In Praise of Bad Reviews

Most Christians do not write good book reviews. No, I don't mean they write negative reviews. I mean they don't write objective reviews, honest reviews. They write puff pieces. Don't believe me? Go to Amazon. Read some reviews of Christian fiction. Most of them are four or five stars. Unless the review is done by Publishers Weekly, most Christian reviewers seem to feel obligated to give good reviews to their brethren.

One of the most important steps I've ever taken as a writer, was to join a critique group. Having our work examined by other gifted people, is both the most frightening and rewarding experience we can have. Christians, more than anyone, should appreciate the value of honest critique. If the plot has holes, the characters are transparent and there's too many loose ends, I need to know. Why is it then, that published Christian authors are treated with kid gloves?

Maybe it's me but, good Christian reviewers and review sites seem few and far between. Now don't get your panties in a bunch. I'm not saying there's none. What I'm saying is that, for some reason, Christian reviewers are not that objective.

While reading reviews of The Visitation, the film version of Frank Peretti's best-selling book, one Christian blogger linked to this review. After reading this, I was fairly excited. It's a blessing to see Christians and a Christian worldview having a presence in Hollywood. And then I read Christianity Today's review. Here's some excerpts:

Well, it may be religious, but art it ain't. A more appropriate label might be … well, propaganda. Indeed, for its entire 140-minute running time, there's not a single glimmer of good storytelling—or even okay storytelling—to be found. The entire film reeks of shoddy craftsmanship, one long lead-in to the inevitable altar call at its conclusion.

By the time the end credits roll, we feel like we've just been preached at for the past couple of hours. That's what happens when you spend so much time with a bunch of cardboard cutouts, masquerading as characters and serving a piece of work that cares not for telling a meaningful story, but simply for teaching a simplistic lesson—a lesson that's conveyed so sloppily in the film's final act that I'm not even entirely sure I know what it was supposed to mean. Ever wonder why so many people just roll their eyes at the mention of religious art? Presenting Exhibit A.

Is this a bad review? Well, it depends upon how you read it. If it's an honest, objective review, then it's good. Bad reviews are ones that tell us a book or movie is "heart-stopping" and "jaw-dropping," when it ain't. If anybody should be able to tell the truth, it's Christians.

So why aren't they? I have some suggestions about why Christian reviews and reviewers are so milquetoast.

First, I believe there's a fundamental confusion about love and approval. Somehow, we think that a negative review is unloving. That's like saying I should never scold my kids, because they might think I hate them. The Bible commands us to "speak the truth in love" (Eph. 4:15). Speaking the truth can be painful, and is sometimes interpreted as vindictive and mean. But as long as we maintain the right spirit, we should be permitted to say a book/movie is boring, anti-climactic or uneven without being labeled a naysayer.

Second, I believe Christians are so eager to see the Gospel advanced that we're willing to wink at mediocre presentations of it. In other words, as long as the Visitation film gets in theaters or on TV, we're happy. But what if it's as bad as CT says? Is that the kind of messenger you want representing your faith?

Third -- and this is where it gets sticky -- most Christian reviewers are trying to break into/stay in the industry they're reviewing. If I'm hoping to sign with Publisher X, then giving X's authors a negative review could jeapordize my chances. So as a result, we pump out the praise, toss our objectivity out the window, smile and give the book five stars. CT can pan the movie because they're an established entity. It's the peons like me who need to watch what we say.

I don't know 'bout any of you, but if my book drags in parts, I want to know. If I leave too many loose ends, I want to know. If my characters are shallow, I want to know. If my book is really a two-and-a-half star, don't gimme five! Speak the truth in love. Then maybe my next book will be better.

I'd love to hear what you have to say on the topic. Just make sure it's not negative.


Gina Holmes said...

I'll say this Mike, I'll be happy to give you two stars if you deserve it. But, only since I know you feel strongly about it :)I'd also to be careful to think reviewers are just giving four and five stars out of kindness, it could be a book that you or Publisher's weekly thinks stinks, we think is really good. Reading is a very subjective thing. I tend to find beauty in every person I see. Doesn't mean I'm lying if I tell you my friend Mildred is pretty and you think she needs a leash. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Maybe you can assume that if a book gets four or five stars that the reviewer felt it deserved it, even if you don't agree?

Mike Duran said...

Touché, Gina. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But if someone sees everything as beautiful, they're either blind, dishonest or naive. Same goes for a book reviewer.

Dineen A. Miller said...

Eww, ouch. LOL! I can understand what you're saying. I don't do reviews for this reason, because I'm too "nice." (working on it) But I have to agree with Gina. Reading is subjective. I've heard raves about books that I wasn't even able to finish. And vice versa. I do believe our reviews should be honest though. Perhaps the right mix is pointing out the strengths and mentioning the weaknesses. I think CT's review was a bit harsh, sarcastic actually, and could have been worded a little better, but like I said, I'm "nice." :-)

Elaina Avalos said...

