A word about “negative” book reviews

img_1931I’ve seen more than one blogger say that if they can’t write a positive review about a book, they just don’t write one. And I can appreciate that. But while I don’t want to come across as unduly critical and nitpicky, I think it’s important to be honest and disclose when a book has issues. Here are a few reasons why:

I appreciate honest reviews myself. A number of times I’ve gotten a book due to rave reviews from a blogger only to be surprised by a sexual scene or something a little off. When I look at Amazon reviews of a book, I look at a couple of the positive and a couple of the negative. Granted, some of the negative reviews there are ridiculous, but even that gives me an indication that if that’s the only bad thing someone has to say about a book, then it’s likely to be ok. On the other hand, I’ve saved myself the exposure to a sexual scene by reading some of those reviews.

Since readers have told me they have bought books based on my recommendations, I feel a responsibility for how I present them. Several readers have told me they appreciate my book reviews for that reason: they have a good idea what they’ll be getting into if they pick up a book I have reviewed. I would feel awful if someone read a book I recommended and then came back to me dismayed because they ran into something objectionable.

But I also like to be honest in my reviews in the hopes that the author will take it as a constructive criticism. I know most authors won’t see my reviews, though I have heard from a handful. And I have seen some authors’ blogs where they brush off any kind of criticism. In fact, one Christian author I don’t read any more due to sexual scenes in her books had a post expressing woundedness over the criticism she was receiving instead of taking it to heart. I don’t know why she feels compelled to be so explicit in books that are otherwise very good, but you’d think that, since readers object to it and she’s losing readers because of it, she’d scale it back a bit. Maybe she has more readers who say they like it.

If I were an author, I’d want to know if readers thought part of my book dragged in places or didn’t make sense or whatever. Hopefully most of those issues would have been worked out by having people read and critique the book before publication. But if any remained, I’d want to know to improve my future writing.

I tend to be a bit harder on Christian fiction, for a number of reasons. Books written for the King (which Christian fiction should ultimately be) are held to a higher standard. I’ve heard people summarily dismiss Christian fiction as being poorly written. I have to smile when they say that about all Christian fiction, because I think to myself, “You haven’t read it all.” There is some poorly written Christian fiction, but I wouldn’t say the percentages are higher for this genre than any other. Nevertheless, because I have heard it so criticized, I want it to shine and be the best it can be and prove the naysayers wrong. Also, since Christian fiction portrays spiritual truth to some degree, it needs to be in line with the Bible, or else it is not truly Christian fiction. I know there are some areas of controversy in Christendom, and I don’t have an issue with a different opinion in most of those cases. But when it comes to bedrock inarguable truth, like who Jesus is and how one comes to know Him, whatever a book shares about that needs to be clear. I said before in The Gospel and Christian Fiction that I don’t feel every Christian book necessarily has to have a conversion scene or to fully present the gospel, but whatever it does say needs to be clear and accurate.

And, obviously, Christian fiction should be the one place Christians can be assured of clean reading. That doesn’t mean there should be no sin in a book, as I said in Edgy Christian Fiction. You don’t have a plot without conflict and you generally don’t have conflict without sin. But how it’s presented makes a lot of difference.

No one likes everything about every book. When I read blogs whose book reviews are constantly filled with gushy praise, it makes me a little suspicious, especially if they disclose they’re getting their books for free in exchange for a review. It sounds like they’ve found a way to support their habit. I know that’s not always the case: some people are just naturally more effusive than I am. But I have gotten books based on those kinds of recommendations only to be disappointed.

I do generally avoid books that I don’t think I am going to like in the first place. That’s one reason I don’t usually accept unsolicited books for review. I get requests from time to time based on the fact that I write about books a lot, and at first I would check the sample chapter or link provided, and most of the time they’d be pretty awful. I’m not going to accept a book like that and then have to write negatively about it (besides already having plenty of books stacked up to read anyway).

So I am expecting to like most books I read and fully planning to write a positive review. But if I come across something that jars for some reason, I am not going to “trash” the book or the author, but I’ll likely mention it. Not every little thing: for instance, in one book recently, the author kept describing a certain expression by saying that the space between the person’s eyes narrowed. And I tried to picture what that would look like, and wondered if people could actually do that. It struck me as odd, especially as the author used that phrase several times over. If I were asked to critique a book, I’d mention something like that. But in a general review, that kind of thing doesn’t affect the overall quality of the story, so I don’t see a need to mention it.

My reviews here are different from what I’d write if I were writing for a magazine or newspaper. Those would be a lot more concise. Here, I’m reviewing the book but I am also writing down what I thought about it while it is on my mind so I can remind myself if I come back to it later.

Even in mentioning problems in a book, I try to express that in a civil way without sounding like I am just trashing the book or author. I have seen Amazon and Goodread reviews that would make an author cry for good reason. There is no need to be hurtful and go into attack mode.

I’ve also read reviews at these other places that reveal that the reviewer just didn’t “get” something about the book, and their negative opinion is based on a misunderstanding. I hope that is not the case with my reviews, but as I am human, it’s very possible. I do welcome different opinions.

So that’s why I sometimes mention negative features of a book. I don’t read with red correcting pen in hand just looking for things to disagree with, but if something stands out that I think affects the quality of the book, or that I think would be detrimental to readers, I’ll mention it in, I hope, as kind a manner as possible. Sometimes explaining that takes a bit more space than the good things I want to bring out about the book, but, unless the negative is really bad, I hope to portray the book in its best possible light.

