The Dark Side of Christian Reviews

A blog post by Mike Duran, “Outside the Echo Chamber” (published on New Authors Fellowship), has sparked quite a few discussions. Basically, Mike says we Christian authors are too easy on each other when it comes to reviewing our books:

[Christian] authors aren’t very tough on each other. Most Christian reviewers seem to feel obligated to give good reviews to their brethren. As an aspiring Christian author, I was, frankly, surprised at the number of 4-5 star reviews Christian fiction routinely received.

It’s true. Perhaps it’s because we’re trying to insulate ourselves from the world, as Mike says. The probability of getting bashed by non-believers for the Christian content in our books is high, and for every 1 or 2 we’re scored, it’s comforting to see all the 4s and 5s we received from our fellow believers.

But it’s a false comfort.

Recently, I was informed Christians “are supposed to give 5s” to fellow Christians (five being the highest score on most scales). That was news to me. And if it’s true, there isn’t a single review written by a fellow Christian author that we can trust. We can pat ourselves on the back for all the 5s we’re getting, but if our work deserves a 3, we aren’t fooling anyone. Unbiased readers may read the author’s first book, but if it’s poorly written, they won’t read the author’s second. And if that reader bought the book based on all those wonderful 5 reviews, the reviewers will fall from grace also.

Amazon and B&N rating systems are already untrustworthy. For every false 5 awarded, there can also be false 2s and 1s. Someone’s ticked at the author? What a better way to get back at him then to bash his book.

But, as sad as all that is, it’s not the “dark side.”

Through personal experience and the experience of others, I’ve learned that giving a “bad” review to a fellow Christian author can be akin to professional suicide.

Most reviewers, especially when they’re personally acquainted with the author, try to be gentle when explaining why they didn’t care for a book. They try to offer constructive criticism while presenting plenty of positive points to soften the blow. But for some authors, anything below a 5 is a personal affront, and the reviewer is considered mean-spirited, unloving, and worse, “not really a Christian.”

Some of the reviewers have been privately assaulted and publicly bashed, “de-friended” from various sites, and/or have found new harsh reviews on their own published materials.

The first time I experienced the “black-ball” treatment, I made up my mind not to write a review where I couldn’t at least give a 4 rating. Then I got myself caught between the rock of truth and a sensitive author who knew I was reading her book, and discovered that plan wouldn’t work either. So, I lied when I rated the author. To save her feelings and to protect myself, I lied.

Ordinarily, my word doesn’t carry any weight. I haven’t built up the creds for authors to care what my honest opinion is. They want their 5s, and aren’t interested in my reason for not delivering, regardless of how valid my thoughts are or how carefully they are presented. Because of this, I will no longer post reviews for friends or fellow Christian authors, on this site or any other, unless their work has earned a four or higher. Which was my original plan. But for it to work this time, I won’t let my friends know I’m reading their books. That way, if my impression of their work isn’t favorable, they’ll never know.

And for the five people whose work I’ve already agreed to review, if I can’t publish an honest review, I’ll send you an email and let you know why.

About Linda W. Yezak

Author/Freelance Editor/Speaker (writing and editing topics).
This entry was posted in Authors, Personal, Reading, Reviews of exceptional books, Writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

37 Responses to The Dark Side of Christian Reviews

  1. Linda says:

    That is very true, unfortunately. And even if you don’t tell your friends that you’re reading their books, they might catch on if they never see a review from you . . . I’m sure negative reviews are painful, but I think it’s worse to give someone the false impression that they’re a brilliant writer when they’re not. Reminds me of a girl I grew up with. She wanted to join an elite singing group at our school. The problem was she couldn’t carry a tune to save her life. She was tone deaf. So when she was told she couldn’t be in the group, she had a meltdown and told everyone they were mean and sadistic. She KNEW she had a wonderful singing voice because her parents had always told her so–and so had all their sweet Christian friends. Like the “false positive” reviewers, they were acting out of Christian love–but they ended up causing her a great deal of embarrassment and humiliation by leading her to believe she had a talent which did not in fact exist.

