Thursday, November 6, 2008

Writing Scathing Reviews

Just the other day, Cara Putnam asked a question about reviewing books that weren’t right for her (a euphemism used by the publishing industry to describe poorly written books). I don’t advocate writing reviews that sound like every book is the greatest thing that has ever come off the press, but I did say that I am moving in the direction of writing fewer scathing reviews and writing more complimentary reviews. I have chosen to use this blog post to explain why

One thing I have noticed since I have begun to write novels is that I am much more critical of the work of others. Jesus said, “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” If I write a scathing review then I am opening myself up for the author or fans of that author to do the same with one of my books. Now, some books deserve a scathing review, but I find that as an author I may have a mote in my eye that keeps me from seeing clearly when I write a review.

Let me give you a real world example. I didn’t know that Francine Rivers had written Redeeming Love until after I had started writing For the Love of a Devil. I have been fascinated with Hosea since we studied the prophets in Sunday night training service many years ago. I already knew where I was going with the story before I read Redeeming Love, so my own choices flavored my opinion of the decisions Francine Rivers made. Then there is the question of whether my desire to see my own book success might give me an unhealthy desire to “prove” her book inferior to mine. Considering the number of readers who love her book, even using a euphemism like it wasn’t right for me could be enough for droves of fans to attack my work.

HoseaRedeeming LoveFor the Love of a Devil
Antagonist(s)Gomer/IsraelCast of Evil People, HoseaGomer, Gomer's lovers, Gomer's family
Number of Children303
Opening ImageIsrael has sinned, go marry an awful womanGomer's childhoodGomer leaves Hosea
Fun and Games

Hosea/God persues Gomer/Israel and provides for her, but she puts her
faith in her lovers/gods

Hosea convinces a prostitute to marry him. She agrees,
but she refuses to love him.
Hosea persues Gomer who has gone to her lovers. He trys to provide for her,
but she doesn't want his help.
Lead Into Finale"Go love her," God says to Hosea before Hosea goes and
buys his wife back from the slave market.
Hosea has given up. Gomer is now running a halfway house
for prostitutes. Hosea's friend goes and finds Gomer.
One of Hosea's students encourages him to go buy back his wife, who somewhere
in the dark world of slavory. Hosea seeks out a former student who may have
ties to the dark world Gomer has entered.

Even a cursory look at the table above will tell you that there are significant differences between the three. (I’ve changed the names for consistency.) There are many other differences as well. Look at the children involved, for example. In the Bible, the children’s primary purpose is to have names that go along with Hosea’s prophecy and to call for their mother to repent. In Redeeming Love, because Gomer believes she cannot have children, this becomes an issue and is actually the reason she leaves Hosea. In For the Love of a Devil, the children have important roles to play in revealing Gomer’s self-centered nature as well as in showing the pain Hosea feels.

As you can see, I tried to follow the biblical version more closely than did Francine Rivers. Considering that, if I were to write a review of Redeeming Love and I state that I thought she should have gotten to the story more quickly, I have to wonder whether I am referring to the story that she has told or the story that I think she should have told. It could be that if I hadn’t read Hosea or hadn’t written For the Love of a Devil then I would have thought she got to the story in plenty of time.

When we write reviews, we often reveal as much about ourselves as the books we are reviewing. Reviews are only opinions, but when we state our opinions we offer suggestions on how people should evaluate our own work. Do we want them to evaluate our work that way? Will our work stand up to the same scrutiny? Perhaps we are demanding something of the author that shouldn’t be required. It is something to consider.