(Sharing with Literary Musing Monday)

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9 thoughts on “A word about “negative” book reviews

  1. Very good post, Barbara. This conversation also came up in a Christian fiction facebook group that I am a part of. I do reviews for BookLook Bloggers but I am not required to give positive reviews, which is really nice. Keeping in mind my general readers if there is something huge that I know they would want to know is in the book, I will mention it, such as bad language or something explicit. I try to keep in mind the author, too, in that they worked hard on the book, and writing is hard work. If I mention something negative it’s never to tear the author down personally. I bear in mind that everyone has different tastes in their reading and everyone has different thresholds as to where they draw the line in what they will put up with in their controversial areas. And like you, I also keep in mind if it calls itself Christian Fiction. And though I do look at books through a Christian worldview, I do not expect a secular book to hold to Christian values and will not trash them because they didn’t which I have seen in some reviews. However, I will mention things like language or the presence of explicit scenes, etc keeping in mind my general reading audience. I appreciate those reviewers who can give me an honest review and mention those areas they feel are in the negative zone without revealing plot beyond the general outline to me and let me make my own decision about reading the book. I get thoroughly annoyed when things are too revealed and ruin the story.

    • I always enjoy your reviews, Susanne, and I appreciate that you do mention things to watch out for. I agree that a secular book is not going to be like a Christian one and I shouldn’t expect it to be, but we look at things through a Christian worldview, so I might mention it if I feel something the author said doesn’t line up with a Christian worldview, partly so that people are aware and partly so they know I am not endorsing it. Like you said, I also have readers who draw their lines at different places than I do. Sometimes at the end of a review I’ll list “potential objectionable elements,” meaning I may not have a problem with a certain issue but others I know might.

  2. A very well written post, Barbara. Thank you so much! I always read your book reviews, as I’ve said many times before, because I know you will give your honest opinion about a book. I also know that you will point out anything that you might find objectionable. You have no idea how many times a book you’ve reviewed has gone on my “wish list” at Amazon OR has helped me decide that it probably would be a book I wouldn’t enjoy. I appreciate you so much for that!

  3. I agree with you. Thanks for stating where you stand on this issue. I have been reading your reviews lately, and they are very informative and offer a good balance of what’s good and what to watch out for. I personally appreciate that, because I’ve also picked up books based on recommendations from others and later was shocked by some of the content. So a heads-up for those who care is really a wonderful gift from one believer to another. We are supposed to approve things that are excellent; I think the converse can also be true in the realm of being discerning children of God and warning others about false teachings or content that could be offensive. That’s just Christian love. I’m afraid in our age of tolerance, too many just want to be positive about everything, but discernment is necessary in a culture that is increasingly on the decline, even as it is reflected to some degree in Christian books.

  4. Great post, Barbara! You gave me a lot to think about as I write my own reviews. I am always honest, but it is sometimes difficult to balance what I don’t like about a book with the fact that the book is someone’s “baby”. I recently wrote a negative review of a book that I purchased; it was not part of a review program. I was a bit hesitant, but felt that readers should know about what I considered questionable and potentially objectionable aspects of the novel. I did point out that I had loved the author’s work in the past and would again give her novels a chance — just not that particular series.

    Thanks for sharing!

  5. I saw a well known “teaching” blogger and author once post that if you haven’t written a book, your review is worthless to her. HAHAHA. Nothing like a little arrogance…….you don’t have to be a published author to be able to state why a book is good or not. Readers of excellent books and people who know their Bible absolutely can state what is either wrong with a book’s theology or why a book is perhaps poorly written or not up to par.

  6. I appreciate your reviews of all kinds of books, Barbara. And the detail you give, the quotes you list, what you personally found objectionable — these are what make the reviews personal. The more specific a reviewer can be the more useful the review, in my opinion. Your reflections are yours and I’m glad you can write clearly about what you like and what you didn’t.

  7. Hello, Barbara,

    Thanks for your articulate and refreshing perspective. I especially appreciated these paragraphs: I tend to be a bit harder on Christian fiction, for a number of reasons. Books written for the King (which Christian fiction should ultimately be) are held to a higher standard. I couldn’t agree more! I’ve heard people summarily dismiss Christian fiction as being poorly written. I have to smile when they say that about all Christian fiction, because I think to myself, “You haven’t read it all.” There is some poorly written Christian fiction, but I wouldn’t say the percentages are higher for this genre than any other. Nevertheless, because I have heard it so criticized, I want it to shine and be the best it can be and prove the naysayers wrong. Also, since Christian fiction portrays spiritual truth to some degree, it needs to be in line with the Bible, or else it is not truly Christian fiction. Yes! I’ve been put off some apparently Christian authors for that very reason. I know there are some areas of controversy in Christendom, and I don’t have an issue with a different opinion in most of those cases. But when it comes to bedrock inarguable truth, like who Jesus is and how one comes to know Him, whatever a book shares about that needs to be clear. I said before in The Gospel and Christian Fiction that I don’t feel every Christian book necessarily has to have a conversion scene or to fully present the gospel, but whatever it does say needs to be clear and accurate.

    And, obviously, Christian fiction should be the one place Christians can be assured of clean reading. Absolutely. Again, I quit reading a particular author for that reason. That doesn’t mean there should be no sin in a book, as I said in Edgy Christian Fiction. You don’t have a plot without conflict and you generally don’t have conflict without sin. But how it’s presented makes a lot of difference. Exactly.

    Thanks for your courage to say what’s true in a gentle but uncompromising way.

    Sincerely,

    Marjorie Goertzen

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