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    • Linda Yezak says:

      The choir wannabe is the perfect example, Linda. The only difference is, while someone who is tone deaf has a physical problem that can’t be easily repaired (whether she believes it needs to be or not), a writer can improve his craft if he’d take some of the critique seriously.

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  2. sheilaodomhollinghead says:

    Linda, I agree 100%. Isn’t it unchristian to lie? Our words should be gentle and our attitude loving when we review, but we are always to be truthful. Someone asked on FB how we handle praise. I mainly dismiss it thinking people are simply trying to spare my feelings.

    I want someone who is not afraid to tell the truth. How else will I grow as a writer? Thanks for being strong enough to be truthful.

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    • sheilaodomhollinghead says:

      Let me add that Jesus was never afraid to be truthful. If you read the gospels closely, you will find only a handful of instances when he actually praised someone. Telling someone they are wonderful when they aren’t is *not* Christian. It’s the very opposite of who Christ was. He was and is the TRUTH.

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    • Linda Yezak says:

      I’m in the camp of “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Regardless of how kindly someone explains the rating they’ve given an author, the author can still be hurt and angry.

      I’m like you, I’d like to know of things I can improve in my writing. The ACFW judges have hurt my feelings a time or two, but I usually discovered their opinions were spot on. Like you said, they helped me grow as a writer.

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  3. This is an important post,Linda. Those reviews are so critically important to us writers in our promotion.

    I only give 4s and 5s. Because I only review books I honestly feel are 4 or 5s in themselves. If I don’t like a book, I’ll not do a review.

    That said, I might give a book a higher rating because of the content or because it’s an important subject that needs a book to help others. If a need cries out and only one book in the world has been written on the subject, even if I don’t think the writing is completely wonderful, it may get a 4 or 5 because I see the book as just that important. And in my review I’ll tell folks that the.

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    • Linda Yezak says:

      I can understand that, Carol. When I’m reviewing a book, the writing quality isn’t the only thing I look at. If it was, I’d never be able to say another good word about Tom Clancy, James Patterson, and some of the other secular writers I love. Those two in particular can make me nuts as an editor, but as a reader, I can’t turn the pages fast enough!

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  4. Lynn Mosher says:

    Such a sad state that reviews have deteriorated to this level. Sad indeed!

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    • Linda Yezak says:

      I’m not sure how prominent the vengefulness is, Lynn. I know my story isn’t uncommon, but I don’t think it occurs frequently. But I agree with Mike: there is an inordinate amount of 4-5 ratings given in the Christian writing community.

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  5. E G Lewis says:

    I would disagree…especially about the lying part. The reviewers at the NYT and so forth go for the gotcha! review. They don’t read a book for enjoyment, they read it looking for a way to tear the author apart. Maybe it’s because we’re also writers, but we understand that we aren’t asked to do a review so we can sit on our thrones and throw darts at another author.
    Realistically, we ask for reviews to promote our books and we do reviews to help other authors. If you want an honest appraisal on the faults of your book go to a critique group – that’s what they’re for. Personally, I’m going to take it the way you give it to me and look at the work as a whole instead of nitpicking.
    That’s not to say I haven’t given harsh reviews when I feel they’re deserved. The larger issue is: So what if I wouldn’t have done it that way; you did and I’m not going to vent my ego at your expense.
    Peace and Blessings

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    • Linda Yezak says:

      I don’t know about the NYT reviewers, but for myself and those I do know, we aren’t trying for the gotcha! or to nitpick or whack another author so we can look good (which would probably backfire anyway). And frankly, if the author had gone through a critique partner or group, or paid for an edit before getting published, they may not be subjected to these less-than-stellar reviews. The “I would do it this way” routine should be covered before publication, where a trusted, experienced partner or editor or writing coach helps the author improve his craft. It has no business in a review.

      Truth is, when the characters are shallow, flat, or cliche, the plot is loose or non-existent, the tension is absent or contrived, I’m amazed the book even gets published. But it does, either by small pubbers who aren’t as discriminating as they should be or by the author him/herself. Or often by large publishers whose editors clean up the first few chapters and ignore the rest of the book.

