Monday, August 14, 2006

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.


At 7:39 AM, Blogger ~michelle pendergrass said...

"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"

Maybe I'm a little different, but I would rather my friend tell me the truth rather than sugar-coat something out of fear.

Where does "God has not given us a spirit of fearfulness, but one of power, love, and sound judgment" come into play?

How about telling the truth in love? You do not have to be brutal and tear someone apart to be truthful. Jesus gives us example after example.

Does God call me to be honest? Or does He say it's ok to be a little bit dishonest while twisting the meaning of being kind. Because to me, kind is not being dishonest. My enemies can be dishonest to me. I expect my friends to be honest. Didn't Paul go straight to Peter and tell him that He wasn't on target? Didn't Jesus Himself tell Peter the truth?

Does the truth hurt? Yes, often it does. But the truth is the excellence that shines forth above all.

I wouldn't want my book reviewed by someone who I knew only gives good reviews. Because then I'd just be getting what everyone else gets and everything remains at status quo.

What makes a person strive to be better if not the truth?

Yes, God can and will use mediocrity for His purpose because all things work for good for those that believe. However, I wonder what blessings have been withheld because I've settled. What if I'm the reviewer and God is trying to use me to say something to the author that would raise the writer up a level. A level that would raise the bar?

I think that a proper review can and should be done. I don't know of a time God ever accepted complacency and status quo as standards. His character demands that those who believe step out in faith.

If we can't be honest with EACH OTHER what kind of credibility are we showing the world? Will someone believe me about God if I can't even be honest about a book review?

At 8:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. Pefect example of the two sides of this issue. Deb on one, and Michelle on the other. And I see the truth of each.

I absolutely agree with Michelle that I'd rather have an honest review so I can fix (if it's a critique) the problems or learn (if it's a review) for the next book.

But it is so true, as Deb says, that the CBA world is small and can be mutually dependent (or is that co-dependent?) :)

I also can relate to Deb's comments about personal taste. I cannot abide a certain three-hanky male author that millions of other people flock to, so I would avoid reviewing his books because ... well because of the same reason I gave New Kids on the Block a "favorable" review when I was a reviewer for The Indianapolis Star -- I want to avoid the slings and arrows that would come my way!

Maybe that's less than honest, but with NKOTB fans (back then), there was no changing their minds and, really, it WAS only a concert. But I digress...I would avoid reviewing the three-hanky author not because I think I would not be impartial, but because giving it a bad review would be rather pointless. Look at all the bad reviews Dan Brown got?

Fascinating topic. Can't wait to see what others say.

At 10:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Between you and Michelle, you certainly said it "nice-r" than Chip MacGregor did in an interview over at "A Novel Journey" and exacted the same point well.


At 10:56 AM, Blogger Angela said...

Deb speaks of what she knows, and there's no substitute for experience.

I've just returned from a writer's conference where I taught a clinic with my friend, Nancy Rue. I critiqued the participants' manuscripts on the plane, writing lots of "NO!" and "Ugh" in the margins. Because I didn't know these people.

But as I sat in class and got to know them, I found myself going back and softening my comments in the margins. "NO!" was followed by "Are you sure you want to say it this way? Something else could be clearer."

One student told me, "You're tough. But I appreciate that."

No one wants to browbeat a friend, especially a Christian brother or sister. And art is EXTREMELY subjective. My "ugh" may be someone else's "wow." (This occasionally happens when Nancy and I critique. I'll hate a passage because it's wordy; she'll love it because it's creative.)

With all that said--after you've published a book, and it's been through your editor and copy editors and proofreaders and test readers, you'll want to hear good things. When you hear bad things, you'll feel hurt . . . maybe defensive. Trust me. :-)

That's why I'm grateful for PW and Library Journal and people I don't have coffee with on a regular basis. I don't always agree with them, but occasionally I pick up a useful nugget.

From my friends I want--and I give--support.


At 11:50 AM, Blogger PatriciaW said...

