1. Bainespal says:

    This is a tough question, for me.  Anonymous reviews will only make a difference if they are really more objective.  I haven’t seen any other repositories of reviews of CSF novels, other than this website.  I don’t think the reviews I’ve read here seem nonobjective, but then, I haven’t read all the novels that go with the reviews.  If the reviews are really glossing over flaws — or things that might potentially be flaws to many readers — to the extent that readers are expecting high-quality literature but then give up on the book in disappointment after paying a lot of money for it, then there is a problem.  In that case, maybe anonymous reviews can help.
    To the second question, I voted no.  I don’t feel that reviewing anonymously would help me be more objective.  My biggest problem with reviewing is that I’m terrible at managing time, and I make simple projects like reviews out to be harder than they really are.

    What good and bad reviews, or good or bad novels, have you read?

    Reviewing the reviewers is poetic justice!  I would want to do it anonymously, though, because we’re talking about reviews that have recently been put on this site.  That is a serious statement, and maybe my reluctance to comment on reviews is analogous to others’ reluctance to criticize novels.  I don’t think of myself as a novelist, but I do think of myself as a reviewer.
    As for novels, I’ve been wanting to review the Blood of Kings trilogy for a long time.  I think I could have a lot to say about it, both positive and negative.  I really liked a lot about the first book, although the worldbuilding and plot were both very shallow.  I liked the portrayal of Achan’s suffering, even though it may not have been a brilliantly original premise, and I liked Vrell’s subterfuge.  The second book began to wear out its welcome for me, and I think it appropriated Evangelicalese too casually into the imaginary world.  The third book had some of the same problems as the second, but it also had some good parts in its first half that really stood out to me.  Unfortunately, the end of the third book was (in my opinion) absolutely horrible, and it ruined the whole trilogy for me.  I wish I had the motivation to expound on this more, but I feel a responsibility to re-read the books before doing so, and that would be a long process, and a tedious one for me, since I really didn’t like many parts of the second and third books all that much.  At any rate, I think someone should review Blood of Kings, because the trilogy is important to the CSF community.
    One thing to consider is that if anonymous reviews are implemented, everyone might expect that a review is negative if it is anonymous.  Whenever a new review appears on the Speculative Faith homepage, the review might be immediately classified as negative or positive based on whether or not it is anonymous.

  2. Galadriel says:

    I don’t think I’d be more honest if my reviews were anonymous, because I already try to be. Besides, I don’t use my real  name on any reviews–Amazon or blog–for security reasons. My fear is that anonymous reviews would become too far one way or another, because there’s no accountability.

    • Galadriel says:

      As a side note, here’s a link to a negative review I wrote of a writing-craft book and the resulting discussion. 

    • Ah, so you’re “JD.”

      Your first review reviewer says that The Da Vinci Code was “fiction well-written … at least on a popular fiction level.” I’m not sure what to make of that. Even as a fan of “popular” level fiction, who doesn’t believe it’s naturally inferior, The Da Vinci Code was terrible. I kept reading only because I wanted to review the book, and because the author had buried the lead — namely, the silly church-history revisions.

      This doesn’t even touch on the plain historical silliness. In fact, if the author had put the “heresy” up front, I would have been more interested. But it was dull. And I was disappointed by the many well-meaning Christians I met who rejected the novel’s “facts,” but called it great storytelling.

      Folks, I appreciate discernment where it counts — if I must choose between one side or the other — but the novel was bad facts and bad storytelling.

      That being said, I’m not sure about “reviewing” a book one hasn’t finished! 🙂

      • Galadriel says:

        I tried to finish it. I really did. But I was at least halfway through and didn’t see any improvement. It’s not like there was a plot that might improve.

  3. Fred Warren says:

    How did you vote?

    I thought it was a secret ballot. Okay, I’ll think of this as an exit poll. 🙂
    Seriously, this is a difficult issue, and I can sympathize with both sides of the debate, but in the final analysis, I don’t think “anonymizing” reviews would help much.