Great post, Mike. I'm not very nice. Or at least some might think so. But I would rather speak the truth than a watered down version of...anything.

Yeah, the reviews, as a rule, bother me. To some extent we can say "to each his own." And I like some "puff" fiction. I admit it. So sue me. But what isn't and shouldn't be acceptable is a sugar coated, shiny, happy version of, well anything. If your writing sucks...well, then maybe you need to hear it. I did.

But I think you've got an interesting point here with the love vs. approval issue. I strive to be a truth teller. I'm sarcastic. So I've got to always work on being a truth teller that speaks from love.

If I had to choose between the two reviews of the Peretti film...I'd go with CT and I don't think they were harsh. All I had to do was look at the photos on the other review to draw the same conclusion. I mean, are they serious?

"Art it ain't" is probably a fair review. I probably wouldn't watch the thing anyway. But I'm glad CT didn't feel the need to publish a shiny, happy review.

Ame said...

Speaking the truth in love, if practiced, would revolutionize all of Christianity . . . not just print or film. How many are willing to hold anyone accountable for anything anymore? I would much rather hear the truth . . . and absolutely/only in love . . . up front. I can deal with the truth. I can't deal with the lie, no matter how well intended.

Gina Holmes said...

Love is blind, Mike.
Do you suppose these reviewers simply aren't reviewing books they don't care for. I wonder how many book reviews they said no to because they would have given 3 stars? So, what may look like four and five stars on every book they review does not account for the many, many they simply choose not to.

There's also a whole lot of difference between telling someone their baby is ugly while plastic surgery is still an option (prior to publication) and quite another after that possibility is forever gone (after the book is released).
Great think piece as always!

Pedrique said...

I always figured reviewers review what they're told to review and not given much choice in the matter, and therefore the odds would be better to get some negative ones in there. Maybe that's not the case.

This post makes me think of my parents - sitting at home watching some God-awful movie and thinking at the end how good it was, meanwhile I'm like the guy listening to Striker in "Airplane" with a noose around my neck and a samurai sword through my belly.

Mike Duran said...

To further infuriate me, Dave at FiF posts a link to Jana Riess, Religion Editor for PW. The subtitle for her blog is: Jana Riess sifts through the best and the worst in books, films, television and religion. This is exactly what I'm talking about. Christians don't do "worst of" sites. Why? It was refreshing to browse her blog and see books getting (ta da!) one star. Yes, some got five. And the fact that she gave out one, makes me trust her more on the five. Can ya feel me?

Ane Mulligan said...

Okay, Mike - ya hit home!

As a reviewer, I don't write reviews of books I hated. I don't have to, since I review on a blog. I do try to be as honest as I can be. Some books I like, even though they may not be the best written piece of literature. If the author is a great story-teller, that can carry the book. Some are great at characterization, but the story drives me crazy. I recently read a book by a best selling author. I thought it stunk. I'll never read another work by this person. How they got to be a best seller is beyond me. But - in this author's defense, there were parts of it that were good. So how does one review that? The answer is what we hear in this business day in and day out:


Kelly Klepfer said...

I do music reviews. I'm not a musician, nor do I have a perfect ear, but I know what I like.

There are types of music some people adore that I detest. I just had the opportunity to write a review for a style of music that leaves me cold and queasy.

But the lyrics were well done. And the heart was beating throughout.
So I focused on those aspects, but said what type of listener would enjoy the CD.

Ditto with books. I find myself getting tangled up in details that could have been cleaned up,like pet phrases and words, but sucked into a story. It's the story that ultimatly will reach the heart of the reader, especially the one who doesn't read how-to write better books for fun and enjoyment.

Mike Duran said...

Thanks, Ane. I hear the "subjective" arguement all the time -- and it's true! However, that's not my point. My point is this: WHY DON'T CHRISTIANS PUBLICLY GIVE BAD REVIEWS? That's it. That's all I'm asking.

michael snyder said...

I hope I don't stir anything up here but...although I do agree that opinions are subjective, I also subscribe to the notion that art can be judged, and even compared, on objective levels. I just happen to think Christians (as well as non-belieiving people-pleasers) tend to get a little queasy about it.

I doubt anyone would argue that the Beatles were much better than my first garage band--objectively speaking.

Okay, that was an easy one. The problem is when things get a little closer to home. So I'll use myself as an example. Richard Russo is a better writer than me, hands down, no questions, despite personal preferences and worldviews and all that. Now there may be a half dozen folks who'd rather read me (wife, mother, four kids...). But there's really no argument as far as I'm concerned.