      We’ve all seen them–first drafts that got published. Way too many people believe that putting “the end” on their manuscript really is “the end.” And since we’ve got an influx of new publishers, self-publishing companies, and folks who can load their books in cyberspace on their own, we have a lot of first drafts masquerading as finished books.

      And a lot of those authors want reviews.

      Ordinarily, I can find something good to say about someone’s work, but occasionally, for me to even try would bring the punishment reserved for Pinnochio upon my nose. In the past, I made the mistake of lying. Not gonna do it again.

      Like

  6. K.M. Weiland says:

    I’m weird, I know, but I actually hardly ever read reviews before buying a book. I usually make my decisions based solely on word of mouth, and I only go back to read the Amazon reviews *after* I’ve read the book – just to get a feel for what others thought of the book and how it lines up with my own reaction. I can’t say I’ve ever noticed the bulk of the reviews being unreliable (so much as subjective), but I’m totally with you on the importance of honest reviews. As an author, I’m actually just as proud of one-, two-, and three-star reviews as I am of the fours and fives. (Okay, maybe not *just* as proud, but I’m not sorry they’re up there, and I’m glad the readers were honest.)

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    • Linda Yezak says:

      Sometimes folks will buy books based on the reviews of individual bloggers. For those of us promoting our books through blog tours, we rely on that. For the blogger, it is vital that their review is reliable. I don’t blame them for refusing to post about a book they can’t comfortably promote.

      I took a peek at your ratings for Behold the Dawn not long ago, and was surprised to see some low scores. One guy loved your writing skill but thought your plot was predictable. Wow. Can’t say that I agree, but like you said, reviews are subjective.

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  7. test says:

    A book without any 1-3 star reviews isn’t credible. The reviews are presumed to come entirely from the author’s friends and family and are therefore discounted. I’m surprised how few people seem to get this. You want a few critical reviews. One should welcome a glowing 3 star review with the score explained by pointing toward very minor flaws.

    A video game magazine had a section at the end of it’s scored reviews called “Too Little or Too Late.” These reviews weren’t scored because the game was bad or arrived too close to press time to receive an in-depth treatment. I thought that was clever because they didn’t have to specify the reason for no score…

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    • Linda Yezak says:

      “A book without any 1-3 star reviews isn’t credible. The reviews are presumed to come entirely from the author’s friends and family and are therefore discounted.”

      So true. Thanks for the comments, test.

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  8. Lisa Grace says:

    I hired Linda to edit a manuscript of mine. I knew it wasn’t right, but I couldn’t “see” the forest for the trees. She graciously pointed out several things that need work, from adding romantic tension and delaying “the kiss”, to the flow of the plot line, to maturing up the dialog of the characters, redudndancy, among about a dozen other problems.
    The point is, without an honest assessment, I couldn’t take my MS to where it needs to be. Once I have addressed all those issues, I’ll send it back to her. I believe we should never send a book out to be published until it is ready.

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    • Linda Yezak says:

      “I believe we should never send a book out to be published until it is ready.”

      Yep. And thanks for the plug! πŸ˜€

      Like

  9. Lynne Wells Walding says:

    I don’t do book reviews on my blog, but I’ve been there, Linda. I’ve had friends request that I buy their book, or even give me a copy of the book and ask me to review it on Amazon, etc. What to do . . . what to do . . . when I find the book totally boring, or poorly written. In fact, I’m in that position right now. I’m sure the story is a good one, (maybe great) but I’m having a very difficult time making it through the childish dialogue. I dare not give it a 5 lest I line myself up with this person, writing-wise. Yet, I’m history with this person if I do otherwise.

    It’s not that I think I’m great. But I have an edtor who is. And I seriously doubt the book in question has been edited. Published by a super-small press.

    If you think of a good solution to my dilemma, I’m all ears.

    Like

    • Linda Yezak says:

      Sounds similar to the situation I was in. If I think of a good solution, I’ll be glad to share it.