    …if anonymous reviews are implemented, everyone might expect that a review is negative if it is anonymous.

    And I think there’s a tacit message that the reviewer feels a need to hide his/her identity, more so than if they used a pen name.

    I don’t think I’d be more honest if my reviews were anonymous, because I already try to be.

    I doubt I’d change my pattern either, and I think that would also be true of an overly-positive reviewer…they’d be just as concerned about hurt feelings whether they used their name or not,  unless their real priority is avoiding the awkward, inconvenient consequences of offending someone.
    I’m not trying to grab any moral high ground here…my practice of late has been to simply avoid reviewing books I don’t like, particularly if they’re written by people of my acquaintance. If I’m given a pass at one as a pre-publication reader, I’ll beat it up good and proper, but that’s a private affair.

    Besides, I don’t use my real  name on any reviews–Amazon or blog–for security reasons.

    This is a valid concern. Though I think the probability of any significant retaliation for a negative review is small, it’s something you have to consider.

    My fear is that anonymous reviews would become too far one way or another, because there’s no accountability.

    Another good point, and I think it’s bad for both reviewer and reviewee. There’s a window left open for abuse, which might be tempting, depending on your personality, and the author’s perceived ability to counter or correct reviews that seem inaccurate or unfair is reduced. They’re dealing with a faceless entity now, rather than a human being.
    Editorial oversight might help, but now we’re bringing another person into the loop to decide whether or not part or all of the review crosses some arbitrary line of propriety. Defining that line is a furball all its own and creates an extra layer of bureaucracy–someone to vet every review and arbitrate disputes. Of course, editorial oversight exists because history tells us people frequently don’t act like grownups.

    What good and bad reviews, or good or bad novels, have you read?

    Heh. You want a list? (Link follows)Here’s one of my reviews that spawned a disagreement between myself and the author, which continued some time later via e-mail after I’d nearly forgotten about it. Despite my best efforts, I didn’t leave the conversation feeling like I’d mended the rift or at least gotten to “agree to disagree.” Afterwards, I spent a lot of time thinking about that review and tried to adjust my threshold for what I thought might cause offense. Was it a bad review? I don’t know. There was a lot about the story that I did like, but it hit one of my hot buttons, and I drilled into that issue harder than I might have otherwise. Unfortunately, the issue was entwined with a central premise of the story, so it would be easy to conclude I was calling the whole thing into question, and to react accordingly.

  4. From Fred:

    my practice of late has been to simply avoid reviewing books I don’t like.

    Mine as well. It’s something I may continue, or I may simply need to evaluate my heart for two wrong motives: keeping a false peace by not rocking the boat, or else simply wanting to criticize for the sake of criticism. Neither one would honor the Author.

    From Bainespal:

    One thing to consider is that if anonymous reviews are implemented, everyone might expect that a review is negative if it is anonymous.  Whenever a new review appears on the Speculative Faith homepage, the review might be immediately classified as negative or positive based on whether or not it is anonymous.

    That’s a great point.

    It also seems to be automatic cowardice. You didn’t like the book? Then why didn’t you come and say that to my face? And we may already have a “long distance” issue in all our speculative-story reading, reviewing, and writing camaraderie.

    • Bainespal says:

      That brings up something I forgot to mention before.  I’m less likely to review a novel I didn’t like, not only in order to avoid the possibility of offending someone, but also because it takes time and effort to write reviews, and the whole reviewing process is a lot more rewarding and a lot less tedious if you’re enthusiastic about the book you are reviewing.  I don’t think I ever wrote an entirely negative review, or even a mostly negative review.  I simply don’t have enough motivation to analyze all the reasons I don’t like something.

      Fred makes several good points, and his post has convinced me that anonymous reviews would cause more potential problems than they would solve. 

