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Monday, March 8, 2010

Book Reviews: The Christian Dilemma


by Narelle Atkins

Have you ever wondered why the majority of Christian fiction reviews are positive and tend to have 4 or 5 stars on review sites like Amazon? At first glance, you may assume that Christian fiction must be excellent or that Christian reviewers are too ‘nice’ to write negative comments in their reviews.

I think the real story is more complicated and obedience to God’s word plays an important role. The Bible teaches that we need to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:31) and that we need to edify our brothers and sisters in Christ and build up the body of Christ.

1 Thessalonians 5:11 says (NIV) ‘Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.’ And in Ephesians 4:29, the apostle Paul says ‘Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.’

If we make negative comments in a book review, are we then acting in a manner contrary to the teachings in the Bible by saying something that may potentially hurt our brother or sister in Christ? Publishing is a tough business and you need to write an excellent book to capture the attention of an editor at a publishing house. Traditionally published books are vetted by industry professionals, who put their time, energy and dollars behind a book because they believe there is an audience for the book and they can generate a profit by selling the book. If we write a negative book review, are we then dissuading someone who could potentially like the book from buying it? And are we working against building up the kingdom of God and potentially placing an obstacle in someone’s spiritual journey if they would have benefited spiritually by reading the book?

Where does this leave readers, who may read reviews to help them with their book purchasing decisions? Do readers deserve to hear all the positive and negative opinions on a particular book, since they’re handing over their hard earned dollars to buy a book they want to enjoy?

And Paul also says in Ephesians 4: 14-16: ‘Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.’

How does speaking the truth in love work in the world of Christian book reviews? Or is the concept of truth in this instance less relevant, due to a like or dislike for a book being primarily based on an individual’s personal taste?

This is the dilemma Christian reviewer’s face – how to balance the need for readers to hear honest reviews without unnecessarily hurting authors because the book is, in their opinion, either flawed or not to the reviewer’s taste. And personal tastes vary. It’s true that there are some books that we’re just not going to like, including books written by bestselling authors.

I've posted a handful of reviews on Amazon and they are all positive reviews. Would a reader question my credibility as a reviewer because I’ve only posted positive reviews? On the few occasions I’ve volunteered to be an influencer for a book, I’ve been blessed by receiving fabulous books that I can happily review and promote as excellent reads for those who like books in the same genre. But what if I hadn’t liked one of the books? What is the best way to handle this situation? Is it better to only review books you love?

Do you read book reviews as part of your decision making process when you’re thinking about purchasing a book? What aspects of a book review do you find most helpful?

Please let me know your thoughts.

42 comments:

  1. From one Narelle to another ;-)

    As a reviewer, I agree with what you say about the dilemma Christian reviewers face, balancing honesty with love. I am a strong believer that there is a big difference however between attacking an author and gently pointing out aspects of a book that I personally didn't like. I think this can be done without disrespecting an author but also maintaining your integrity with readers.

    I choose not to use a star rating system on my blog as I think they can be misleading and narrow.

    I admit, however, I will not post a review of a book that I can't say something positive about!

    Cheers

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  2. I usually have an idea of what I like and don't like to read but if I feel the book doesn't give a good enough description then I look at reviews.

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  3. Oh and I agree with Rel. I won't post a review on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Christianbook.com if I didn't really like the book.

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  4. Like Adge, I read the reviews more to get info about the books. I've noticed that sometimes 3 star ratings actually have more positive reviews than certain 4 and 5 star ratings.

    In my reviews I try to focus on the strengths of the book. I love reading, so almost any book will have aspects that I end up loving. I try to point out who would like the book. Is it deep and artistic (which can sometimes mean slow moving and weak on plot) or sweet and cozy (which can sometimes mean a little cheesy and lacking depth) or action packed (which can sometimes mean that it's not very artistic.)

    For a book like A Stray Drop of Blood, which I truly loved, I usually try to point out that it's strong in all of those areas and that I would recommend it to anyone.

    If I really don't like a book, then I just won't review it. I suppose I might make an exception if I felt the book might be harmful to readers in some way.

    For my personal blog, I call it "Awesome Inspirationals" and I suppose it's more of a "Book Recommendation" website.

