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On Christian Book Reviews

I’m nearly done with the book, and I’ll have some fun things to report in conjunction with that soon, so stay tuned. I haven’t forgetten my pledge.

But I want to talk a bit more about this subject of the purpose of reviews, honest, reasoned, objective (inasmuchaspossible) commentary about author’s work. There’s been good discussion going on about this (including Mark’s recent proposition to eviscerate something.) What’s the purpose of offering a review of a creative endeavor? Is it merely the writer’s opinion? Is it to tear down the creator—or to build them up? Is it neither? What if it’s simply to give a rational prospective viewer/reader the benefit of a vicarious experience, a window into what to expect from the encounter with this particular imaginary representation?

No one wants bad reviews. But we don’t want bad books either. Unfortunately both are out there. And they’re going to continue sucking up people’s time, whether we like it or not. Bad reviews hurt authors. Bad reviews convince people not to buy the book. Even if the reviewer giving the bad review is not a reviewer with credentials, the book will sell a few less copies than it would have. This is at least subliminally intended behind every bad review. Limit the damage of the bad; expand the realization of the good. I gave Leif Petersen a good review because the guy frankly deserved it. I also wanted him to reach more readers with his amazing, well-written book. He obviously spent much time on his invention and it contains many elements that I find transcendent and sadly absent in much of today’s Christian fiction. Should I not give a good review and help him reach his audience in my small way? And should I not attempt to limit the damage of the books I consider to be having the opposite, negative effect on the marketplace, pulling it down into the commonplace and further marginalizing Christians to the fringe of culture? I would be remiss on both counts. My mind was made to divide the word of truth, to cast critical judgment on all of life, eyes open, aware, alive, responsive, contiually learning and deciding what is edifying and what is not of use.

But here is the fulcrum. There has never been a book published that someone can not find any use for whatsoever. Everyone gets something out of everything, don’t they? The worst books have positive reviews from someone, stories of changed perspectives, changed lives even. Some people love John Denver’s music, including my mother, who sang it to me as a child. I can’t find any use for it whatsoever. Am I wrong for my opinion? Am I wrong for sharing my opinion? I don’t hide the fact that if there’s something that’s the opposite of a Broncos fan, I’m it. Same goes for hockey, big dogs, trucks, sweet tea, banana candy, and a whole slew of things others might consider vital parts of their lives. Can we move beyond our preferences to respect each other and love the differences instead of needing to be the same all the time? What good would it be if we were all the same? That’s not living. I may be wrong about John Denver because he’s probably at God’s left hand right now singing Rocky Mountain High and interceding for his fans all over the world. But I can’t help the gut reaction I get to his music. Really I’ve tried.

I’m not sure why I’m going off about this. I suspect it’s been building a while now. We’ve been over 5 years in Colorado now, the sly idolatry that exists around local celebrities here, sometimes it seems as bad as Texas. John Elway included. Where does that pride come from? It’s just weird. But I think there’s a difference between stating our preferences and good book reviewing. Forget my prejudices and go back to the beginning of this blog for a moment and ask that question again. What is the purpose of offering a review on a creative endeavor?

I’d propose that book reviews, good or bad, need to offer something bigger than the reviewer’s personal taste about a work. That would suggest it’s intended to aspire to a level of objectivity that family and friends probably aren’t qualified to offer. And secondly, I think we’d hope the reviewer was honorable enough not to bring criticism of the authors themselves into the equation. This is more difficult to do for some than it is for others, and I think it requires a special skill and practice to learn to disassociate creator from created work. But as an ideal, honest book reviews should be motivated by the desire to propel good writing forward and impede bad writing from continuing. It is like any other component of publishing, a service to readers who desire to spend their time and money on good, worthwhile books. It does come down to motivation, once again, as I think more than one person has mentioned already. Ultimately, that’s what it all comes down to, and maybe holding to the Golden Rule in this context is actually the best solution when attempting to write reviews that balance honesty and objectivity in serving both writer and readers.

12 Responses to “On Christian Book Reviews”

  1. Another aspect of good criticism is the way it moves beyond a single book to books in general, making connections with other work and the ideas behind it all. That’s what is missing in the “book review as buyer’s guide” approach. Reviews are largely irrelevant to sales, or so we’re told, and I’m happy with that. I see criticism as a delight of its own, an end in itself. It’s not talk about a book so much as it is book talk.