I'm always intrigued by this topic. I have yet to publish a novel so I have yet to be on the receiving end of a review. That being said, I do, however, review books of other writers. And I find, occasionally, that I'm not thrilled by some of the things I read. When I am, I gush willingly. When I'm not, I try to be honest without being mean.

This is what intrigues me. It seems that we always treat this as an issue of polar opposites -- nice review (no real critique) vs. honest review (real critique which is assumed to be synonymous with nasty).

I try to be fair, even re-reading a book before I write the review sometimes. I think and pray about what I say and try to convey my meaning without being unnecessarily harsh.

We are writers. Surely we can find the words to give a fellow writer constructive feedback without being mean and nasty, can't we? And as Christians writers, don't we wish to get better at our craft? I like to think so.

Or does being Christian somehow exempt us from truth? Are we so thin-skinned that we can't hear the truth or when we do, we immediately assume another person's intent was to hurt us? Sure the truth, given in love, might be painful initially, but like a finger prick at the doctor's office for a much needed blood test, the pain is inconsequential compared to the benefit.

What I don't do, as a reviewer, is review books in categories I don't read (that's not very much as I read pretty broadly) or dislike. That's not fair to the writers. How would I know whether the book isn't the best there is in that particular category? If I can't find one redeeming thing to say, then I won't review it.

But, if I can say something along the lines (forgive me for the abbreviation but this post is long enough) of "enchanting story occasionally bogged down by uneven pacing" or "love the way this author puts together words and phrases, visually drawing reader in. Overall, well written but felt as though I was left hanging when major sub-plot went unresolved", does this make me a hateful reviewer? I don't think so. It's just one woman's opinion. Others may feel differently.

I agree with Michelle about our witness. If WE can't demonstrate how to give AND receive criticism, how seriously should the world take us when we want to discuss the things of God?

At 1:30 PM, Blogger Deborah Raney said...

Thanks so much, everyone, for your thoughtful feedback. Much to think about. One thing I want to note: a critique is a very, very different matter from a review or endorsement. I do many manuscript critiques each year when I teach at writers conferences and I am always honest (yet kind, I hope) in critiques. The critique form I've developed has a large space for "weaknesses" because this is a place where it's not too late for the writer to improve his work. This is the time when an honest "review" truly can help the author toward excellence.

In giving reviews and endorsements, I am honest as well. But in those cases, while I always speak the truth, I may not be speaking the WHOLE truth. A review is given when it is usually too late for the author to fix what's wrong (until the next book). That said, on more than one occasion I have had a fellow author e-mail a lovely endorsement along with a comment about something that needed fixing if at all possible before the manuscript went to press (or even in a second printing). A fellow author saved one of my novels from going to press with the word "symbols" where it should have been "cymbals." (Thank you, Angie!) And I once deleted a paragraph from an about-to-go-to-press novel when an author friend reading it for endorsement kindly pointed out that it was redundant and preachy. (Bless you, Lisa!) My books were better for the kind honesty of those writers, but had they each pointed out my errors in public reviews--or refused to endorse my book because of those things--it would have been hurtful, no matter how kindly their words were chosen. And I'm not sure it would have served any purpose.

I think every author sends their final work on the galleys off to the editor with fear and trembling, KNOWING it could have been better. It could ALWAYS be better. But at some point, we have to release the work of our hands into the printer's hands, and ultimately into God's hands--our offering.

Great discussion! Thanks, everyone for your iinput!

At 6:21 PM, Blogger Tracey Bateman said...

I think there's a major difference in receiving a "critique" before the book is out and receiving a brutal review for the world to see. I too want brutally honest critiques from my partners and editors who are making the book the best it can be. But Hey, once that baby's put to bed and is out there for the world to see...GIVE ME A BREAK. Say it's good, or at least throw me a bone and say SOMETHING positive. LOL

I agree with Deb. It's not good for a newbie's career to give a mean review. People have long memories in this business.

At 11:24 PM, Blogger ~michelle pendergrass said...

I do like the examples of reviews/endorsements.

I understand the dilemma of not wanting to hurt someone or step on toes. Could it be, then, that God may be calling someone else to review? Maybe someone who's not seeking publication? Someone who just reads and enjoys reading?

