Should I or shouldn’t I click the “two-star” button on that book rating?
According to Goodreads, two stars means “It was ok.” And that’s exactly what I would say to someone in person if they asked what I thought of that book. Yet we all know a two-out-of-five-star rating is considered “negative” and no one actually sees it as “it was ok.”
Before I became a contracted author, I knew I’d have to tackle this question eventually. In the bliss of anonymity, when no one knew who I was, it was so easy to review books with complete honesty and, sometimes, brutality. Now that I’m on that road to publication and infinite-authorness, I’ve frozen in fear—not writing reviews, not deleting them—until I figure out what my stance is.
I try to never be brutal or harmful in my reviews—maybe because I know the time, sweat, and pain it takes to even try writing a book. But the fact is, there are just some books out there I’ll never recommend and, if someone asks me, “What did you think of this book?” I’d say, flat out, “I don’t recommend it. Here’s why.”
Whenever a novelist wades into the critical fray, he is not only helping to explain and maintain literary standards, but also, in some important sense, defending the value of his vocation. – Zoe Heller, NYT
I’ve scoured blogs and articles about reviewing books as an author. Opinions seem split 50/50. One side says, “Yes, be honest and authentic. You’re still a reader.” The other side says, “You’re an author now. Things change. Don’t review books anymore unless you change your name.”
Safe. Diplomatic. There’s no set answer to the question at hand because all answers are subjective. So I go back to my tagline:
Fusing authentic faith and bold imagination.
This tagline refers mostly to the type of writing I do, but I also think of it in terms of my life. I chose four of my favorite life-words, which I hope will define me—authenticity, faith, boldness, and imagination. When I tackle a new question, I pass it through my tagline sieve and see what comes out.
So how does this apply to reviewing books as an author? Not just an author, but an author dedicated to Christ?
Prior to becoming contracted, I kept up a book review blog where I’ve posted close to 60 different book reviews. I only reviewed speculative fiction from a Christian POV to help young readers (and parents of young readers) discern which books they may wish to read. So now that I’m an author, do I delete that site? Do I continue it? Do I leave it and hope it’s never connected back to me? Or do I delete all the reviews that fall below 4-star ratings? (I’m a hard reviewer, that wouldn’t leave me with much.)
Why is this such a difficult issue? Did the authors of the 1900s deal with this? Not like we do. C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and the other Inklings met at The Eagle and Child to critique each other’s work. I suspect their level of criticism would make most authors today shrivel up and drown in a pool of inky despair.
What happened to the backbone of current-day authors? Have we changed so much that now, instead of seeking to better our craft, we seek only approval? Is that the reason there is so much hesitance to speak a negative word against someone else’s work?
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not immune to this sensitivity. I just wish I could get a mild taste of what Tolkien’s and Lewis’s mindsets might be. I wish, for a day, I could understand their true desires behind being authors—the desires that made them not just withstand brutal critique, but seek them out.
…the idea that a novelist should steer clear of criticism, especially negative criticism, would have struck many of the greatest English novelists as bizarre. . . For many of the best, most adventurous novelists, in fact, negative criticism is an essential part of defining their own artistic identity. – Adam Kirsch, NYT
One of the larger issues in the world of book reviewing has to do with people-pleasing. The I’ll-give-your-book-a-good-review-if-you-give-mine-one mindset. It’s not pretty and it’s not what readers (or authors) need, unless the good review is coming from truly authentic views. This (and thoughtless 5-star and even 1-star ratings) can dilute the world of quality reviews, which does a disservice to everyone.
As an author and a book reviewer, I’ve received multiple requests to review other books. This can be tough, especially if it’s a friend or fellow author. If a review has been requested by the author or publisher, I handle it this way:
If I read your book, I will happily write a review, but I will also be very honest in my review. I can’t guarantee that I will recommend your book (though I hope that I can.) If I write a review, I will send it to you via e-mail first. If you read the review and approve it, I will post it on book review sites. If you prefer that I don’t post it, then no review will be posted publicly. It’s your final call.
This allows the author to avoid a negative review, but still allows me to be honest. It also gives that author feedback on his/her work that he/she can then apply or take into consideration without my blasting a two-star rating to the world.
My hope and plan is to review other books honestly, boldly, and thoroughly (yes, even with two stars!) — the goal being to help other readers find a quality read.
In closing, I want to be able to review books. There are other readers out there (like this one!) who want to hear from authors about books. But I also don’t want to blindside an author. If what I have to say about the book is to benefit the author, I’d prefer to go straight to the source instead of broadcasting to the world. But I don’t write reviews for the author…I write them for the reader.
With this in mind, I plan to keep reviewing, with a few tweaks to my reviewing system. I hope to find a balance that fits with my stance and beliefs, but also keeps most hostility and conflict out of my life as an author. My actions, I pray, will be bold and authentic. Otherwise, I’ll have to change my tagline. 😉
For all these writers, criticism was a way of understanding themselves, of discovering how they did and did not want to write. It was also a means of educating the public, preparing readers for the revolution in taste they wanted to sponsor. Perhaps a writer can’t be great without a touch of this kind of aggression, this intolerance of artistic error. At the very least, novelists who do risk writing criticism should know they’re in the best of company. – Adam Kirsch, NYT
So share your thoughts what do you—a reader OR a writer (or both!)—think about authors reviewing other books?
Other Blog Posts I’ve found helpful on this topic:
- Are Novelists Too Wary of Criticizing Other Novelists? by Zoe Heller & Adam Kirsch in The New York Times
- How Do You Feel About Authors Reviewing Books? Blog Post by fiction author Michelle D. Argyle
- Should Authors Review Other Authors’ Books? by Susan Lulgjuraj
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