    I wish book sites would not require you to use the star rating system. That's what I struggle with most. I'd feel awful to give a friend a 3, although 3 is still perfectly respectable. Some won't allow you to leave a review until you choose a star rating first.

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  5. Thought provoking, Narelle! And congrats on your first foray into the Inkwell. Well done!

    I personally don't mind doing a less than 4 star review, always with the caveat that your mileage may vary. I don't want to hurt someone I hope will be a colleague, however, so it can be a tough balancing act for sure. If I really don't care for a book the path of least resistance is to simply not post anywhere about it.

    I do have to say that the hardest I've had with this was with a book that I really WANTED to like. It sounded like just the kind of book I'd love to promote, because it lines up with my own writing interests. Anyway within the first two chapters it was abundantly clear that the whole book was based on a premise that could not have happened. Now no historical is ever completely mistake proof. But when the entire novel is predicated on something being possible or not? And it was something easily checked, but the author had obviously not done her homework in any way shape or form.

    Well shoot. I want to promote this book. I want Christian books in this genre to be the best in the industry. I want to shout about them from the rooftops. And here's the rub. It was well written. There was nothing wrong with the author's craft. BUT if I promoted it, I would like I didn't know what I was talking about.

    To be honest I felt that such research laziness showed a marked lack of respect for her potential readers. Would I perpetuate that level of condescension? But on the other hand a poor review has the potential to damage sales figures and what publishing house wants to work with the person who has been a thorn in their side?

    I may be a coward or selfish, but I chose not to involve myself by not doing the review.

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  6. I usually skim the book (if possible) before making a final decision. It depends on who writes the review as to whether I give it much weight or not.
    Blessings, andrea

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  7. Lisa's point brought up another good issue. I am benefited by any medieval or historical set in Europe that does well. I want to see them get lots of sales, and even if the book is only so, so, I want people to step out of the prairie romance box and give it a try.

    That's why I joined HEWN-Historical European Writer's Network.

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  8. Narelle, welcome to the Inkwell. I am so happy you're here and I'm shouting for joy! I think your first post was well thought out and well said. Very nice.

    I had such a problem this week. I read a book that I really liked, and was planning to review here on the Inkwell. But there was a part in the beginning that wasn't very believable. And the heroine made some questionable choices. I read past it, because I liked the writing and the premise, and after the first two chapters things evened out and the book was good. However, I couldn't review it here. 1: because I wasn't about to say anything negative. And 2: because if I reviewed it and didn't mention those things at the beginning, our readers may not ever trust my word again.

    I used to write reviews for two magazines that shall remain unnamed. One focused on positive reviews, and the one paid you for the reviews. I enjoyed it, except when I didn't like the book and it was one I was paid to review. I had to be honest, but I tried very hard to be helpful. I must say, it hurt me as I know it hurt the author when I had to give a negative review.

    That's why I won't review a book if I don't like it. I don't like saying negative things about anyone. And Christian sisters and brothers...I love Paul's quote from Ephesians that you used, Narelle. We need to build each other up. So any review that anyone reads from me, even though I don't say anything negative, they will know it's my honest opinion, because I'm not going to waste my time reviewing a book I don't like. I actually won't read a book I don't like. If it's not working for me, I won't waste my time finishing the book.

    Great job Narelle, and I'm glad to see the way you tied this together spiritually.

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  9. I do some reviews but when I go to buy a book I usually see who wrote it and read the back and that usually tells me. We all like different books and review them a differetn way, so what I like to read may not be what someone else likes.

    mamat2730(at)charter(dot)net

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  10. I found the man in your picture on your blog, I guess you don't want me to give it away, I love those type of pictures, have a book full of them.
    While I am waiting somewhere I useally do the word circle books, can't read when there is anyone around me, I am too noisy. Have to see and hear what is going on. LOL

    mamat2730(at)charter(dot)net

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  11. I dislike a star system and do not use it. When I review a book I give a short synopsis and then my feelings on the characters, story, etc. My definition of a review is critical thinking about why I liked or disliked the book, not as a means to be harsh. It is important to be honest. Yet, it is rare for me to not like a book that I review, because I chose to read it. The publishers send me choices and after reading a little about them I say yes or no.
    Before I purchase a book I almost always take a list of books that I've heard about through a friend or other means into a book store. I read the front cover, the back cover, the first couple of pages and also pick a spot in the middle of the book and read a couple of pages. I just "know" what it will be a book I'll like, rarely am I wrong.

