Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Everyone's a Critic

by Robison Wells

Last week I wrote about how being an author requires a certain amount of diplomacy in public. The comments at the end of the blog took on a life of their own, however, and ended up discussing literary reviews of LDS fiction. My comments prompted Jennie Hansen, author and book reviewer for Meridian Magazine, to write an article explaining her reviewing philosophy. Today’s blog will be a closer look at why I wrote what I wrote.

Two things before we begin: First, I realize from the get-go that most of what I’m proposing is hypothetical at best. Jennie wrote in her column yesterday that some of my suggestions were practically impossible, and I certainly don’t disagree. This is all a pipe dream, but it’s an interesting one, so I think it’s worth discussing.

Second, this blog is by no means a rebuttal to Jennie’s article. Jennie and I are good friends – she even asked me to write a book review for Meridian once. I very much respect her ideas, and her work.

Okay. The comment that I made, that caused all the discussion, was that I wish there were more comprehensive and consistent reviews of LDS fiction. I would like to see reviews of all books, both good and bad. While many people have come to review LDS books, there are no sources that could be considered definitive, or even critically adequate. The two that come the closest are (1) Meridian Magazine, and (2) the Association for Mormon Letters, but neither of them are comparable with a literary review. (Again, this is NOT to disparage either of them. I think they do a tremendous job.)

What do I mean by comprehensive? Think of movie reviews. Almost every single movie that is released is reviewed by critics, and their articles are published the day the film appears in theaters. This has two benefits. First, readers can quickly determine whether or not they want to spend their eight dollars on any given movie. Second, by reviewing every movie, not just a few of them, critics give a better impression of what makes them tick.

I read multiple movie reviews every week. There are two websites in particular that I never miss: rogerebert.com and ericdsnider.com. After having read their sites every Friday for years, I have a pretty good idea about their likes and dislikes. Aside from knowing simply whether they enjoyed the movie in question, I know their philosophies. And as such, I can see through their rankings and decide for myself whether or not I will enjoy the movie. In other words, I know that Snider is particularly harsh on formula films, and I know that Ebert’s star system often has almost no grounding in his true feelings. But by being familiar with them and their reviewing style, I can decide for myself whether or not I’ll like the movie.

Meridian’s reviews are excellent, but they are decidedly not Meridian’s central focus. They are effectively feature stories, highlighting new and interesting novels. They are well-written and literate, but Meridian simply cannot (and probably doesn’t want to) support a comprehensive online book review. It would take much more manpower than they currently have.

The Association for Mormon Letters is another tremendous source for book reviews, but they have problems of their own. They face the same staffing issues as Meridian, and while I’m sure that AML would embrace the idea of a comprehensive literary review, they aren’t there yet. Their reviews often appear months if not years after a book is released, and, more importantly, their listserv format makes old reviews hard to access. (Jennie’s article yesterday indicated that AML is more favorable to LDS books which are literary or edgy. That doesn’t actually bother me at all. All reviewers have bias. That’s why it’s so important to have a consistent supply of reviews: so that you can determine reviewer’s biases and adjust your interpretations accordingly.)

There are other reviewers out there, though I generally find their reviews less than helpful. Particularly troubling are those reviewers who only give glowing reviews. I have to wonder sometimes, while I’m reading such sites, why they bother to review at all. Wouldn’t it make more sense to merely post a list of recommended books? If all you have to say is how much you loved it, then why would anyone be interested in reading your gushing raves? (Again, this is why Jennie and AML are good – they don’t mind giving positive reviews, but they’re not afraid to mention the aspects that need improvement.)

Another issue that comes up when discussing reviews of LDS books is one of support. Should we, as LDS people, support all LDS arts regardless of our personal tastes, to bolster the growth of the industry? My answer, surprisingly perhaps, is yes and no. I used to criticize LDS cinema quite a bit. There were huge flaws in some of the early movies – even with basic movie-making things like putting the camera in focus. But I’ve come to forgive most of its problems. It’s unexplored territory. Films are being made by people whose only previous storytelling experience is roadshows. Does that make me love their lousy movies? Do I think that The Home Teachers deserves an Oscar based on nothing more than effort and potential? Of course not. But at the same time, I can cut it some slack. These early films are paving the way for future. Someday The Singles Ward might be considered an LDS equivalent of The Birth of a Nation.

But do I think the same about LDS books? Unfortunately, no. LDS fiction is past the honeymoon stage and is a legitimate market. Literary masters have emerged, whose works are every bit as good as what can be found at the national level. And more importantly, these great examples are not random occurrences – they’re becoming more and more reliable. As the LDS fiction market moves from a fragile infancy toward a strong artistic presence, the audience must treat it as such.

LDS authors ought to be leading the way. We are acutely aware of the negative criticism that there is of LDS art. We spend far too much of our time battling these deep-rooted anti-LDS-fiction sentiments. If we insist that our books are on a par with today’s great novels, we should embrace professional critiques.


13 Comments:

At 5/16/2006 10:22 AM, Blogger RobisonWells said...

