Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Reviewers?

Sherry wrote: "Aren't book reviewers supposed to review? Can't we speak the truth in love? Wouldn't you want reviewers to write honest assesments of your latest novel---not just puff pieces?"

Of course there is a place for knowledgeable reviewers and skilled editors. I know I'm treading into controversial waters, but here goes:

When I was young, I studied voice. I learned a lot about intonation, music theory, voice placement, etc. And as a result, when I would sit in church or in a concert and listen to a singer, I found it difficult to enjoy the song unless it was perfect because I was so aware of problems with tone, voice placement, intonation, and style. Often I was so busy thinking about vibrato and technique that I missed intention and presentation.

I could be so busy wincing because somebody's Grandpa Joe was off key that I missed the tears in his eyes and voice while he sang "Amazing Grace."

After a while, I learned to shut off my inner critic . Professional singers go to professional voice teachers to learn their craft. The place for critique is the practice room. I believe even amateurs should practice and polish as part of their commitment to an excellent offering, but when I'm a listener, I need to listen more with my heart and spirit than my intellect.

I do believe in offering excellence and I can tell you that every Christian novel put out by a major Christian publisher not only has a dedicated writer working on it, but also dedicated editors, copyeditors, etc. We pray and sweat and strain over every word in our books. We research and spend hours agonizing over what Sally Character should eat for supper--if it's important to the plot, the history, or the symbolism.

I'll be the first to tell you that I'm my own worst critic. I can pick up any book I wrote a year ago and find all kinds of better ways to write the words. That's part of the growing process.

With that said, I think it takes an AMAZING amount of chutzpah for someone who's never written a novel (or seriously studied the craft and form) to criticize someone else's effort. (I wouldn't know how to BEGIN to evaluate a brain surgeon's work because I've never attempted brain surgery.)

As a professional novelist, I've been asked to review other novels for publication. One was just NOT my cup of tea. But I knew thousands of people would adore the book even though it didn't ring my bell. I knew its message would bless people, though it didn't do anything for me.

So I wrote a review and talked about the lovely characters (they were!) and the lovely style (it was!) and the relaxed pace of the plot. (I don't like relaxing plots.) The resulting review was informative enough that a reader would know what the book was about and if it would be THEIR cup of tea.

Who am I to publicly criticize another brother or sister? How can I say or imply that a book wasn't up to par when it is the dear and excellent offering of another Christian's heart?

I don't want to be critical of my brothers' and sisters' efforts. If they want me to help them grow as writers, they can (and sometimes do) ask for input BEFORE the book is published. Then I'll offer my two cents (about what it's worth) privately.

Why should we relay our negative opinions? Besides making us feel momentarily superior, who does it benefit? Who can it hurt? A devoted reader is most likely going to read her favorite author no matter what you say, but your negative opinion could deeply wound the author, the editor, the author's mother (grin).

Let me say that I do respect courteous and thoughtful reviews, PW reviews, etc. Let industry professionals hold me to a standard; that's fine. What I find hard to bear are other Christians who seem to delight in publicly disparaging the work of fellow believers or even dismiss the entire market. Why can't we praise what is praise worthy and encourage one another to keep striving for excellence? Positive reinforcement is a powerful thing.

What did Jesus say? We'll be known by our love for each other. Agree with me or not, but I don't think we ought to be publicly critical of each others' offerings .

8 comments:

Annie Jones said...

My thought on reviews and reviewers is that it's the intent in the heart of the one offering the opinion that matters. One who wants to share and edify, well, that comes through. One who wants to build up 'cred' by getting as many reviews out there every month as possible? That shows too.
And most readers probably take it into account. As they do the motives of the reviewers who to try to glom onto someone else's
accomplishment either by trashing or praising it. Or to take the platform of the review to try to influence a writer to change their style, voice, worldview. There are also those who seek to denigrate the readers of certain types of work by adding snubs and snipes at the genre aside from the book being reviewed, they are easy to spot.

This is confirmed by the people who come into the bookstore (where I work) looking for a book they just have to get their hands on. Rarely does anyone come ask me to help them look for a book without saying a word about who recommended it (from their mom to the New York Times) and why they trust that person’s ideas, or distrust them and want to find out for themselves.
I guess I just don't think people can hide what's in their hearts as
well as they often think they can and a lot of people will consider
that as they read or listen to the opinions offered.

Jane Kirkpatrick said...