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  12. I'm guilty of trying to keep it positive but I am always honest. IN fact I stopped reviewing books for a certain publisher because I didn't like the fiction they were giving me as much as I thought it would. I still do some reviews.

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  13. This is something I've put a lot of thought into too, Narelle. When I started the Christian Review of Books with my husband, I knew no other writers and had no problem pointing out negative aspects of books, though we made it a point not to post reviews that were mostly negative. But as I got to know a lot of Christian fiction authors, I found I couldn't be "mean" anymore, LOL.

    I will be honest in my reviews, and I use phrases like "this will appeal to this group" or "for those who enjoy . . ." to point out those who might like a book I don't. I try to balance what I liked with what I felt could be better. But like Dina, I'm a lover of books, so it's pretty rare I can't recommend one AT ALL. (Though much like Lisa, I did rant incessantly to friends about one whose entire premise was WRONG!)

    I've come to the conclusion that reviewing is a ministry. In part it's a ministry to the readers, who deserve to be pointed in the right direction. I think if we honestly show what a book is, then the readers who like that type will check it out. But it's also a ministry to the authors, and I want my words to build them up and encourage them, not tear them down. Sometimes that might mean pointing out where something could be strengthened, but we must also let them know where they've got it down. =)

    (And thanks, Dina, for yet another shout-out, LOL.)

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  14. Narelle, what a wonderful post. And your first here on Inkwell! Congrats and I'm so glad you're here!

    This is a thought-provoking subject. Like Adge and Dina, I look at the reviews less as recommendations and more as information as to what kind of book it is. We all enjoy different genres, lines, and settings, so preference plays a huge part. When I write about a book, I tend to describe it rather than critique it, because something about the story or writing will appeal to someone else, even if it doesn't necessarily appeal to me.

    Nevertheless, I can't all-out promote a book I don't like or that has a significant problem. Like Dina, I do try to look for a strength in everything I read.

    Tough stuff!

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  15. Rel, thanks for sharing your thoughts from a reviewer's perspective. Reviewer's have a tough job, and I'm sure readers appreciate reviews where the mention of negative aspects of the book is done in a gentle manner. I agree, I couldn't post a review if I couldn't find anything positive to say about the book :-)

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  16. Adge, I buy a lot of books online and read reviews to find out more about the story line and characters. I'm interested in finding out what elements of the story appealed to the reviewer.

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  17. Dina, I also struggle with the rating system. It's one way of giving readers a fast indicator of the overall content of reviews without needing to read all the individual reviews.

    What do you all think? Do you pay attention to review ratings? Are they helpful?

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  18. Lisa, how frustrating! Especially since the book was in a genre you wanted to promote.

    You bring up an interesting point. Would a publisher want to work with someone who has posted a negative review about one of their books?

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  19. Andrea, I agree that it can depend on who is doing the review and their reputation. I'm more likely to pay attention to reviews if I know (or know of) the reviewer.

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  20. Suzie, I'm glad to be here :-) I appreciate the difficulties you faced when you didn't like a book you were being paid to review. The exchange of money makes it even more complicated.

    For those who don't know me, I live in Australia and it's 8am here. I need to organise my kids for school and I'll be back online later this morning, replying to all your comments. See you soon :-)

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  21. I appreciate Narelle jumping into such a subject!

    One good thing I guess is that if a reviewer does not review a book that she doesn't feel she can rave about, nobody is the wiser. If the author is aware of this, the reviewer can use the opportunity to gently discuss why.

    Nice job, Narelle, and thanks to all our visitors today who deal with this very issue.

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  22. Interesting subject matter and not one I'd actually ever thought about. But it is important to find that balance between truth and sensitivity. How can anyone learn to improve themselves if they are only ever given positive feedback? At the same time, how do we give criticism in a way that encourages them? Tricky.