Of course, my books are exempt from this. Only blind praise for them, thank you very much!

 
At 5/16/2006 11:56 AM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

It seems that in order to have any kind of a comprehensive review system, we'd need several reviewers giving their opinions on each book released, since as you mentioned, each reviewer will have his or her own biases. Getting multiple comprehensive reviews for each book would be a difficult task in such a small market. Fascinating, commendable and helpful, but difficult.

Personally, I enjoy reading glowing reviews . . .

Regarding glowing reader reviews on blogs and LDS-themed websites, I think many reader/reviewers don't have the goal of providing a comprehensive, critical review, and that's just fine. They simply want to share their enthusiasm for a book that they enjoyed. As an author, I'm very grateful when a reader takes the time to post a glowing review. Word of mouth is very important in this business.

Jennie Hansen does a fantastic job with her Meridian reviews, both in emphasizing a book's strengths and evaluating its weaknesses. And I think her policy of choosing books that she likes for review is a very wise one. Jennie has limited time and space for reviews--why spend that time demolishing a book she didn't like when she could spend it analyzing and discussing a book that she does want to promote?

 
At 5/16/2006 12:29 PM, Blogger RobisonWells said...

I agree that Jennie's philosophy is a good one, and I'm not suggesting she change it. But what I am saying is that if you have a policy of only reviewing books you want to recommend, by very definition you can't be considered a comprehensive reviewer. (And really, I don't think that's something Jennie wants to be.)

My glowing-review complaint is this: what good does it do anyone? It doesn't help the author, because every author, from me to Hemingway, could always use constructive criticism. And it doesn't help the reader, because it tells them nothing that they wouldn't get from reading the book themselves. A good review should analyze the work, and place it in context. If all a reviewer is going to do is recap the plot and use a lot of superlatives, they'd be just as well off posting a list of Recommended Books.

 
At 5/16/2006 1:34 PM, Blogger Matthew Buckley said...

I tend to agree with Rob (and with everybody else, in a glowing, multi-superlative way). I wrote my first book, and like a parent who thinks his child is perfect, sent it off into the world. By the time it got through the publishing process, and back into my hands, I read it and thought, "Good gravy, this is crap". It was my first attempt, there were weak spots, and while there were parts that I felt really shined, there were also some serious flaws (luckily, my publisher caught some even bigger ones, and made it a better book). If I had read a few glowing reviews, and a few reviews that pointed out the places where my writing was weak, then my second book might be a whole lot better (which, by the way, is one of the reasons I'm writing my next book using a wiki in a public, collaborative environment).

The last writing class I had was in 1990, my senior year of high school. I know I have a lot to learn. And unless people tell me where my weaknesses are (but also point out my strengths, so I don't just give up), then my writing won't improve. Part of that comes out in the editing process, and when you share it around, but part of it should come also when a finished product is critiqued.

 
At 5/16/2006 3:34 PM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Matthew, you summed it up very well. We need both the praise and the critique. The critique helps us grown and improve as writers. But the praise helps show us what we ARE doing right and lets us know when we've connected with a reader.

To clarify my opinions:

1-I agree that honest reviews that include both a book's strengths and weaknesses are vital elements for helping an author grow.

2-I agree that it would be wonderful to have several comprehensive review journals that cover all LDS fiction.

3-Given the size of the LDS market, number 2 is probably a long way off.

4-I disagree with Rob that the "glowing" reviews don't do the writer any good. Maybe for a writer who is already very confident and secure, they aren't much help, but for a writer like me who makes an art form out of insecurity, a glowing blurb gives me a much-needed boost and helps give me the confidence to keep going. I think positive feedback also helps an author keep criticism in perspective, so instead of hiding under the nearest rock when negative comments come, she/he can take the criticism, evaluate it, and use it to improve later novels.

And I wonder if what we're arguing over on this point is mainly a matter of semantics--what makes a review a review? I think that good comments--be it on a blog or a review posted on Deseret Book.com, or an LDS magazine or an online LDS group, etc.--are a good thing for word of mouth advertising. Correct me if I'm wrong, Rob, but what I hear you saying is that these "reviews" aren't really reviews, but endorsements. If we just called them "endorsements" or "recommendations" instead of reviews, would you agree that they are valuable to an author--in a different sense than an artistic critique?

 
At 5/16/2006 4:04 PM, Anonymous Jennie said...

Rob, I enjoyed your blog and I'll have to admit that it would be nice to have every published LDS novel reviewed. Writers and reviewers are well aware that not every published LDS novel is created equal and that it is sometimes difficult for the reading public to determine whether a novel is worth the ten to thirty dollars he/she must plunk down to own one. There are really poor writers and publishers just as there are excellent ones and a strong review system would help to weed the not-so-good ones out. Thirteen years ago when my first novel was published I could count the number of LDS authors on my fingers (probably on one hand), but look how the numbers have grown. It's not just numbers, but quality that has grown. There was no one to review novels then, now everyone thinks he/she is a critic. I think you're on the right track and one day there will be comprehensive reviews by a number of critics in our portion of the literary marketplace with solid backgrounds in literature and critiquing techniques. It's a natural offshoot of an art form that is beginning to reach maturity. One compelling factor will be when the consumers demand more critiques and recognize them as an aid in not only choosing, but enjoying a novel. And don't be too hard on LDS cinema, the movies are where fiction was ten years ago. We've come a long way and so will they.

