Mike Duran graced us with a guest blog post on Saturday, where he sparked a discussion about Christians giving only positive reviews of Christian books. The implication, of course, is that some Christians believe we have an “obligation” to support our brethren, even if that support is an undeserved five stars. Mike says—and I agree—that this is a disservice. And there’s a side to giving negative reviews a lot of people don’t often think about.
Several commenters shared reasons for positive-only reviews. Diane Graham pointed out that she only reviews books she’d give five stars—er, anvils—to because she always backs up her reviews with a give-away, and she’s not going to purchase-for-give-away books she doesn’t like. A couple of commenters mentioned that they simply don’t finish reading books they don’t like.
I can relate to that. I will generally stop reading a book—even a hundred or so pages in—if I’m just not liking it. However, I will usually post a review of said book because I didn’t like it. I’ve found that it’s the books I love AND the books I hate that inspire me to review. It’s the books that sit smack in the middle—there in the land of “meh”—that I don’t review.
I also tend to read the reviews of books on both ends, but generally ignore those in the middle. When I visit Amazon to check into a book, I start by reading a few five-star reviews, and then I switch to the 1-stars. (I admit, I am a bit skeptical if there are only glowing reviews.) The thing is…those negative reviews are really enlightening.
Negative reviews are important. As Mike pointed out, they show that we as readers have balance and discrimination. And his post had more to do with the idea that we shouldn’t give readers the disillusion that a book is well-written when the craft is poor. But honest negative reviews do something else you may not expect: They can also give positive insight into the book that may not show up in a positive review.
Let me illustrate that with something completely unrelated, then I’ll pull it back to books. A Mexican restaurant opened up in my town, and my husband and I looked up reviews before driving over. There were “negative” comments about the salsa being blended when the customer expected chunky, and the chili relleno being a strip of pepper in cheese rather than a whole pepper deep-fried. The customer was trying to say, “This isn’t good food,” but what the review told me was, “This place is authentic,” and the reviewer probably has an affinity for Tex-Mex. Those negative reviews are what got us to try the place, and we loved it.
The same thing can happen to a book. A writer friend of mine once told me about how she’d been to a convention where she won a copy of Steven James’s novel The Pawn. She said she couldn’t read past the prologue because it was gruesome. She didn’t like his writing at all. I had never heard of him and scribbled down the info—not because she had “warned” me against it and I wanted to avoid him, but because I like dark and gruesome. I loved the book.
But what if she had played down those elements, trying to force a good review out of loyalty to a fellow Christian? I would have skipped over it, thinking it wasn’t dark enough for me. Writing forced positive reviews might turn off the readers who actually want the sort of writing you consider “bad.”
So the next time you read a book you don’t like, consider writing a review. Maybe even a scathing one. You might actually be doing more good for that author than if you falsely praise it. If nothing else, you’ll be doing more for yourself—your followers will have a better sense of what you really like and don’t like, and they will consider you reliable even if they tend to disagree with you. Setting yourself up as wishy-washy only means that the genuine positive reviews you give will make people disregard your opinion altogether.