September 27, 2012

The Value of Christian Book Reviews

Does your opinion matter?

It's one of the easiest things in the world to do - write a review of a book you've read, and with just a few clicks of the mouse and a bit of Copy and Paste, you can post it to any or all of a dozen consumer or literary websites for all the world to see.
But does your review, all by itself, make a whit of difference amid the buzz and glare of the internet? What if you're the 100th... or even the 1000th person to review a book? Will anyone ever read your review? Will they care? Will your review have any effect at all on their buying or reading decision?
It's a multi-faceted question with a multi-faceted answer. I'm going to share my thoughts and observations on the subject in what I hope will be a helpful fashion.
As a volunteer reviewer for several different publishing houses, and an avid all-around reader, I have a lot of books pass through my hands, I read a lot of reviews, and I post a lot of reviews. On a few occasions I've been the first one (presumably in the world) to post a Barnes&Noble, Amazon, or CBD review of a particular title after its release. In cases like that, it's pretty safe to assume that my review will be read and that it will have a hand in someone's buying or reading decision. But there have been times when I was that 20th or 70th or 100th person to post a review, too, and in those cases the odds aren't as good. So does it still matter?
My personal opinion is 'Yes', and here's why:
Every individual is just that: an individual, with a unique sense of perception - a unique lens through which they view the world and everything in it. So, while the Christian community as a whole may see the same general flaws or virtues in a particular title, the individuals within that community will have unique opinions on the details surrounding those virtues or flaws. And, while each of us is unique, there will always be someone out there who has a perspective similar to ours, and those are the people who will benefit most from an honest, specific, and detailed review of a book.
We've all seen the whooping, giddy, rave reviews that say absolutely nothing specific about the book itself, just about how much they loved it. (I'll be honest and confess that I've written a few - only a few, mind you - of those myself. *cringes* Sorry.) And we've all seen the enraged (usually profanity-laced) reviews that say only how much the reviewer hated the book, and nothing at all about the details of why.
Those reviews are not helpful.
Most of us don't have unlimited book-buying funds, and can't afford to spend precious book money on dreck, so we depend on detailed, specific, and well-thought-out reviews to make our buying and reading decisions. So the first step in making sure your book review matters is to make it a review worth reading.
Be specific. Give details about scenes or characters or concepts that appealed to you - or that turned you off. Explain your reasons. This can be difficult to carry off without including spoilers (something you do not want to do) and might take a little practice to get the hang of, but it can be done. Saying a book was awful doesn't mean a whole lot. Saying that a book contains language, gory violence, or illicit sex is helpful. Saying a book is wonderful doesn't mean much. Saying that a book contained a beautiful message of heroism and sacrifice and exciting action and great character development is helpful.
Be generous with star ratings. And I mean generous in both directions. I've heard many people insist that that magical fifth star should be saved only for the best, the greatest, the book with which you could find absolutely no fault. Or that the one-star review should be reserved only for the vilest, most treasonous, blasphemous filth under Heaven. The trouble with that approach is that, if you avoid the extremes, you're left in the middle. Reviews in the middle generally don't get read. Sites like Amazon provide a list of the five-star reviews, and a list of the one-star reviews. No list of three-star reviews. Readers want to know why other readers loved or hated a book, not why they were rather indifferent. I'm not saying you should give a book a one-star rating just because it failed to thrill you, or that you should give it five stars just because there was nothing obscenely wrong with it. Some books are just mediocre, plain and simple, and deserve a mediocre review. But if a book genuinely delighted you, why not give it five stars? And, since most of us probably try to avoid reading vile, treasonous, blasphemous filth entirely, we need some other landmark for the low end of our opinions. So if a book made you angry, or offended you (even without being vile, etc.), go ahead and give it that one-star rating if you feel that's what it deserves.
Don't be afraid to judge a secular book on a Christian scale. This one is touchy, and I can just see people winding themselves up to pounce on me for saying it. I am not saying that we should expect a secular book or author to conform to Christian standards. Why on Earth would or should they? But remember what I said earlier about viewing the world through your own lens. As a Christian reader, you're writing reviews for the benefit of other Christian readers. If a book contains something that might be offensive to another Christian, say so.
Don't be afraid to stand alone in your opinion. It might be just what someone else needs to hear. Anyone who knows me knows that I relish going against the flow (comes from too much Wallace ancestry, I guess). But even so, when a book's page on the consumer website boasts 70+ reviews averaging four-and-a-half or five stars, and you're sitting at your desk preparing to post your one-star review, it can be a little unnerving. You almost have to wonder "Is it just me? Am I just looking at this in the wrong way? Was I just in a bad mood when I read this book?" and it can be tempting to 'tweak' your review - just a little.
Certainly you don't want to be unkind or rude in your review. But if you have solid, definable reasons for disliking a book, then don't be afraid to stand up and dislike it for all you're worth. I can think of two particular instances in which I vehemently disliked a book, but was starkly alone in my opinion. In one of those instances, I posted a very indignant one-star review on a webpage beside over 70 five-star reviews. It was a 'Christian' book being praised by scores of Christian readers, and needless to say I felt a bit like a duck in a hen house. But I had solid, biblical reasons for disliking it, so I posted the review anyway. 
In the other instance, I was part of a ladies' discussion group and had some very serious issues with the book we were reading through. Again, it was a Christian book by a Christian author, but I strongly disagreed with many of the assertions and ideas it contained, and I said so openly to the group. Most of them brushed me off or tried to explain to me how and why I was wrong. It was only weeks later, after we had finished the book, that one of the ladies thanked me for expressing my opinion so strongly. Come to find out, it had encouraged her to look more critically at the book's content, to rethink and weigh it carefully rather than taking it at face value. It made me realize that many times, we as Christians see a 'Christian' book by a Christian author, so we drop our guard and assume that the content must be biblical and agreeable. 'Speak Friend and enter,' as it were.
So if your review of a book is rational, well-thought-out, and biblically founded, don't be afraid to stand out and voice your opinion.
Reviewing old books is okay, too. The hottest new releases are the ones getting most of the attention, but the old books (whether old means a year old or a hundred years old) still get read, and readers still like being able to hear other people's opinions of them. I've had many people find my book review blog not because they were looking for a Christian book review blog to follow, but because they were looking for a review of a specific book - most of the time an older one. Old books need reviews too.

Book reviews are extremely important to maintaining balance in the literary world. I know that sounds lofty, but in a lot of ways, it is. Your perspective is important, and your opinion does matter.

Your thoughts?

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