  2. My plan is to get as many “bad reviews” as necessary from trusted, qualified, honest critics BEFORE I publish, so I can fix those problems in advance. I don’t want bad books to bear my name and, by association, sully the reputations of my publisher and my Lord.
    Then, when someone hates the book (because, inevitably someone will–we’re all John Denvers, no?), I’ll be able to show myself mercy, knowing it passed muster with people I respect.
    By the way, I don’t like banana candy either. Surely everyone agrees that only a troglodyte would.

  3. I think this is your clearest discussion of the subject to date. You’ve really delineated the balance that’s needed, while still making a strong case for honest and objective reviewing. Thanks. It’s a joy to see your mind at work.
    (And Leif Peterson’s book sounds wonderful. I want to read it.)

  4. siouxsiepoet says:

    objectivity is the toughest part. knowing oneself enough to say, i’m biased against center justified poetry, i’m biased against authors who put sacred texts into blenders of mindlessness and cliche and pass that off as relevant. i’m biased. it is hard to get around that.

  5. Mick says:

    Mark, so true. I’m very slowly coming to the place where I have the knowledge to judge a book in relation to its counterparts. The main barrier to that seems to be the fact that I’m not yet a disembodied brain able to separate my mind from more pressing physical needs. Damn body! Get thee behind me!
    Jeanne, down with banana candy!
    Thanks, Linda. It’d been festering a while. (Leif’s book comes out Sept 20th.)
    Suzy-Q, I’m with you on the center justified, chaotic stuff, but the example at the bottom of the page here gave me shivers: http://www.lucishaw.com/lucishaw/

  6. Susan Meissner says:

    Random thoughts: As a writer,I cannot be objective when it comes to the value of book reviews. All my thoughts are self-centered. I only want good ones. As a reader, though, I certainly appreciate the insights of other readers, but I wholeheartedly agree that there is no reason not to “speak the truth in love.” Clever turns of phrase meant merely to wound or ridicule would make the writer in me bitter, not better.
    And banana candy is not nearly as repulsive as those orange circus peanuts.
    And Luci’s poem? Exquisite. I shall go outside now and reintroduce myself to the beauty of the night.

  7. siouxsiepoet says:

    yes mick, lovely. i must get out her book, i’ve got one on my shelf. if you can pull of cjpoetry then, more power to ya, but many don’t consider the ramifications of such a choice (or the choice is made for them as my dear friend whose first published poem came out cj just found out–ouch. again, why i will be self-publishing).
    check out this poet mick: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0970962339/qid=1123863886/sr=1-2/ref=sr_1_2/102-3725818-5068960?v=glance&s=books (the link i was going to post is gone, so i’ll put this one her for now, she’s amazing! i’m going to her conference in denver, sept 29.

  8. Tom Buford says:

    There was a time when I used Siskel and Ebert’s movie reviews to help me decide what movie I would see. If they hated it, the movie was probably one that my wife and I would enjoy.
    Should I be that way about book reviews, as well? Probably not, but I sometimes wonder.

  9. Chris says:

    Tom: The movie reviewer for the local paper when I was growing up was the same way. His no-star rating meant “MUST SEE” to my family. But at least he was consistent.
    If someone hated John Denver but was Joni Mitchell’s number-one fan … well, such a person couldn’t be trusted.
    I haven’t enjoyed banana candy since the oral surgeon used those numbing “banana sticks” on me as a kid.
    –Chris (dFm)

  10. relevantgirl says:

    I leave for two weeks and you guys are talking about banana candy, weird orange peanuts, John Denver (please take me home, country roads!) and Lord knows what else! Sheesh! I feel so ancient and not with it anymore!

  11. Mick says:

    Mary, welcome back! You’ve been missed.
    Tom, point taken. Reviews are helpful either way.
    Chris, too right. Joni Mitchell is to John Denver as Thomas Kinkade is to Norman Rockwell. Anyone else studying for the GRE?
    And about that point that everyone gets something out of everything, I just recalled today that Dr. Norman Wright, a man I’ve never met, but greatly admire, was converted after watching the movie The Exorcist. My wife is convinced that film is the most unredeemable evil ever conceived. Just goes to show you it’s the Holy Spirit who works through us and not the work itself.

  12. Jim Thompson says:

    Everyone reviews what they read. Some do it with their checkbooks, some with their keyboards. I probably do fiction a disservice with my reviews by trying–sometimes quiet hard–to find something good about the review’s subject. Just call me a sap.

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