldn't tolerate.

After each of these instances, I found myself thinking, “How far is too far?”

How far will you go to write a critical review of a Christian book? Or, as I said earlier, how would you feel if a fellow believer gave your hard work – Christian work, at that – a negative review?

It's a hard question, and there's no easy answers. Most of the reviews I write are of Christian books. Each of those authors had a dream to get their baby, their novel, published for the world to see. Those authors are supported financially by their work, have invested years of sweat and blood into their work. They've sought to glorify God how best they can. Can I justify giving them a bad rating?

Some people would probably say no. And there are people who do that – who, out of respect for the author, keep to the maxim, “If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all.”

Still, if I followed this principle in my reviews, I feel that I would be dishonest.

So what's the balance?

I think it's different for different people. Some of us may be feel led to not speak; some of us may feel duty-bound to let loose their opinion, negative or no.

Here's what I do. In every review, especially if they're negative, I keep three rules in mind.

1) Always balance the negative with the positive.

Writing an entirely negative review is just as offensive to me as it is to the author receiving the review. It shows lack of taste and decency. Balancing the negative with the positive “sweetens the pill” and also makes a review even-handed. Pointing out only positives or only negatives is simply dishonest. There are good elements to almost every novel. (I'm not in the business of reading novels that have no good elements, so I don't have to worry about finding elements to compliment.)

2) Keep a respectful tone of voice.

Reviews that have biting sarcasm and a mocking tone of voice never go down well. When a person uses words like “trash” and “stupid” and “junk” to describe a book, they're neglecting the fact that they are called to speak the truth – in love. And even if a person uses nice words, if they're being sardonic, their nice words are worthless.

I've read far too many reviews like this. There's a difference between critique and “bashing”. (Bashing is reserved for Twilight, so goes the joke.)

Instead, I use turns of phrase that are softer and less offensive to communicate what I mean.

3) Tell the truth.

As much as I want to support Christian authors, I don't support sugarcoating my thoughts. I am charged to use my words well: but while speaking in love I must not neglect the fact that I am supposed to be speaking truth.

If the writer needs to work on their prose, then that's what I'm going to say. If the author had his or her characters saying cheesy things throughout the book, then I'm need to let the potential reader know. Honesty is the best attribute for a reviewer to have.

What about you? What are your thoughts about writing negative reviews, especially if the negative review is of a Christian book? Have you ever written any negative reviews? I'd love to hear your thoughts.


Writer4Christ said...

If the authors hear or read your criticism, I think you should put some encouragement for that author after your criticism. Authors learn from criticism. They learn to change some things in the future because of bad reviews. I reviewed a book that had some flaws, but I managed to find some great things that I liked about it to put into the review also. It depends on the book, I think. If you really can't find anything good in the book, just a lot of bad, I do think it deserves a bad review - but with encouragement to the author at the end to put balm on a wound the review might reveal or create. When I say encouragement, I mean something like, "But this doesn't mean that all the books by so and so are bad. This new author may get better with time." or something like that.
What do you think?

Hannah Joy said...

I find it very hard to review books at all, especially books I don't like. Books I do like, I just rant about, and books I don't....well, I just rant about. I find that I just stink at actually writing a solid review, so I usually shy away from them unless it's required for school or something. In which case, I usually do a book I don't care too much about either way.

But maybe I'll try my hand at it again, with these tips....who knows? :-)

Jess said...

I very much agree. I have had this question, too, but lately I've been too lazy to think it out and have just decided not to write negative reviews right now. Now that I've read this I can't hide behind the excuse that I haven't thought about it... But I am very glad that you addressed it.

I don't think that a balanced, respectful review is reserved only for Christian authors. Any author has poured some amount of effort into his book whether or not he's Christian. They must think it is worth something or they wouldn't go through the trouble of publishing it... right? (If not then shame on them.) I think that it depends less on whether the author is Christian and more on whether the reviewer is Christian (and if they are asking the question then they are assumably Christian). We act as Christians toward other believers, and we act as Christians toward unbelievers as well.

I have written two official negative reviews in the past. One of them I regret because it definitely falls under the "bashing" category. The other I would stand proudly beside even in the face of a thousand people who really loved the book, because there was no bashing involved, just thoughts that I haven't changed my mind about.

It always helps me with balance when I keep in mind that friends of mine that will be reading the review liked the book that I want to write about. If I come across as a jerk who hated the book and can't find anything nice to say, then even if the author doesn't read the review and feel like curling up to die, my friends who enjoyed the book will feel crummy. I know I tend to take things personally when someone doesn't like what I like, so other people might have that problem, too. So I try to be nice or at the very least intelligent and respectful. Doesn't always happen, but I'm learning and growing.

And one last thought... don't review the book if you didn't read it all the way through. Coming from experience. I stop reading any book that I feel is a waste of time, but I learned the hard way that you shouldn't go and write negative reviews of something if you haven't suffered through the whole thing. Maybe I'm the only one who does that, though. ;-)

Anyway, good thoughts, good post. Keep 'em coming.