One thing I’ve learned about Christian fiction – never write a bad review.
I learned that lesson the hard way. When I first started this blog, I was naïve. I read a lot of Christian fiction, but I hadn’t paid much attention to the norms of the industry, like “thou shalt not write a bad review of Christian book or novel, even if it’s bad.”
A few months into blogging, I wrote an unfavorable review of a novel that was clearly in the Christian fiction genre. The writing was good; it truly was. But the novel had structural problems – serious structural problems that were actually there by design. My major issue was that it should have been disclosed on the cover, and not left for the reader to discover in the last 10 pages that this wasn’t a self-contained novel but more of a serialization.
I posted my review, and the apocalypse arrived in short order. If you think Christians aren’t capable of intimidation campaigns, then you don’t know the friends of Christian writers. It was ugly. Emails – blog comments – things said online generally – it was ugly. It was capped by an exchange of emails with the book’s editor, in which things were said about me, my review, and the Christian book publishing industry that blew my socks off. The nicest thing said in the email exchange was “you don’t understand what the author is trying to do.”
Unfortunately, I did understand.
But I pulled the review. Yes, I caved. I have never mentioned the writer again, nor have I read any of the subsequent books written. And I’ve actually reviewed only one other book by that publisher in the five years since, and it was non-fiction.
When I begin reading in the Christian fiction genre today, I can usually tell whether it’s going to be good or bad within the first 20 pages. If it’s bad, I stop reading. I don’t review bad books. I have returned books to publishers saying I believe the book is bad and that I have a policy of not reviewing bad novels. If I’ve bought the book in question myself (which is usually the case), I place in the “giveaway pile” for a local charity.
I’m not the only one out there doing this. It’s kind of a conspiracy of silence – and it’s likely keeping Christian fiction from developing into something better. But it seems to be an unwritten, unspoken commandment – don’t write bad reviews of a Christian novel.
I’m reading a book by a favorite author right now. I’ve been tempted to stop at several points. It’s well written, and an interesting story, but it’s been over-researched, with all the research pushed into the story. Too much detail is taking the mystery and mystique out; I’m not sure if I’m reading a story or a magazine article.
And there are too many negative things afflicting the hero. I’m three-fourths of the way through the book, and I know there are two, possibly three, more negative things coming, including a lot of violence. I know it will ultimately end okay, but at times it just seems too much. One big impending promise of violence is enough; two seem too much to me.
Will I do a review of the book? No.
Will I continue to read the author? Yes. The author is a fine writer and an engaging storyteller.
I’m likely more sensitive to this because I have two of my own novels published. The most critical review of Dancing Priest said something like this: “It’s written in a plain, almost news story style, and I prefer lots of atmosphere.” If that’s as bad as it gets, that’s not bad. And the comment about the style is true.
But it is a question, this relationship (or lack of one) between reviewers and Christian fiction. Are we only supposed to write good reviews? Do we ignore the badly written, or badly constructed, or books with serious flaws? Is this what publishers of Christian fiction expect? Or is the expectation that we overlook the flaws and give everything a good review (which maybe a nice way of saying “if you don’t like it, you’re supposed to say you do,” or “lie about it”)?
I have an answer; I’m not sure I want to implement it.
So in the meantime, I don’t review bad novels.
Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.