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  23. Edna, I always read the back cover blurb, hoping it will hook me :-) Or I start reading the first chapter and end up buying the book to find out what happens in Chapter 2. I've learnt not to read first chapters when I'm on a tight book buying budget :-)

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  24. Annette, thanks for sharing your perspective on reviewing books. I like your idea of reading a few random pages from the middle of the book. It's frustrating to read a fabulous opening chapter, or first three chapters, only to discover the rest of the book doesn't live up to your initial expectations.

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  25. T. Anne, I applaud reviewers who are able to focus on the positive elements of a book despite struggling with certain aspects of the story that need to be addressed in their review.

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  26. Roseanna, thanks for sharing your thoughts on writing book reviews as a ministry to both readers and authors.

    BTW, I echo Dina's thoughts on 'A Stray Drop of Blood' as this is one of the fabulous books I referred to in my post and has a well deserved 5 star review rating from me on Amazon :-)

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  27. Susie, it's great to be here with you all :-) I also read reviews to learn more about the story and characters, and sometimes an observation by a reviewer will spark my interest in the book.

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  28. Deb, you raise an important point. No one is the wiser if we decide not to review a book, unless we are supposed to be an influencer and received a copy of the book from the publisher. Then things become tricky.

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  29. Lynda, I agree it's important to find the balance between truth and sensitivity. Easier said than done :-)

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  30. Wow, this has been a hot topic. Narelle, I'm so excited that you're a Roseanna White fan too. I know I seem a little psychotic about A Stray Drop of Blood, but this is the kind of book I love to read and hope to write: intelligent, edgy, artsy historicals with unique settings. I really want it to do well so that the CBA publishers will realize that there is a market for this type of book.

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  31. I read a book a couple of years ago that was so historically inaccurate i couldn't get past that to find the story. I wrote a lengthy review pointing out everything that was wrong with it, but then didn't post that review. It just wasn't right to trash this book. ting is, the authors subsequent books have been great, but I do still cringe when people say this first one was, too. But I keep my mouth shut about it now.

    Difference lies partly in being published myself now. do unto others and all that. I am working on a book to review that I can't stand, but the author will never know because I think anyone who gets published by a traditional publisher deserves kudos, and I can take that into consideration. I may hate it, but others may not, so focus on what is good.

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  32. Dina, I'll be lining up to buy your book when it's published - it sound like the type of book I love to read :-)

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  33. Laurie Alice, thanks for sharing your thoughts on book reviews from a published author's perspective :-)

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  34. Narelle, WOW!!! Great debut, huh??? So glad you're here!

    You wrote a great article.

    Patti

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  35. Roseanna I agree book reviewing is a ministry. Before I write a review I pray, then I type.
    Narelle thank you for taking the time to address our comments.

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  36. Hats off to you, Narelle, for a brave and well-presented foray into a "hot" topic among writers and readers. Your post and all these wonderful comments have helped me clarify my own thoughts and feelings about reviews!
    Thank you, and a hearty welcome to Inktropolis!

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  37. Good article, Narelle. I review books and I try to be honest. I distinguish between a critique of the writing and a review of the story. I don't see them as the same thing.

    If the review site is for readers, I focus on the story, pointing out if the pace is a little slow or something that might detract from the reading pleasure. I don't focus on technical writing issues that the average reader probably wouldn't even recognize. I don't think that's fair, but I find that writers reviewing books sometimes fall into that trap.

    On my blog, where I talk about both reading and writing, I might delve a little more into the writing issues.

    If I can't review a book because I find the criticisms outweigh the positives, I simply communicate that behind the scenes. No need for me to tear someone else down publically. I choose to believe all writers really do give their best effort to each book.

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  38. Thanks, Patti. I'm glad to be here :-)

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  39. Thanks, Annette :-) I've really enjoyed reading all the comments.

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  40. Patricia, I agree that critiquing the writing is different to reviewing the story. Thanks for sharing your perspective on book reviews :-)

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  41. Thanks, Niki :-) I've found our discussion helpful and I've appreciated hearing different opinions on book reviews.

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  42. Narelle. look at you go! Kudos for great handling of a touchy subject and getting so many people to comment.

    We heard a lot of wisdom today.

    Glad to see Patricia W chiming in. I missed her!

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