The Turquoise And Orange Mentality

Turquoise and orange. Or green and red. Purple and yellow. Opposites on the color wheel and the perfect metaphor for the way our western culture approaches … just about everything.

For some reason which I haven’t yet figured out, society has fallen into an all-or-nothing way of thinking. It’s all my way—and of course, my way is right—therefore every other way is all wrong. This trend is more surprising in light of the “tolerance movement,” but that’s a subject for another day.

Here I’m concerned with how this “if I like it, it’s good, it’s all good” concept affects Christians reviewing books. Because, sadly, Christians have bought into this mindset as much as or more than the rest of the culture.

After all, we’re engaged in spiritual warfare. Evil is real and opposes God. And there is only One way to salvation; all other roads lead to destruction. On top of which, righteousness matters.

All true. But what I think we Christians lose sight of from time to time is the fact that the world is a mixed bag.

Jesus even said so in the parable of the wheat and weeds. In the story, the landed nobleman ordered his servants to plant grain. They did, but in the night an enemy sneaked into his field and contaminated the crop with weed seed. When the plants grew, the servants realized weeds were intermingled with the good grain. They went to their lord and asked him if he hadn’t planted good seed and what were they to do about these weeds. Leave them, he said, until the harvest. That would be the appropriate time to sort the weeds from the wheat.

Here’s the deal. We’re living in that wheat and weed field. The weeds, by the way, called “tares” in the NASB, were darnel, a rye grass that looks much like wheat. In other words, telling the two apart was not an easy job. It’s not easy for us, either. What looks to us like a tare now, might in fact be a stalk of wheat.

What in the world do wheat and weeds have to do with reviews?

Here’s the point. I find it a little astounding that in a mixed-bag world, we can see anything as all good or all bad. Yet readers rave all the time that such-and-such a novel is the best book ever written. Or that such and such other book is from the pit of hell and will bring destruction upon every person foolish enough to expose their minds to it.

I remember hearing Liz Curtis Higgs speak at the Mount Hermon Christian Writers’ Conference some years ago, and she was commenting on responses she got to her novel set in Scotland. One reader raved about how this book was as good as those by Sir Walter Scott! The same day she received a letter tearing her and the book apart. Obviously, both positions couldn’t be true. In fact, Higgs said a writer really must believe neither.

But why do readers and reviewers write as if a book they love has no faults or a book they hate has no value? We live in a mixed-bag world, where made-in-God’s-image creatures fell into corruption. Why are we shocked to see God’s image, tarnished as it is, in those very people who rail against Him? And why do we think everything coming from the fingertips of His redeemed children will automatically be without the rust of corruption? I wish the latter were true.

But I’m as much a mixed bag as the world is. Less so every day, as God does His sanctifying work of transforming me into the image of His Son, but even if I lived without sin, I don’t believe that would mean my writing would also be perfect. I could have pure intentions. My motive might be to honor God, but does that mean my writing will automatically be flawless? Not in a mixed-bag world.

And final question. Is God most honored by our closing our eyes to what might be improved or by an honest appraisal that calls writers to reach for better?

This article originally appeared here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction in June 2008.

“Reviews” That Aren’t Reviews

I admit, it’s a pet peeve of mine—blog posts that purport to be reviews but actually do little besides regurgitate press releases or back cover copy.

I can go to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or to find the snippet the publisher has provided about a book. I can visit the author’s web site if I want to read his canned bio. When I read a blog post, I want to learn something MORE—something I couldn’t get in the usual places.

That’s why interviews are cool. But today I specifically want to rant abo discuss reviews. 😉

When I’m talking to a friend who has read a book I haven’t yet picked up—or if she’s seen a movie or watched a TV program I’ve only heard about—there are usually two questions I ask: what’s it about and did you like it?

If we have time, I may also ask why did you or didn’t you like it?

