DR: A Good Review--Honestly
We’ve been discussing honesty in book reviews on a writers’ forum I’m part of. It’s made me consider some things I hadn’t thought of before. When I’m on the “reviewee” end of the equation, I tend to favor critics who only review books they loved. And that does seem to be the norm in the Christian publishing industry. The majority of magazines and review sites where Christian books are routinely reviewed carry lightweight, mostly glowing blurbs about the books they choose to highlight. I’m beginning to realize that this is probably because so many reviewers are fellow Christians who would feel guilty hurting a flea’s feelings. But also because they are likely aspiring writers themselves, and they realize how small the CBA industry is and how quickly we close ranks around our own. As writer Ruth Logan Herne said on the writers’ forum, “In a small industry, each word weighs heavily. Creating enemies isn't cool, nor is it conducive to your career.”
Sadly, it is probably wise and in the interest of self-preservation, for any reviewer desiring a career as a writer in the CBA to only review books they can honestly give a good review. Because in truth, when you review a book, you are making a judgment not merely on that author, but on his editors, his critique group if he has one, his agent, his publisher, maybe even his family members! Authors have loyal followings and close-knit groups of writing friends. I've often seen writers come to one another's defense—sometimes publicly—over a bad review.
I’m all for the Scriptural exhortations to be ye kind to one another, consider others better than yourselves, and to think on “whatsoever things are good.” But in some ways, it would be good to see more honesty in Christian reviews. Wouldn’t it be helpful to readers if a reviewer could say, "this book really fell short of what this author is capable of" or "this book was shallow and lightweight" or even "frankly, this author’s work has declined since he/she started writing twenty books a year."
Of course, I’d only want such forthright reviews if they were about someone else’s books!
The same concepts apply to endorsements. Authors are often called on for endorsements and because of our close-knit connections in the CBA, more often than not, it’s a friend, or at least a professional acquaintance, we’re being asked to endorse for. In spite of my best intentions to be fully honest, on a couple of occasions, I found myself writing a complimentary blurb about a book I was less than impressed with. Yes, I made sure the essence of my words was truth—the book actually was “well-written” or “heartwarming” or whatever adjective I was able to employ truthfully—but I might have given my sister or best friend a very different opinion.
There is one factor, however, that makes me hesitant to wish for brutal honesty in reviews and allows me to excuse less-than-candid endorsements: personal taste. Sure, someone knowledgeable about the craft of writing might be able to attest, "This book was very poorly written." And yet the message and story of that book might have an incredible impact on the lives of ordinary readers who don't know or care about head-hopping, correct grammar, plot inconsistencies, or overused adverbs and adjectives. With books that make such mistakes of craft, should the blame lie first with the editors and publishers who allowed those books to hit the shelves in such a state?
And where does God come into the picture? Maybe He knew one person would need the message of that book at that particular time. Maybe He doesn't give a hoot about head-hopping, grammar, etc. (Okay...that's another whole subject. I DO think the Creator of the world cares about excellence and about us—also his creation—as professionals in the industry, giving our very best to the craft to which He’s called us.)
Regardless, I don't think we will ever have completely honest reviews or endorsements as long as the reviewee/endorsee is either a friend of the reviewer/endorser, or someone who might have an influence on their future in the industry. I’m not sure reviews and endorsements can be honest yet informed, until the critic is somewhat disconnected from the close-knit Christian publishing community, while still being knowledgeable about the elements and parameters of good Christian fiction. And that's a tall order.
Deborah Raney is the author of A Vow to Cherish (Steeple Hill June 2006). Coming in January: Remember to Forget for Howard Books, now an imprint of Simon & Schuster. www.deborahraney.com