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Love Me, Love My Book

I’m finding Christian writers seem more susceptible than average to negative criticism. They have expectations, especially of Christian readers and reviewers.
| Jun 14, 2011 | No comments |

Writers, like any other sort of artist, can be very sensitive to criticism of their art. Stories are the children of our mind, and like any good parents, we hate to see them abused, misunderstood, or generally spoken-ill-of.

However, writing is a very public vocation. If all goes well, many people will read our stories. Chances are, a significant fraction of those people won’t like them. I find myself recycling old bits of folk wisdom: “You knew the job was dangerous when you took it, Fred.” “If you can’t run with the big dogs, stay on the porch.” “Sticks and stones, et cetera.”

I may need some Super Sauce.

New writers can be particularly thin-skinned because they’re encountering the slings and arrows of the world for the first time. It’s like running barefoot for the first time. Rocks hurt. As you gain experience, the skin gets thicker, and the rocks don’t hurt so much, at least not enough to inspire tears and a general call to have your boo-boo tended. Negative criticism is accepted as a normal part of life. You smile and nod, and press on.

I’m finding Christian writers seem more susceptible than average to negative criticism. They have expectations, especially of Christian readers and reviewers. Brothers and sisters in Christ are supposed to be nice. We don’t say negative things about each other. We encourage and support. If you think my baby is ugly, you keep that nasty thought to yourself–and ask God to forgive you.

Except–it doesn’t work that way. Christian writers often garner even more critical feedback than their secular peers, because, again, there are expectations. Christian writing must be uplifting, morally sound, and doctrinally correct. It must not offend, irritate, stir controversy or be in any other way, for lack of a better term, un-Christian.

I have a few suggestions.

It makes things tough. You’re skipping tra-la through Sherwood Forest, then a hundred gentlemen in green livery burst from the underbrush, aiming all manner of pointy objects at your jugular. And they’re supposed to be the good guys. It’s just not fair.

Clearly, there needs to be a balance. Criticism makes us stronger, if we’re willing to listen to our readers and reviewers with an open mind and learn from their observations. “Iron sharpens iron,” “two are better than one,” and “a cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” On the other side, feedback can be honest and loving without descending into patronizing or bluntness, though that line can be easy to cross without meaning to, particularly in electronic correspondence that lacks tone of voice, body language, and all the other non-verbal cues we rely upon to interpret human communication. Is that 🙂 emoticon a friendly or a sarcastic smile? Hard to tell.

Here are some ideas to chew on. One is an excellent article on giving and receiving criticism from Orson Scott Card’s webzine, Intergalactic Medicine Show. The other is a video that illustrates the fact that there’s really no such thing as bad publicity, if you handle it properly. Enjoy. I’ve got to go kiss an ugly baby now.

Fred was born in Tacoma, Washington, but spent most of his formative years in California, where his parents pastored a couple of small churches. He graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1983, and spent 24 years in the Air Force as a bomber navigator, flight-test navigator, and military educator. He retired from the Air Force in 2007, and now works as a government contractor in eastern Kansas, providing computer simulation support for Army training.Fred has been married for 25 years to the girl who should have been his high school sweetheart, and has three kids, three dogs, and a mortgage. When he's not writing or reading, he enjoys running, hiking, birdwatching, stargazing, and playing around with computers.Writing has always been a big part of his life, but he kept it mostly private until a few years ago, when it occurred to him that if he was ever going to get published, he needed to get serious about it. Since then, he's written more than twenty short stories that have been published in a variety of print and online magazines, and a novel, The Muse, that debuted in November 2009 from Splashdown Books, which was a finalist for the 2010 American Christian Fiction Writers Carol Award for book of the year in the speculative genre. Speculative fiction is his first love, but he writes the occasional bit of non-fiction or poetry, just to keep things interesting.

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And criticism certainly keeps us humble!


That’s one reason I’m glad I found other Christian spec writers online–I actually enjoy recieving critique now

Rebecca LuElla Miller

Fred, a great look at this from both the sensitive writer side and the aggressively critical reviewer side. I have seen both, to be sure. Some writers seem to flare with little incendiary provocation, but some reviewers seem determined to quench a spark of good writing.

I might add, I have the privilege of working with a great group in the Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour (CSFF). More than one author has commented on my post or emailed me privately how much they appreciated the thoughtful interaction with their book. Good reviews, I think, can be gifts to authors.

(BTW, you might be interested to know that my last post touched on this topic, too.)


Lindsay A. Franklin

This is such a tricky subject. Occasionally, I find myself in sticky situations when reviewing Christian books for my blog. Especially when I’ve met the authors in person. I want to be 100% positive, but sometimes that’s disingenuous. I think tone is the key, which, as you mentioned, can be difficult to convey through a keyboard. But as a writer, I should probably be able to do that. The written word is supposed to be my thing. I should be able to communicate clearly enough that a sensitive author wouldn’t misinterpret my comments as unfounded venom-spewing.

Still, it’s much better when I just love everything about the books I’m reviewing. 🙂

Kat Heckenbach

I’ve been blessed with some awesome critique partners who know how to be honest, but deliver that honesty with love.  And yes, they are mostly Christians.

I did, however, once visit a critique group meeting (my first time, so I chose to only observe) that was filled with bickering and ended in one man storming out. Everyone delivered their advice with an “I know SO much more than you” attitude. It was horrible. I never went back. The group was secular, and I know I can’t generalize but I find that an odd fact. That said, I’ve seen attitude among Christians, too.

I agree that we need to be honest, and we have to get tough. When you aren’t honest with your writer friends, it’s like sending them out to the wolves. I’d much rather hear honesty with love from a friend, then embarrass myself out in the world among strangers.

Morgan Busse

I agree with Kat. I tell those who review my stuff, “Please me honest with me. I’d rather hear from you than an editor, agent, fill-in-the-blank.”

I know its been said not to have your husband critique (or mother or close relative), but I can say my husband is my best, most honest, and brutal when it needs it critiquer. We’ve been working together for a year now and because of him, I’ve learned how to take constructive criticism.

Kaci Hill

I’ve noticed a few odd things, at least with me personally. On the one hand, I get a bit upset if I don’t get informative feedback (so, ‘awesome’ doesn’t tell me anymore than ‘stupid’). On the other, the source matters. And sometimes it’s not the source but how I happened to hear it a certain day.
I’ll come back when I’ve read the cited articles. 0=)

Ken Rolph
Ken Rolph

Always be careful of sending your novel to small journals with literary pretensions. They are usually full of desperately earnest people who will fall upon you with knives to carve you up just to show their skill at cultural butchery.

I always prefer general readers to experts. It’s odd how we try in our writing to impress publishers, editors, agents, reviewers, commentators and such. Most of our readers are not those.