      Like

      • Brad says:

        How about defining your scale?

        5: Publishable work
        4: Needs work in some areas
        3: Needs work in many areas
        2: Not recommended
        1: Completely unworthy

        That would allow most nooks to get a 4 or 5.

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    • Lisa Grace says:

      Tell her you’re not doing reviews, run an author interview instead.

      Like

      • Linda Yezak says:

        I’ve done that. That works. I’ve allowed guest posts, too, instead of doing a review. For those expecting a review on my website, offering them either an interview or a guest post seems to satisfy them. As long as they don’t expect me to write a review on Goodreads or Amazon, I’m home free!

        Great reminder, Lisa. Thanks!

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  10. Alex Adena says:

    Great post, Linda.

    This concept of a “great review as a spiritual obligation” is really troubling. Moreover, it reinforces this notion that Christians should not think for themselves — we should just parrot each other and pat each other on the back.

    When it happens in Christian fiction, it accelerates the downhill slide of our genre. When it happens in religion, it seriously impairs our ability to grow spiritually.

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  11. Linda Yezak says:

    Brad–that scale could work, I guess, as long as I never had to use “1”! Yowzah! πŸ˜€

    Like

  12. Wow. I had no idea. I agree it isn’t the proper to give false praise, and as others have said, criticism can be given in careful, not vengeful doses. Too bad the authors didn’t get the right critiques before the book went to print, but you are also right, the authors you mentioned are among my favorites, and the story line is so compelling I am willing to overlook a few writing flaws. The art of story telling involves a lot of different facets. Sad to hear people can be so ungracious when someone is trying to help by being honest. I don’t blame you at all for being reticent about reviews, particularly with friends! Great post, quite the eye-opener.

    Like

    • Linda Yezak says:

      “The art of story telling involves a lot of different facets.”

      Amen, sister. And if a few of those facets are dull while the bulk shimmer brilliantly, the book can still be considered a good one. When someone offers a review that includes insight on how to make the dull facets shine brighter, that should be received in the same spirit it was given.

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  13. joannesher says:

    That’s crazy – and it makes me sad. I do NOT like to be “honest” if I don’t love a book, but I’ve done it a couple of times (though the lowest rating I’ve given – to a friend actually – was a 3). I REALLY want to know what’s wrong with my book – preferably before it’s published πŸ˜‰ I want to be truthful in my dealings AND reviews. I don’t always review books I read–and maybe that’s my way of “getting out of” not telling the truth if I don’t like a book. But you’ve definitely made me think.

    Like

    • Linda Yezak says:

      I don’t always review the books I read either, and as Mike Duran said, I tend to go easier on Christian fiction than on the mainstream fiction–I guess because I know fewer mainstream authors.

      Like

  14. This is a great discussion. I agree that it’s hard to differentiate what you’d consider GOOD Christian fiction because one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. So what I consider to be a good story worthy of a ‘4’, someone else might have their heart touched and grant it a ‘5’… While the next reader may throw the book across the room, irritated because his or her experience was totally different.

    I don’t do reviews generally for that very reason. And because I’m pals with a bunch of ABA and CBA authors, they understand how tricky it is. In a recent contest my debut novel finaled in one category and got a couple of rough scores in another category. (Because it was my first published novel it was eligible to be entered in two separate categories.) So in one category, the book was beloved. In the second, some loved it, some hated it. I know the writing’s good. But some stories just won’t grab some people. And certain characters might set people off. A NYT bestselling author once told me to embrace the love and the hate reviews, because it means you’re evoking strong emotion. And I think she’s right. Thanks for a good, frank discussion and I like the idea of just not publicly reviewing something you don’t like. It might seem like the ‘chicken’s way out’ but I hate hurting feelings for no possible positive gain. Wait. That sounds like I REALLY WANT TO HURT FEELINGS IF I GET SOMETHING OUT OF IT…. That might actually be true, LOL!

