Saturday, June 22, 2013

Bad Reviews

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.


Bill (cycleguy) said...

This is really helpful to me Glynn. I am part of a blogging network and so far I have read one fiction and one non. Both have been good. But what if??? I don't like to put anyone down who has sweated drops of blood, but how can I recommend a book that is awful or not engaging? I like your approach. Send it back with an explanation. Thanks for the helpful tip. And for what its worth: I think the reviewer of DP was off his rocker. :) You did well in understanding it was his personal preference. Keep up the good work.

Martha J. M. Orlando said...

Whatever happened to honest assessments? Oh, well, I can't blame you a bit for not reviewing Christian books which are not to your liking if only to avoid the headaches that seem to come when one is forthright and truthful. I guess this old adage fits - if you can't say something nice, say nothing at all.
That being said, I'm so glad you truly liked by novels, Glynn! :)

Megan Willome said...

And this is why I don't read Christian fiction.

People who are reviewers should give honest reviews, otherwise, how can I trust anything they say? This morning, I listened to one of my favorite weekly podcasts, "Pop Culture Happy Hour," in which that had a spirited discussion about the new movie "Man of Steel." It was funny. It was informative. People disagreed without being disagreeable. Why can't Christian publishing act like that?

Until then, I'll play ball elsewhere.

Joel said...

I call this the Tim Tebow phenomenon. I don't know if you follow sports that much, but Christians are fascinated/obsessed with this guy who is inspiring in his faith, mediocre as a football player, and extremely polarizing because his Christian fan base rips anyone who says he isn't the best quarterback ever. Is it possible to influence this subculture of overvaluing mediocre art or do we just abandon it and invest our time and energy building relationships (literary and otherwise) with the "secular"? Maybe I'm being too extreme or overly dramatic. Either way, I feel your pain.

thewritelife2 said...

I write bad reviews of both Christian and secular, but I use what's called, The Sandwich Method (good on top and bottom, meat in the middle) which is what our critique group uses so as not to discourage the author. Sadly, I, too, have gotten flack from secular and Christians who disagreed with me. I write them anyway. I created a book review policy so it's plain how I grade a book or novel. If they don't want me to publish it, they shouldn't ask. If a novel, especially a self-published novel, has only five star, glowing reviews, I won't buy them. Any writer should realize not everyone will like everything. One agent said Christian etiquette is to ask the writer before publishing the bad review. He was coming from the aspect of protecting his assets. I disagree. If that makes me less than Christian, so be it. :o)

S. Etole said...

Interested in what your answer would be.

thewritelife2 said...

But I don't blame you, Glenn. Writing a bad review causes lots of anxiety because I never know how the author is going to respond. One blogger actually attacked me on private email, even used the blogging program I was a part of it further force me to alter my review of a book that was in short bad. His blog later seemed a reluctant, round-about way of apologizing while preserving his pride. Some self-published "cults" actually won't allow you to publish bad reviews on their site because they are trying to sell their novels and they really don't care about what you think, just how you can help them sell. :o)

val said...

A gift for you...The true Gospel is now delivered to you from the wilderness Rev 12:6 as a witness Matt 24:14.
Our heavenly Father will NOT put any child of his into a hell fire no matter what their sins. Sin doesn't scare God! He created it Isa 45:7 to teach us all the knowledge of good and evil Gen 3:22 for our eternal placement in his coming kingdom. Throwing a child of his into a hell fire has never entered the heart or mind of God to ever do such a thing Jer7:31, Jer 19:5. Anyone preaching a hell fire to God's children has been deceived into teaching lies. The whole world has been believing in a god of hate murder and revenge (The devil Rev 12:9). The true word of God John 1:1 is now delivered Rev 12:5 here

God chose a woman Rev 12 to be the prophet like unto Moses Num 12:3 and Elijah Matt 17:3, Acts 3:21-23, Luke 1:17. Those professing themselves to be Christians would be wise to hear all Acts 3:23 BEFORE making any judgment. The proof of what I tell you is in the hearing.

Prove ALL things 1 Thes 5:21. Satan has deceived the whole world Rev 12:9 until now

nance said...

As a reader...

I don't see any good reason for telling people about books that you don't like. And i can see many good reasons for telling people about books that you do like.

It makes perfect sense to me.

I just don't care to waste time reading about a rotten book, when i can be informed about a good one.

It okay, to me, to point to the good stuff and let God take care of the rest.

But, like Susie, i do wonder what kind of answer you are thinking of.