Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Tales of a Book Critic. Or Not.

by Stephanie Black

Well, I guess I’d better face the fact that no publication is going to hire me as a reviewer anytime soon. I do have very strong opinions on what I do and don’t like in books. But when it comes to LDS fiction, I can’t bring myself to be publicly candid--if candor includes criticism. I can rant in private if something irritates me in a book, but when it comes to posting a not-so-glowing review of a book or even posting a lukewarm comment on LDS Publisher’s new fiction blog, I just can’t do it. I shrink from the thought of even rating the book on the one-to-five star scale, unless I thought it was at least a four.

If I really like a book, I’ll feel free to say so. If I liked a book overall and could live with what I didn’t like, I’ll feel free to praise the book. Once I did go so far as to (gasp) publicly express the opinion that a writer-who-must-not-be-named shouldn’t have ended his book with a dang cliffhanger (You know who you are, bud). But I only feel free to mention that because that writer guy is such an outstanding author and the book was superb overall. If I feel a book was disappointing overall, I’ll probably just keep my mouth shut in public rather than state that I didn't like it. If you want to know what I think, you can e-mail me privately, and if I trust you, I might tell you my candid opinion, using a series of symbols, codes and cryptic quotes from The Princess Bride.

Okay, I’m not that bad. Under certain circumstances, I can be frank. I had to be, when I was on the Whitney committee and we were discussing books, but we had an ironclad policy that our deliberations would remain private, so I didn’t have to worry that my less-than-stellar opinion of a book would become public knowledge.

Why am I such a wimp when it comes to reviewing other books? I think it’s because I identify too strongly with other LDS-market authors. I know how it stings to get criticized, and I just can’t bring myself to do that to another author. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not suggesting that reviewers should only praise books and avoid all criticism. That’s absurd and useless. I'm just saying that I can't write the reviews.

Believe it or not, I tend to be picky about what I do and don't like in books, and I feel that my candid opinion of some novels would be a lot harsher than the majority of opinions on that work. I recently purchased an LDS novel that I thought I might enjoy. It was in a genre I like, and I’d read a very glowing review of the book. I read the book and was disappointed. The story was fun overall, but I felt some scary scenes were too melodramatic, infodumps bugged me, and I wasn’t keen on the author’s handling of viewpoint. On a five-star scale, I’d give the book three stars. But I haven’t. And I won’t. I ain’t saying nothing.


At 4/09/2008 2:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Stephanie:

Is it Fool me Twice?

David G. Woolley

At 4/09/2008 2:32 PM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Alas, David. And here I was hoping no one would figure it out.

At 4/09/2008 4:12 PM, Blogger Jon Spell said...

Every ship but your four fastest?

At 4/09/2008 6:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Was it a kissing book?

At 4/09/2008 7:16 PM, Blogger Evil HR Lady said...

Funny you should write this. I get requests from authors and publishers from time to time to review books on my blog.

Today, I got just such an e-mail and I e-mailed back saying I would be happy to do so, but I was so wimpy that if I didn't like the book, I wouldn't mention that I had read it.

The person hasn't responded, so I don't know if they'll send it to me or not. I figure, this way I'm honest with them--knowing that they may send out a book and not get any mention--but also guaranteeing them that if I do mention it, it will be positive.

At 4/09/2008 10:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Evil HR Lady:

Will you review my next nbook on your blog?

David G. Woolley

At 4/10/2008 12:09 AM, Blogger Tristi Pinkston said...

It is hard to review books, especially when they're in the LDS market and you know the author or the likelihood is high that you're going to meet the author. There are times when I've refused to post a review because I hated the book so much. I'd rather not post a review than hurt someone's feelings, but I have to be honest when I review, otherwise, what's the point? I'm sure Jennie has some cents to add to that.

At 4/10/2008 9:15 AM, Blogger Annette Lyon said...

I've struggled with this as well. Shortly after my first book came out, I was totally blunt and open about my opinions--but it backfired fast when I ran into readers who adored certain books. If I expressed a negative opinion, they'd be offended, think I'm a snob, and never give me the time of day again. Okay, then . . .

So now I'm like you--if I like a book, you'll hear about it. If I don't, I'll keep my mouth shut and you'll never know I read it. But as an author in the market, I don't think it's our job to publicly review books anyway. And that's okay. I'll leave that to the actual reviewers.

(But hey--can't you rate books on the fiction blog w/out identifying yourself? I could manage to do that.)

At 4/10/2008 11:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A couple of years ago a fairly visible LDS author wrote something like this: "I don't know what happened to Woolley. His first book was good and then his second book was, I don't know, it was awful."

Okay, so that hurt a little. And no, she didn't exactly follow the two-to-one ratio guidelines of the good critique group: one nice, followed by one critical, chased by one more nice. It was one raw comment that stood all by its onesie.

Sadly, she was right. There was a problem with proportion. Too much historical plot line, not enough romance (for her tastes I suppose?), and a couple of repetitive characters that went nowhere. But there was some pretty good (I decided the interior dialogue was strong), and some acceptable (there were some story lines that followed historical reserach which, for the historical novel fans was entertaining) and even a wow (there was one chapter out of 35 that had a powerful dramatic point to it).

All-in-all I would agree with her critique. It was awful in the sense that it was NOT terrific or great or compelling. Mediocre is sometimes awful, especially when you're expecting good.