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    • Linda Yezak says:

      Giggle! Right–I’m only in it for the reward! πŸ˜€ πŸ˜€ πŸ˜€

      No, where you’re right is that reviewing is entirely subjective, and authors should realize that and try to appreciate both the good and the bad.

      Congrats on having your debut become a finalist! That’s a priceless pat on the back!

      Like

      • Oh, yes, exactly. And I think people are intelligent enough to tell if a review is either over-the-top-ridiculously good or are-ya’-kiddin’-me mean. Gotta trust the readers’ intelligence and enjoyment. And good or bad, you’re never going to please everyone but if enough folks buy your book, you get a paycheck. πŸ˜‰ A win/win. And thank you for the congrats… I am amazed, delighted, surprised and humbled. Grinning in upstate New York, LOL!

        Like

  15. Lynette says:

    I read the original blog post and somehow found my way here. This is the very reason I stopped doing reviews quite a few years ago. It was hard to read some books that (in my opinion) could have had better editing. For the most part, those were rare. While I appreciated the story line, the errors were too distracting for me to enjoy the story. I consider book reviews opinions, not rules of law. However, there’s a way to share our opinion without being caustic, or worse, turning reviews into a mutual admiration society.

    I’ve only in the past couple of years started being an influencer. If there’s an author I know and I’ve enjoyed their work before, or a book that interests me written by an author I’m not familiar with, I will gladly read a copy to “influence”–After I’ve read it, if I feel like crowing about how I think it’s worth buying, I will. But again, it’s very subjective. If a book doesn’t grab me, I have a hard time talking about it. And that’s even with authors I know. On one hand, I understand the hard work it takes to write and edit a book. On the other hand, I don’t want to rest on my laurels just because all my buds tell me “what a great writer I am.” There’s always room to improve, and we shouldn’t refuse to linger on the notion that maybe, just maybe, we still need to listen to our critics…just a little…and find that one nugget of truth, even if it’s small.

    Like

    • Linda Yezak says:

      I just found out about influencers, Lynnette. Roni Kendig chose me as one for her *Wolfsbane* and Dina Sleiman did for her medieval novel coming out later this year. I wish I’d known about influencers in time to ask for some for Give the Lady a Ride! It seems like a good, helpful gift we can give each other. I wouldn’t have minded at all if someone wasn’t too crazy about the book. I’m confident in my writing, but the subject may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Like you said, reviewing is subjective.

      Like

      • Lynette says:

        I enjoy influencing….I don’t know that my recommendation has much clout (LOL), but I enjoy sharing about new, excellent authors. Or new to me, anyway. I find it sad that faith-based fiction still gets a bad rap sometimes. I think that now there is truly something for everyone. It has come a long, long when in the past ten years, and I would hate to see us sabotage what we’ve done so far. Growing pains will come, but that’s part of the process.

        Like

  16. Alex Adena says:

    I think that’s the exact approach to take to this, Lynette. Support your peers when they do good work and offer constructive advice to those who aren’t quite there yet. We should all be capable of separating the genre and style from the writing. And those who can’t … well, they’re not at the stage that I would consider them professional writers πŸ™‚

    Like

    • Lynette says:

      Yes, I think even the “bestsellers” as well as the newbies need to be willing to accept constructive advice. I always think if people are agreeing about everything, well, then someone’s not being truthful, or at the very least, someone’s holding back. I read a novel a while back that had the “rave reviews” from the “community”, and I thought it was good. I finished it, but I found myself skimming parts. I don’t like doing that when I read a book, because I want to enjoy all of it. Was I bored? Maybe just a little. But not so bored that I didn’t want to finish. For me, parts of it started to read like a sermon. Not that a sermon’s bad, you know, but to me it slowed the pace of the story because the author was trying to get a point across through the character. I probably would have given it *maybe* 4 stars, and that was being generous. A 5-star book for me is one I would read over again, a 4-star book one I would definitely tell my friends about, and 3-stars? Well, I read it. πŸ™‚

      Maybe we in the writing community need to “confess our faults to each other,” and help each other, so that we may be better writers… I know where I fall short and would like to improve!

      Like

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