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.