  5. Kessie says:

    I’m a coward. That’s why I hesitate to give bad reviews, especially reviews of books I couldn’t finish. After all, they might have gotten better in the bits I didn’t read, right?

    • Kessie says:

      I mean, I CAN go leave negative reviews of stuff. I try to keep it short. “This was poorly written with passive prose, flat, cliched characters and a predictable plot. I only got a few chapters in and I already knew how it ended. One star.”

      • Leanna says:

        Only legit if you skipped to the end and confirmed that your prediction was right. 😉
        I don’t know that short is any less painful for the author.

      • “This was poorly written with passive prose, flat, cliched characters and a predictable plot. I only got a few chapters in and I already knew how it ended. One star.”

        Kessie, how on Earth did you know the very novel I was reading?

        But seriously, it seems few books have one of those problems — passive pose, flat cliched characters, or a predictable plot — without also having the other problems.

    • Bainespal says:

      I would agree with that.  I would think a reviewer should definitely have read the whole novel, especially if the review is highly critical.

      But of course, there are different kind of reviews, and a brief explanation of a personal bad reaction to a book might be useful to other readers.  I approach my reviews as an essay about my thoughts and experiences with the novel.

  6. D.M. Dutcher says:

    I review on Goodreads under my real name, so anon isn’t an issue for me. It feels like you’d want more in-depth reviews and actual criticism than impressions after reading though, in order to lift the genre up some. I’m not sure how well crowd-sourced reviews can do that for a genre that’s relatively small, as opposed to critic or staff reviews.

    I wish I could offer more feedback but anon reviews could solve some problems and create others. I don’t think in general they are good, but it’s hard to argue it.

  7. Nikole Hahn says:

    Anonymous would give some more courage like wearing a mask while speaking in front of an audience. But facing negative remarks from self-involved authors builds a thick skin I wouldn’t trade for the protection of anonymity. People would trust your blog/website more if you stayed with the truth and didn’t flinch when faced with an awful book that is, “…such an awful regurtitation [sic] of poorly-contrived bilgewater. This was foul in the way a ruptured sewer main is, fetid in the way of a swamp full of rotting skunk cabbage, horrifying as you would be if you watched an entire graveyard of mouldering corpses was suddenly burped up from the ground.” I usually review using Word Weavers sandwich method–positive on the top and bottom and meat in the middle. It’s hard to write one of those when faced with an awful novel. I can’t shy away from the truth however and try to add humor in it when possible; unless the novel offends me or I feel it misleads the audience.

  8. Nikole Hahn says:

    And on the point whether a reviewer has to finish a novel? If a reader isn’t required to finish a novel, the reviewer certainly isn’t required to do so either. If it’s that bad, the reader isn’t going to get past page one. However, I do give it a good try, but I’ve had a couple of bad or misleading ones where I didn’t finish and reviewed the novel based on what I had read. I also mention that I either didn’t finish it, or skimmed the rest. If someone paid me to review, I would force myself to finish it. Since I do this for a free book, it’s part of my policy and I am not required.

    • Kessie says:

      I heard someone talk about the 50 page rule (I think it was a reviewer on a review site). They have a lot of books to read, and if they’re not hooked after the first 50 pages, they’re allowed to put it down and seek out something better. I think the same should hold true of everyone.

  9. Nikole Hahn says:

    Not finishing a novel is a review in itself. It says it was that bad.

  10. Fifty pages seems a good rule, though perhaps I would reduce that to an even 30.

    However, I would likely violate that rule. I’m already violating it now, perhaps, by finishing a novel that I’m really not enjoying, and I’m mainly finishing it just to check a box on my list — and perhaps to challenge myself by writing an honest, and public, review. Maybe my drive to finish it means that there is something good about it after all? No, methinks it’s mainly my stubbornness. I’m “getting it over with,” like eating peas first at age 8 so that one can then enjoy the chicken and potatoes, and dessert.

    From Nicole Hahn:

    Anonymous would give some more courage like wearing a mask while speaking in front of an audience.