So to answer your question, Mike...I don't know.

I don't mind amateur reviewers that post gushing reviews on their blogs. But I do think we are long overdue for serious criticism (in the truest sense of the word) of CBA books, a la the Visitation review in Chritianity Today.

Sometimes the truth hurts. Just look at my deteriorating jump shot for proof.

Mike Duran said...

Great points, Mike. (Although you can count me in w/ your mom, wife and kids as someone who wants to read your stuff.) I too, have no problem w/ amateur reviewers. Hey, that's what blogging's all about. It's just I DON'T FEEL I CAN TRUST SOMEONE WHO ONLY GIVES ME ONE SIDE OF THE STORY. Why is it that amateur reviewers only review books they like? I would trust more Christian reviewers if they gave out one or two stars once in a while. I've disagreed w/ Ebert and Roeper plenty of times. But when they both give a thumbs down, I usually take heed. That's our problem -- there's no Christians out there willing to give a thumbs down.

Gina Holmes said...

I don't disagree that we should be able to get honest reviews. But, Siskel and Ebert weren't trying to get their movies made at the same time they were dissing other movie makers.

Most reviewers are aspiring writers. A good reviewer should probably be someone who isn't interested in writing themselves. I agree that would be a good thing to have a site that was completely honest. I'd read it. But, I'm not the one to write it. You want to volunteer Mike?

CFisher said...

"Christians don't do "worst of" sites. Why?"

"Why is it that amateur reviewers only review books they like?"

I thought it was obvious. It's because of the eleventh commandment: "Thou shalt not offend thy brother."

Heather Smith said...

I'm coming in a little late on this one, Mike, but I agree. Christians are wary to give bad reviews. Now I sing, and though I make no claim to fame, I've been told I'm good. But in all honesty, I only trust my brother and my dad to know if I'm on pitch. They'll flat tell me, you were off on this line or whatever. When I've practiced the same line 500 times, it can be annoying, but the end result is worth it.
Christians are to make each other better. Proverbs 27:17 talks about iron sharpening iron.
The truth can be hard to take, but I would rather someone tell me the truth, so I could fix the problem.
Otherwise, I might end up looking like one of the people on American Idol who are totally shocked when someone finally tells them the truth about how awful they are!

Ame said...

The, "If you can't say anything nice don't say anything at all," gets ingrained. Perhaps teaching that there are appropriate ways and times to speak the truth . . . in love . . . to our children? And then keeping family secrets - don't tell the truth outside the family kinda stuff - or even inside the family and to each other. Grandma's an alcoholic, but don't tell anyone . . . Mom and Dad say to others, "Oh, she's just having a 'day.'" And we teach our children to cover for each other - to lie - to not tell the truth - because if they find out Grandma's an alcoholic then they'll find out . . .

Just some thoughts.

Mike Duran said...

Hey-diddle-diddle! Thanks for all the back-and-forth. Ame, Heather, Chris, Gina, Mike, Kelly, Ane, Pedro, Elaina, Dineen...good gravy! Thank you guys. I realize this is a sensitive subject (for whatever reasons), but for me, it really comes out of a simple desire to, like Michael mentioned, see more serious artistic criticism in the Body.

Gina, I appreciate what you're doing -- the Lord's blessed you. Yet you are butting into my primary thesis (which is posed in the form of a question): Why can't aspiring writers write honest reviews? Let's think about this.

If you say, Well, they are writing honest reviews, then all I have to do is point to the absence of negative reviews (and by negative, I do not mean "mean-spirited," but "unfavorable" or "critical"). So if we're honest about any art form, there will eventually be things we don't care for. That would be my first contention that, Christian writers are not good reviewers because they are not being honest about the bad (or at least mediocre) stuff out there.

If you're saying a Christian writer / reviewer can't be honest because they're trying to get a job with the publisher they're criticizing, then you're in an ethical bind. In modern vernacular they call this, "brown-nosing" and other unseemly terminology. In other words, I'm gonna tell you what you want to hear, so you will print my book. Is that what it's come to? Again I go back to the Scripture: Speak the TRUTH in LOVE. I think this is what Ame keeps reminding us about. We must be tactful and gracious with everyone (LOVE). But we also must be honest enough to admit when we think a story doesn't work, is poorly written or one-dimensional (TRUTH). If we only do the LOVE and not the TRUTH, are we good reviewers.. or good Christians for that matter? Furthermore, I trust that publishers care little about my feelings about certain books. What they want from me is a rip-roaring good story.

Thanks again, guys and gals. And if you've read this far, I owe you a nickel.

michael snyder said...

Cool, I could use a nickel about now...

And Mike, you are in big trouble now. Once this battle stops raging, you're going to have to explain that 'good Christian' comment. I can see my wife rolling her eyes in her sleep.