Tuesday, August 29, 2006

critical book reviews

Yesterday I posted a critical book review. After posting it, I considered diluting the criticism, looking for more nice things to say and rewriting, perhaps even deleting the post altogether. I decided against all these. Instead, I’m going to give some of my history as a reviewer and thoughts about book reviews – and criticism in general.

1. I love good writing and am always on the lookout for new authors to follow.

2. I have never written a novel (though I have read a lot of fiction, along with taking courses and reading many books on how to write it). I have written and published a few short stories, though, and my little experience with writing fiction has proved it’s one of the hardest types of writing to get good at. As a reviewer of fiction, I often feel that I am really an armchair quarterback and though I have lots of opinions on what is wrong, I’m not sure I could do it better. I have great respect for fiction writers.

3. For years I avoided reading so-called Christian fiction. I found it was often poorly written and preachy.

4. Then I was introduced to several Christian novels (and novelists) that excited me.
- Francine Rivers’ Mark of the Lion series.
- The Mitford books by Jan Karon.
- Books by Dale Cramer
- Lately I’ve enjoyed Patty Hill, Sharon Hinck and Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.
These books encouraged me not to give up on Christian fiction but instead help publicize the books that are well done.

5. Though I’d reviewed a few books in past years, it wasn’t until I opened this blog that I began writing reviews of pretty much everything I read. It made the reading experience more meaningful as it forced me to analyze and process what I was reading.

6. After reviewing books for Stacey Harp’s Mind and Media (since changed to Active Christian Media) I was contacted by Bethany House to review fiction for them.

7. Thus I’ve been getting many hot-off-the-press books to read and have been exposing myself to genres (like Romance, Mom-Lit and Suspense) I would not likely choose to read. This has had its pluses. In the process I’ve been introduced to some very talented new writers. It also means that now I’m reading some books that don't appeal to me,

8. When I read books I don’t care for, I am in a dilemma. Should I consider the feelings of the publishing house and the author, or be honest? The personal, writer-vulnerable part of me wants to say nice things, being careful not to give offense or set myself up in a way which would invite attacks back at me. I know how much criticism can hurt. However, the consumer/reader part wants to tell it straight.

9. In the review below, I’ve obviously opted for telling it straight. However, I’ve discovered that it’s harder to write a critical review than a positive one, because it’s harder to figure out why I feel a book doesn’t work than why it does.

I’ve wondered, sometimes, if it’s simply a matter of genre. The romance genre, for example, typically focuses on inner feelings and tracks the moment-by-moment development of romantic love – something about which I simply don’t enjoy reading. So maybe I’m being overly critical because I don’t understand or appreciate the genre?

That may be part of it. However, I have read romance that I enjoy – and suspense, and all kinds of genres. So I hold to the belief that if something is well written, it will be enjoyable to read, no matter what the genre.

Also, I try to be specific in my criticism - not just say I don’t like a book but explain why and give examples.

10. I am hoping that criticism (coming from many more voices than just mine) will eventually improve the state of Christian fiction to the point where many more of these books will become must-reads for the fiction-reading public, Christian and non-Christian alike.

11. I also post some book reviews found here on Amazon.com and most on blogcritics.org Some of those have been chosen by blogcritic editors to be syndicated by Advance.net and appear in .com papers like cleveland.com. This increased exposure makes me even more aware of the potential my words have to damage a book or a writer. I agonize over whether to post negative reviews of Christian fiction more widely. Mostly I haven’t.

All the above to say that when you read my reviews, keep in mind that I am only one person who has definite tastes and will speak her mind. If you’re thinking of buying a book and you read a critical review here, look at other reviews before making your decision. (For A Hearth In Candlewood, for example, Harriet Klausner has rated this book 4/5 stars and written a mostly positive review here).

And to the authors about whose books I’ve been critical, please remember this Trumpism: It’s not personal, it’s business.

Filed in Book Reviews

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