Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Friday, April 03, 2009

I'm a Critic -- Guest Blog by Jennie Hansen

It's one of "those" days, so I asked Jennie Hansen, author, critic and person extraordinaire to borrow a blog from V-Formation. (Of course she said yes.) Jennie is the author of Ruby, a 2009 Whitney-nomination in historical fiction and the recently-released High Country. Last year she received the Whitney Lifetime Achievement Award for blazing trails in the LDS fiction market as well as her incredible work as a reviewer of LDS fiction for Meridian Magazine. If anybody knows our market, it is Jennie Hansen. Here she tells what she looks for when reviewing the best and the brightest.

I'M A CRITIC -- by Jennie Hansen
I’m a critic. And I mean that in the nicest way. I’m not the sort of critic that enjoys pointing out faults and flaws. I’ve been accused of being hurtful, but that’s never my intent. What I aim for is improving LDS fiction. I believe in LDS fiction and want to see it get better and better. My way of doing that is by pointing out where improvements could be made---and applauding what authors get right. It is also my goal to inform readers about what is available in this fast growing field and encourage them to try new authors, let them know when an old favorite has a new release, and generally serve as a cheerleader for LDS fiction.

Most writers both want and dread having their books reviewed. I’m one of the lucky ones who get to do the reviewing. One of the questions frequently asked of me is what I look for in books I review. I also get asked by authors how they can get their books reviewed in Meridian. Others wonder what good is a review. I’ll try to answer those questions.

I’ll start with the last question. Review columns such as mine serve a dual purpose 1) to inform potential readers of new books that are available and help them decide which books to spend their money on and 2) to improve the quality of books offered to the public by informing writers of those areas that need work and which areas they got right.

Most of the books I review are sent to me by the various publishers, though occasionally I receive a book directly from an author, especially if it is self-published or published by a publisher who doesn’t ordinarily publish LDS fiction or handle their own distribution. I review only LDS fiction—that is fiction written by an LDS author and/or has LDS elements. I try to read everything I receive, but that isn’t always possible. And I’ll admit I don’t finish every book I start. I don’t have time to read poorly written books or books that espouse a point of view contrary to LDS Church values.

When I first began reviewing, I only reviewed books I liked. Even a bad review is publicity and I was squeamish about giving free advertising to books I couldn’t honestly recommend. Now, because my readers have requested it, I review the majority of the books I receive whether I like them or not. My reviews are shorter and sometimes less kind, but I can honestly say most of the books sent to me by LDS publishers have merit, though some are certainly better than others.

The first thing I look for in a book is whether or not it stands out from the crowd. I want books that catch my attention right from the start and hold it. A great cover is a good start, but I’m more interested in the actual words that start the story and whether or not the book starts where the real story starts. Excessive backfill and info dumps in those first couple of chapters ruin what might otherwise be a good story. I want valid research, plots that make sense, and characters that grow or change because of the events in the story.

I’ve heard it said there are only about sixteen basic story plots. Off hand I can’t name them, but I do appreciate a fresh approach to tried and true themes and it’s a delight when an author chooses a topic that hasn’t been done to death. Often I receive several books with the same basic storyline. They may all be good, but I’m going to review the one that has a different or new way of viewing the theme. Sometimes when faced with two comparable books, I’ll choose the one by the author who is new to the genre. I’ll admit there are a few authors who write so well I would like to review every book he/she writes, but if time or space is limited, I will most likely give the established writer a pass unless the work is unusual or outstanding for that author.

I look for good writing. I prefer books that have been thoroughly scanned by a good copyeditor, but there’s more involved than proper grammar and freedom from typos. A good writer doesn’t keep me guessing from whose point of view a scene is being viewed and he/she doesn’t arbitrarily switch points of view in the middle of a scene. Also too many points of view create cluttered writing. Childish sentence structure will lose me, as will pompous over-blown sentences and paragraphs. The same rules that govern excellent writing in the general market hold true for LDS novels. Also the premise or theme of the book must be weighty enough to carry throughout the entire book.

Since I review LDS fiction there must be a connection to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for books to qualify for my review column. That connection may be as slight as the author being a member of the Church and that the book follows standards that are commonly acceptable to members of the Church. The books do not have to be products of an LDS publisher, but most are. I don’t review books that present the Church in a negative light or ones that take a stand in opposition to Church policies or tenets. I prefer books that simply tell a story set in the context of the LDS culture, rather than those that preach or attempt to convert.

Character development is important to a story and I look for characters I can feel are real and I want to like the protagonist. I want to see characters that grow or are somehow changed by the events in the book. I like plots that have a beginning, a middle, and an end with twists and turns that hold my attention. The setting isn’t as important to me as character and plot, but it still plays an important role and it helps if the author gets details of the background right.

Every reviewer has a few personal idiosyncrasies and strong likes and dislikes. We’re human and we each set the criteria by which we judge a novel to be strong or weak by varying standards. I don’t like unrealistic behavior from supposedly mature adults, helpless females that have to be rescued by a man or a miracle, or going beyond an acceptable level of literary license when dealing with historical or scriptural characters. I’m very picky about speculative fiction and “near” history as well. I enjoy both well-written genre and literary fiction, though I’m not a fan of extremely esoteric literary works. And I’ll admit I’ve developed a real distaste for the weak, maudlin type of tears and tragedy story written primarily to evoke tears. I also find excessive violence and disregard for life as off-putting as pornography.

When I first began reviewing it was difficult for an LDS author to get his or her novel reviewed. The few reviews that appeared in papers or magazines were generally scornful of those early books. The magazine I work for, Meridian at and the AML group, were pioneers in this endeavor. Now there are many sources of reviews of LDS novels. Many online reviewers have sprung up and some of them are excellent. I believe all of these reviews are playing a role in making LDs fiction more satisfying to read. I’m always looking for reader feedback and would love to know what others like or dislike in LDS fiction. Also how do readers and writers regard the role of the critic?

Jennie blogs regularly -- and runs great contests! -- at Notes from Jennie's Desk. Here is her website.


At 4/04/2009 11:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have found your reviews to be kind and professional. If your personality is projected into the reviews, it is as a nice, helpful person rather than sarcastic or demeaning as some others have been. I wish some editors/readers would take lessons from you. How can a writer let readers know that we need them and appreciate their advice, but we also need to be treated professionally without the slaps, some of them quite personal, that we often get? We need to know what does and doesn't work, and the only way we can learn is from experimenting and feed back. Sometimes it feels as if readers are eager to find something to respond to negatively rather than working as a team. I've thought of writing a letter to them, but I'm afraid that would make it worse. Any suggestions?


At 4/04/2009 12:04 PM, Blogger Traci Hunter Abramson said...

Great post! Jennie always does a great job with her review column and I appreciate the effort she puts forth in pointing out authors' strenths and weaknesses. She does it in such a way that authors can use her critiques to grow and develop.

At 4/06/2009 3:55 PM, Blogger Cheri J. Crane said...

Jennie, we are so lucky to have someone like you who is willing to put in the time to read and review LDS books. Your reviews are fair and informative. Thanks for all that you do. ;)


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