    Or while doing superhero work.

    So ultimately we’re talking about Superman reviews (maskless, flying in broad daylight while wearing bright colors) versus Batman reviews (cloaked and masked, skulking and swinging through the shadows to bring the underworld to justice).

  11. Wisdom from novelist Athol Dickson, hot off the cyber-presses today, on why Christians may positively review poorly made stories and art:

    As creatures made in the Creator’s image, we were designed to use our gifts to their utmost, and to savor excellence in our neighbor’s use of their gifts. It’s impossible to imagine the words “good enough” being spoken in the Garden before the Fall. But we did fall, and one of the things we lost was our ability to throw ourselves into living with complete abandon. “Good is the enemy of great,” as Jim Collins wrote (paraphrasing Voltaire). Thus, in settling for good enough, we have rampant mediocrity in the world.

    Another thing we abandoned in the Fall was our ability to perceive the true extent of what we’ve lost. So when expediency and ego dilute the full potential of even our best writers and artists, the audience, being also lost, doesn’t know enough to care. Therefore they applaud what little they can get, and their applause rewards mediocrity. This in turn inspires the production of more mediocrity, and the cycle builds more and more support for itself until mediocrity seems normal, or even (God forbid) good, and because that lie has become pervasive, the truth is difficult for even Christians to remember. Thus we have rampant mediocrity even in the church.

    It’s not intuition alone that persuades me I would love reading this author’s fiction. While predictable plotting, shabby characters, and pathetic prose often go together, so do more-Biblical views on excellence, fighting the temptations to go subpar, and writing better stories. All I’ve read about his novels seems fantastic — I only need to take a chance on that $10 or so, perhaps this Christmas, and see for myself.

    • Fred Warren says:

      Yeah, Athol is special. I think he’s got the potential to go huge, both within Christian fiction and as a crossover. The quality is definitely there. Magic realism is a somewhat obscure niche, but if it comes into vogue, watch out.
      In a similar vein, here’s an excerpt from a recent article that touches on problems with Christian fiction and provides some illustration (read the whole thing). Though it’s primarily a critique of Ayn Rand, the same principles apply (emphasis mine):

      Rand’s fiction sucks for the same reason so much Christian fiction sucks. It is endlessly didactic, so busy preaching it forgets to pay close attention to life. Her characters deliver lectures. You don’t have to look closely to see they are puppets with Rand’s own lips moving eerily under the mask, her angry eyes staring out through holes in the rubber face. The bad guys in her books are straw men called collectivism, and altruism and they speak only in bromides and Rand gleefully bats them down.


  12. I think we should always write reviews with the kindness and tact and grace that we ourselves would like to be shown. Writing anonymously often tempts us to “let ‘er rip” and speak with flagrant disregard for the wounds we might inflict. Almost by definition, we are writing “irresponsibly” — that is, without taking personal responsibility for our words.

    Many reviews can be honest without being comprehensively negative. And even when the writing is so bad that I fear anyone paying money for it will be terribly disappointed, surely I could say something like, “This is an earnest self-publishing attempt, but a bit rough around the edges. Readers are warned to read a sample before deciding whether it’s something you’re interested in reading.”

    I think the challenge we face, especially as an online community and as part of the family of Christ, is the politics that occur when human nature strikes. “He didn’t give me a nice review, so I’ll ignore him or be negative about him, too…”

    When we are both reader-reviewer AND fellow author, we should consider carefully what we are prepared to experience and handle. Are we willing to take the risk of potential (unknown) consequences? If we’ve got the chutzpah, maybe we decide that we will be honest no matter what. We will be gentle and kind, but truthful. And if they hate us, so be it. If they never talk to us again, fine.

    While I’ve heard it said, “If you don’t have something nice to say, just walk away and don’t review it” I can’t help but feel that’s a cop out. If every reviewer who didn’t like something or who found something wrong kept their mouth shut, reviews would be USELESS.