One successful novelist wrote that while reading a review, at the first sign of a negative adjective, he'd throw the review away. He said he threw good reviews away, too, but he read them all the way through first.
He has a healthy perspective, I think, because good or bad, they are just one person's opinion about what we write yet we somehow give huge weight to the bad reviews. Or at least most writers I know, do.
I do think I can learn things from a bad review. Some of what I've learned has been to return to the goal. It was never my job to write the great American novel nor to get Oprah to know my name. It's been to show up, to tell the story that I've been given the best way I know how and to trust that I am not alone in the telling. My commitment is to be faithful to the gifts I've been given, to learn, to improve my craft, to understand the business, but to remember that I am part of a team who writes and I let the team down if I allow a bad review to keep me from that commitment, to discourage me so I don't show up to do the work.
We don't have much control as artists over how our work is received. We only have control over whether we listen to that calling and show up even on the day after we read that wretched review and may even determine that what the reviewer said had more truth in it than not.
Angie, your grasp of writing an endorsement for a book that might not be your cup of tea is priceless, a true understanding of how different artists can affect different people. And I agree with you, that if someone wants my opinion ABOUT their writing and they ask me before the work is finished, then I'll be pleased to share my opinion with them. But I always remind them that what I have to say is still only my opinion and they might well decide to listen to that inner voice and not mine.

Accidental Poet said...

I am reminded of a time when I went to hear a well-known Christian woman speak. Everything about her manner set my teeth on edge - and yet I fully recognized that there is an entire demographic who find her style encouraging and engaging, and who are pointed to Jesus daily through her ministries. I sat through that entire service as God gently hammered the point home to me again and again - what speaks to the woman sitting next to me doesn't need to speak to me in order for it to be effective.
Should I criticize a book for being poorly written, when the woman across the street doesn't want multilayered prose? When what she's looking for is accessibility, a quick read? Should non-Christians have the corner on brain candy? The miracle of Christian ficiton is, of course, that even the frothiest, funniest novel can bring Jesus into our day. I don't need to hold any given book up to my standards. In some ways, becoming a writer has ruined me as a reader. Do I need to ruin things for my non-writing friend as well?

Susan

Dianne said...

Seems like some of these people are confusing "excellence" with "perfection." Excellence implies something worth striving for, and we should all be striving for excellence that pleases Christ, right? Perfection, on the other hand, seems a bit unattainable. But that seems to be what is called for, under the guise of excellence. How many writers-in-the-making will be discouraged from writing that first no-so-hot novel because they're intimidated by perfection and thus never write that really worthwhile novel? As Christians, shouldn't we allow for growth in an author's life as well as ours?

mimi b said...

Bravo Angie for your thoughts on reviews! When you sent the info on being a judge to read books I didnt't realize how hard that would be.I wanted to find positives in each book even though I found one to be completely boring and written by someone who was trying too hard. But as you said, who am I to critique someone's work when I've never penned a chapter in my life. I realized that this author tried to write a good book and that it would speak to someone. I did write honestly about my thoughts, but I believe I tried to be kind as well. I like that even though you are a seasoned writer and understand it thoroughly, you would take the time to find redeeming qualities to give the author and book!
And the next time at church during worship, I'm going to look at the people's faces as they worship and not listen to the "notes" they're singing! Thanks for sharing your wisdom!

Sara A. Mills said...

After reading some of the disparaging comments about reviewers on this blog, I took a couple of days to think about what was being said. As a reviewer for a fairly big online fiction magazine, I feel that I must present a differing view on this subject. Every reviewer that I work with is passionate about promoting Christian fiction. We don't write reviews to tear authors down, nor do we write a review without a lot of thought, both on the writing and on the effect it had on us. I personally spend hours and hours every week reading the latest in Christian fiction, thinking deeply about what messages it's sending and how it changes my perceptions, helps me grow in grace and gives me a deeper understanding of the people around me. Then I write, to the best of my abilities, a review that touches on the good, the bad and the life changing aspects of the work.
I do all of this, spend all of this time, unpaid time, because I love Christian fiction. I want my friends, my family, people I work with and strangers that find my reviews on the internet to go to thier Christian bookstore and scour the shelves for a book that will bring depth and new understanding to their life.

This is my side of the pages.

Sara Mills

Angela said...

I seem to have muddied the waters instead of clearing them. I LOVE thoughtful, constructive reviews. What I've been seeing a lot of, however, are critical, bashing reviews not even of particular books, but of the CBA market in general. A lot of these folks say they don't even READ Christian fiction, but they're happy to trash it.

I apologize if I've offended any thoughtful reviewers--that wasn't my intent. Yes, we have a right and a duty to speak the truth in love. Absolutely.

Dee said...

I really like what you say here. I've read posts by others that just put down the reviewer. I am a reviewer.
This post is very helpful and I would love to use a snippet of it for my own blog.