What was I to do? I couldn't just take it back and re-write. But I could figure out what was awful, on my own, and never go there again. Sometimes even the nasty, unhelpful comments fuel improvement in your writing. You just need bring your own thick skin. So don't be so nervous about telling another author in our small, cozy market, that their writing stinks. It just may set their feet on the path to achieving something great, or wonderful or wow. I'm still trying to find that path. A couple more "That's awful" comments may just get me there.

David G. Woolley

At 4/10/2008 12:07 PM, Blogger Jennie said...

I'm not sure I want to touch this discussion. Reviewers are caught between a rock and a hard place. I can only speak for myself, but it's true that with such a small market, I know most LDS fiction writers and consider a good share of them friends. I really want to write glowing reviews and I don't like pointing out flaws and hurting any writer's feelings, but I also have a responsibility to my readers. They want truth. If I mislead them, I lose their trust and my reviews become useless. I'm a writer too and I know as well as anyone how it feels to be told negative things about my work. But I think this is where a subtle line is drawn between a professional writer and an ego writer. A professional takes the criticism, examines it for accuracy, then either makes needed changes or dismisses it, then goes on writing. An ego writer blames the reviewer and gets defensive and negative. Once no one was reviewing LDS fiction; now everyone seems to be getting involved. I don't think everyone needs to be a reviewer, by the way a sentence or two in a comment section isn't a review. People can like or dislike a book without feeling obliged to review the book. That's one of the nice things about LDS Publisher's little stars, readers can say how much or how little they like a particular book without having to review it or state reasons for the books personal impact on them.

At 4/10/2008 12:14 PM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Thanks for the comments.

David, it's true that sometimes the criticism that stings the worst helps the most. I guess I'm just not cut out to be a reviewer. If I were giving feedback on a pre-pubbed manuscript, that would be different, but post-pub . . . I just can't do it! Yeah, I know I'm not very helpful. Warm and fuzzy, but not helpful!

At 4/10/2008 12:58 PM, Blogger Jennifer said...

I'm with you Stephanie. I could never be a review because I can't criticize others. If I don't like something you will never hear about it. But if I like something praise will be thick. My blog focuses on what people like and thank goodness I have a bunch of contributers so we get a lot of different likes.

At 4/11/2008 5:17 AM, Blogger Evil HR Lady said...


Somehow I don't think your books fit the theme of my blog. Throw in some helpful business tips or a "and this is how you manage" lines and I'll give it a go.

Of course, if you want to send me free copies...

At 4/11/2008 11:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Evil HR Lady:

Not so. The author bio reads something like..."has a degree in Organizational Behavior". If that isn't HR-ish, I don't know what is.

And then there are the management skills of some of my most loathed protagonists. You could do a expose on how not to manage the affairs of an ancient Hebrew government faced with certain genocidal tendencies like siding with the wrong guys (should have gone with the Babylonians not the Egyptians Mr. Zedekiah. Choose better next time).

Or you could wait until we get to, say 400 AD and do an expose on say, how not to manage the affairs of an ancient Mayan government faced with certain genocidal tendencies like refusing to side with anyone (should have hooked up with Nephite dessenters at Teotihuacan to the land northward, despite their need for human sacrificial victims. Pick your friends wisely Mormon).

There are so many HR possibilities in these books. I beg you to reconsider.

David G. Woolley

At 4/11/2008 5:46 PM, Blogger Heather Moore said...

Good or bad, LDS or not, reviews are a necessary part of the industry. I had quite a few reviews posted of a WIP and about 75% loved the book, and 25% pointed out the flaws. It stung a little, but the negative comments are what will make me a better writer in the end. They are the comments that I dissected and took to heart to make the story stronger and to work on my craft. I take my writing seriously and don't want to hear "loved it" all of the time.

When I write a public review, I'm doing it as a marketing tool and write what I liked about the book. Privately I'll let the author know what needs to be improved (if anything).

At 4/14/2008 8:04 AM, Blogger Evil HR Lady said...

Hmmm, David, maybe I should read and comment on your books. You raise good points.

Hey, maybe my first book can be "business lessons learned from the Gadianton Robbers!"

At 4/14/2008 11:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Evil HR Lady:

I was thinking you could do an analysis of meotonimic naming as it relates to cash payments made to lawyers vs. other forms of remuneration. Take Zeezrom, for instance. Nice guy. Bad lawyer. Alma gives us this long speel about the names of Nephite coinage (one being of course, an ezrom of silver), and then this lawyer Zeezrom offers Alma and Amulek 12 pieces of silver to deny their testimonies. What's interesting about the lawyers name is that the prefix ZE means "this is" in Hebrew and Egyptian. And, of course, Ezrom, means a unit of silver in Nephite. So the poor guys name is, in good Nephite, A Unit of Silver.

There's got to be some sort of HR moment or meaning or metaphorical application to human resources. Yes?

David G. Woolley

At 4/14/2008 6:16 PM, Blogger L@pterces said...

I wrote a kissing book about 'Mean Aunt' once...

At 4/15/2008 5:44 PM, Blogger Janette Rallison said...

I know exactly what you mean about LDS fiction. I know too many LDS writers to ever review anything. It's a labor of love for all of us--how can we criticize that?

At 5/02/2008 1:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey David,
Can I review your next book? When do we get to see book 4?



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