    BUT… that’s the key word: Use. What is the use or purpose of a review? To tell people what the book is like. To tell people what you thought about it. So that they can make an informed buying decision. If I come to trust your reviews and find that your tastes are similar to mine, then when you like a book, I will probably like it, too. If you say a book is bad, I’ll know it’s probably not worth my time. That’s HELPFUL.

    Which is why I appreciate when someone is very clear about the problems they have with a book. “I couldn’t stand the heroine because she kept letting people walk all over her” is a lot more helpful than “I hated this book.” “The grammatical and typographical errors were too frequent for me to be able to enjoy the story.” “I love a good beauty-and-the-beast tale, but this one was so standard that I found nothing fresh or engaging about it. When I was done, I felt total let-down because it was nothing more than a re-telling of the original fairy tale dressed up in modern day clothes.”

    Those might be terribly negative, but they’re truly helpful to me, as a reader.

    As an author, I pray that I will have the courage and humility to LISTEN to my readers and let them tell me if I’ve failed to entertain them, and why.

  13. P.S. While we’re on the subject of reviews… Online reviews, whether of restaurants or books, are a ticklish thing. Not only is the water muddied with fake reviews or dishonest reviews, but even those that are honest and thorough do not tell us one important piece of information: Is this reviewer anything like me?

    What are her tastes? Does she love a good werewolf tale? How high are her standards? Does she enjoy more literary prose or pulp fiction? What’s her tolerance for religious themes? Is she more about the character drama or the plot and suspense?

    I would much prefer to find real “curators” who I could get to know, follow online and trust. Instead of going to Amazon.com and reading a bunch of reviews by people I don’t know, I could have a newsfeed of reviewers I like — one for each genre, if necessary. Maybe goodreads works this way. (Does it?) e.g., I know my friends  and get to know their literary tastes, and by friending those who liked other books I like I end up surrounded by recommendations that truly fit me. 

  14. Jill says:

    Random thoughts on the topic. . .

    The problem I often see with a review, anonymous , negative, attributed, solicited, or whatever, is the lack of information I have about its author.  Sometimes a review is honest, thoughtfully written, balanced, and accurate but still isn’t useful to me because my taste in fiction conflicts with the reviewer’s.
    If a book has only positive reviews on Amazon and most of these gushy, I tend to suspect I won’t like it. If it has a mixed bag of reviews, I will read samples to see both what readers like and don’t like about it. A one-star review had better give good reason for the “I hated it” label.

    I seldom purchase a book without first sampling the author’s writing–but even this practice hasn’t always saved me from wasting money on a dud. I have been burned so many times by Christian fiction that I rarely purchase a book by an author new to me. I will borrow it from the library, if possible, or get it free on Nook. Sorry, but there it is. However, if I am pleased with a book, I will plaster recommendations of it everywhere and purchase copies as gifts for people I love. A recent example is Tom Morrisey’s In High Places (not spec fiction, but excellent reading).

    I don’t usually write reviews for CBA spec fiction because I often feel like the one negative voice in the bunch, and I don’t want to hurt feelings!  I sometimes wonder about my objectivity–although I have been reading spec fiction, both ABA and CBA, for more than forty years and should know by now whether I genuinely enjoy a book or not.

    The only reviews I find totally useless and objectionable are those making inaccurate criticisms of a book, such as “at one point the character actually did this,” and the “this” mentioned occurs nowhere in the book! I always have a strong desire to correct such errors, although I know it wouldn’t fix anything, and reviewers can get testy about having their reviews corrected. An opinion is an opinion, and a person can’t be persuaded to like something they dislike; although sometimes opinions are based on faulty understanding–and trying to correct this can really arouse wrath! Better to let any review stand or fall on its own merit.

    The problem with not writing a review if I don’t like a book is that the prospective reader is left wondering whether a book has no reviews because it is really that bad, or if no one has read it!

What do you think?