 
At 5/16/2006 4:18 PM, Blogger RobisonWells said...

Stephanie, I still have a hard time seeing the value of these glowing-reviews/endorsements. My problem is this: I cannot believe that a positive-only review is honest. And if it's not honest, then I'm certainly not going to be encouraged by it. (The exception to this: I don't think anything negative should be said about my book.)

As for #3, yeah, it's a long way off. Like I said, all of this is hypothetical anyway.

 
At 5/17/2006 1:15 AM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

It's a good thing your books are the exception to this, or I'd be embarrassed at all the glowing comments I've made about them.

 
At 5/17/2006 9:08 AM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...

Robison, old buddy. Excellent BLOG. Very well thought out. I would pay cold, hard cash to access what you are suggesting.

Just a couple of thoughts. I have yet to read the perfect book. Even the books I really love have flaws. So I think you can review books you really like and still point out that the book is not perfect. “The plot line was great, but I really wished the author had spent more time researching his/her subject. I like the main character, but was disappointed by the ending.” This is what I get back from the reader comments Covenant solicits prior to accepting a novel. It’s great feedback.

With that said, most LDS reviewers who write something other than, “I loved this book! Five stars! Wish I could give it ten!” are also writers. And writers are very sensitive on criticism of their own work. A writer who I dearly love recently complained that a friend of hers had only given her four stars on a book review site. She said, “Please don’t post a review of my book if you aren’t going to give it five stars.” Her feeling was that everyone gives out five stars and hers would look bad if it wasn’t a perfect five. (Personally if I don't see at least one sub five, I figure it's all friends and relatives.)

So how is someone like Jennie going to do any serious critiquing when she has to rub elbows with these people every day?

Final thoughts: I have noticed that Jennie usually saves a small critique or two for the end of each review. (Not always, but often.) Also, Jeffrey Needle of AML is a tough but fair reviewer. Look for his reviews on several on-line sites. Cover blurbs are just that, I'm rarely given time to read the whole ms. when a blurb is requested, so I try to find what I really enjoy and write a positive sentence or two. And lastly, very few publications actually lambaste books. Even PW doesn’t review books they really hate.

 
At 5/17/2006 1:55 PM, Blogger Christopher Bigelow said...

Wow, I'm amazed by your statement: "Literary masters have emerged, whose works are every bit as good as what can be found at the national level."

Am I missing something? I can't think of any LDS writer who's as good as the national big boys and girls, at least in the adult mainstream literary category. Perhaps you're referring to the genres...

 
At 5/17/2006 5:37 PM, Blogger RobisonWells said...

Yes, the examples I had in mind were genre fiction. For all I know, there may be great LDS examples of adult mainstream literary stuff, but that's not a genre I read much of.

Anyone else know of any?

 
At 5/17/2006 6:02 PM, Blogger Sariah S. Wilson said...

There are quite a few LDS authors published nationally, it seems particularly in YA (young adult), like Shannon Hale (who won the Newberry Honor Book award), Dean Hughes, Rebecca Tingle, Randall Wright, Stephanie Meyer, etc. Then there are the already famous genre authors like Orson Scott Card, Anne Perry and Christine Freehan.

Also mentioned in the AML 2005 end of the year report as literary fiction was Darrell Spencer who wrote, "One Mile Past Dangerous Curve" and Marilyn Arnold, author of "Minding Mama." I have not read either one of those books so I can't really comment on whether or not they're good (in addition to the fact that I stay away from most literary fiction these days and would probably dislike it just on that fact alone).

But I would agree with Rob that the genre fiction being written is easily as good as that being published in the national market.

 
At 5/18/2006 11:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can list some authors who write in the LDS market, but are just as good if not better than a lot of national authors. For one, Gale Sears. She is an author with a beautiful voice and very well thought out plots. Another is Alma Yates. Again, his writing is deep and very well done. Both of these authors tend to be a bit literary, but their books are very enjoyable. And one author that I think gets over looked too often happens to be a blogger for this website, Kerry Blair. I personally think she is one of the best writers out there. Those are just a few that come to mind very quickly, but there are more.

As for reviews, I think one of the biggest problems with reviews is that often times the reviewer is friends the the author being reviewed. This market is so tight that I think it is difficult to find a reviewer that isn't buddies with at least one of the authors in review. Though I think reviewers in Meridian Magazine do a good job, I do believe they are a bit limited in their reviews. AML probably does a little better job with this, but I would like to see a review system done by people that were able to speak freely without having to worry about the backlash from their friends in the market. This is why I write this anonymously.

 

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