Could it be we're trying to do too much?

They're things to think about, anyway.

Of course published, popular authors will always be asked to give endorsements. I can't decide how I feel about that. On one hand it seems like a good idea, but on the other it reeks of a "good ole boys" club (not saying that anyone here is guilty--don't take it that way) Moreso that the general idea of endorsements seems country club-ish.

I'll readily admit I know next to nothing about the business side of writing/publishing. So the comments I've made are purely from an observational standpoint. And I'm green, at that!

Thanks for the discussion. I enjoyed it.

At 2:13 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I love this post, Deb. I review books but I don't review ones I dislike. The truth is I may be asking this same author for a blurb someday or going on retreat with them or whatever. It's a good thing for authors to keep humble because for all the glowing things being said about your book, there is plenty of unflattering opinions being held back.

If an author I've read ever asked me if I had any criticism, I would be truthful. I suggest we ask.

At 8:40 AM, Blogger Kristy Dykes said...

The first thing that came to my mind was something my mother taught me.

"If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all."

I'm not sure this applies to reviews, but it may.

You said, "I don't think we will ever have completely honest reviews..."

Into my mind pops the myriad of reviews I've read about ABA books. They aren't "completely honest" either, so maybe they shouldn't be the criterion we base ours on. I've rushed out to buy books based on reviews in the newspaper many times, only to have to toss or donate the books after reading only a few pages because they weren't my cup of tea.

I've learned in this business that EVERYTHING IS RELATIVE. What one person loves, the other hates. We all have different tastes.

So maybe, what my mother taught me is the best guidepost for CBA reviews. Find something that's good--"well written" or "heartwarming," like you said, and leave the rest alone.

Just a thought.

At 3:47 PM, Blogger Kristy Dykes said...

Wanted to add: the reason I was so late posting was I was in Savannah celebrating my anniversary.

At 3:55 PM, Blogger PatriciaW said...

Deb, I hadn't thought about a critique vs. a review, although I stand by my comments. Definite food for thought.

I certainly don't want to critique after the fact but I do wish to be both fair and honest.

Like Kristy's mom, I was raised not to say anything if I couldn't say something nice. I always give positive feedback in my reviews. Maybe I should leave it at that.

At 9:57 PM, Blogger Rachelle said...

Deb, this is a thoughtful and important post! I think you've identified a crucial "flaw" (if you want to call it that) in the CBA review/endorsement system.

As an editor, I'm called on to be fully honest with authors because it's my job to help them write the best book they possibly can.

Yet, I rarely say anything negative publicly about a book that's already published. Like everyone else reading this blog, I'm well-read, and half my reading is outside of CBA. So it's not unusual for me to find CBA books that I think are substandard for any numbers of reasons, usually: unoriginal, badly written, badly edited, no depth, or simply boring. But I only express my views in private if someone asks me about a particular book. (And people are always asking me about books.)

Even in private, I usually don't fully express my views if they're negative. I have to take into account the person to whom I'm speaking. Perhaps I can't stand the book, but I believe that person may like it. I will talk about the book in specifics ("it's about womanhood, and it approaches the topic from the Proverbs 31 perspective"). And I'll usually try to compare it to another book: "If you liked Redeeming Love, I think you'll really enjoy A Vow to Cherish.

As a reader, I urge anyone asked to provide an endorsement to "limit" the number they'll do each year, and to only offer them for books they truly endorse. I would like to be able to trust those endorsements!

Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

At 7:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi there! I am the inspirational review coordinator for a romance site and I stress honest reviews to the reviewers. A published book usually has more good than bad to it, so we always point out the good, but we also point what might be problematic. In fact, because reviews are totally subjective how can a good review not point out errors as well as the great stuff??
Sometimes a book just doesn't work because the reviewer doesn't like the genre..well, that should be pointed out too....honesty is the best policy!!

At 5:25 AM, Blogger Deborah Raney said...

Not sure if anyone is reading this topic at this late date, but I just want to say thank you again for everyone's input. Rachelle, I especially appreciate your observations from within the industry. I'm still chewing on everyone's thoughts.


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