From my perspective, those are the essentials of a book review. If I’m talking to a friend, I don’t want her to whip out the LA Times and read their review of the movie. I want to know what my friend thought. After all, I know a little about her tastes and her worldview. She also doesn’t have a vested interest in whether or not I decide to buy a book or ticket because of what she tells me. Therefore, I trust her

Sadly, I’ve seen some blog “reviews” that miss the opportunity to build trust. Honest opinions do that. Some reviewers, instead, “love” everything. I mean, every book is a 5-star story. The writing is great—perfect, even. The author is brilliant, the characters are capable of walking off the page and into your living room. Every … single … book … review.

I don’t know about you, but that stretches my credibility. Especially if I happen to have read the book and found the characters flat and uninteresting or the writing trite and predictable.

How much better to take a step back and think about books objectively. I know it’s sometimes hard. Often when I close a book I love, I can only think of those things that drew me into the story. And that’s OK, but might there be something that could have strengthened the book even more?

Simply by noticing those things, a reviewer becomes more credible. Readers will not build inflated expectations based on a review that says a book is flawless. In reality, the reader may not care about whatever weakness the reviewer noticed, but that’s OK, too. It means the reader will actually like the book more than they expected.

The flip side of the “perfect book” review is the “PR shill” review. Little in the post is original content. The blogger has only cut and pasted material that could be found elsewhere, with perhaps a single line of personal opinion.

How is this helpful? That’s not even as informative as reading from the Times. It’s actually more like reading a paid advertisement.

When I visit a blog, I don’t want to know what the publisher says the book is about, I want to know what the blogger I’m visiting has to say it’s about. I want to know what he thought it’s winning points were. I want to know whether he’d recommend it to people like me.

At Amazon they have a way for visitors to vote whether or not they found a review helpful. Too bad all blog reviews don’t have that capacity, too. I think bloggers might see their posts in a new light if people could say with a click whether or not they found the review—or the “review”—helpful.

Of course, I’m setting myself up for failure, since I’ll be doing a review next week for the CSFF Blog Tour. Hmmm. Maybe I’ll write about a related topic and avoid the review altogether. 🙄

The Review Is …

We used to know how to complete that line. The review is in! But today it seems there are other words that are more fitting or more common. The review is non-existent, comes to mind. Or the review is pure promotion. Or the review is dangerous. Or the review is tainted.

You see, I’m aware of a couple on-line “battles” centered on reviews or reviewing. One such controversy questions the objectivity of reviewers who receive free books. Another questions a specific review that doesn’t take a strong “thou-shalt-not” stand to a certain movie.

Of course, there is the fact that writers for some time have been decrying the lack of review publications, especially for Christian fiction. In truth, more and more newspapers are dropping book reviews from their content, so it seems that no review is more commonly the truth for many books.

I suspect this is why blog tours have increased in popularity and why authors encourage readers to post reviews on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. The beauty is, these kinds of reviews come from readers. Not professional reviewers who may or may not have the mindset of the target audience.

To be sure, anyone can write a review with wrong motives, even professional reviewers. I suspect that’s why fewer and fewer formal reviews exist—readers have learned not to trust reviewers who have a track record for pushing their own preferences or, in a worst case, foisting a personal agenda on the public.

In contrast, blog tour reviewers and reader reviewers on book-selling sites have nothing to gain by pandering to their own whimsy. People will simply tune them out, and in the case of bloggers, stop visiting their sites, so there’s nothing to gain.

A blogger who cares at all for his visitors is more apt to give a balanced and meaningful review than not. In addition, he is not setting himself up as an expert which eliminates the problems swirling around the other review controversy.

This debate centers on a publication giving the pros and cons of a particular movie rather than posting a “not recommended” warning. I haven’t read the review, seen the movie, or read much of the confrontational posts or comments. I don’t think it’s necessary to be familiar with all the particulars because we’ve seen it all before. “Don’t read Gone with the Wind because it uses a cuss word.” “Don’t read Harry Potter because it has witches.”

These kinds of “reviews” are dealing with externals while ignoring heart issues. What’s more they wish to act as the Authority, to step in and make a declaration about what the true-blue followers should Stay Away From. For Christians, this seems antithetical to our stated belief that the Bible is the authority for life and godliness.

To review or not to review? By all means, Review. Do so with honesty and candor and kindness. If you’re a believer, do so with Scriptural relevance. Then let your review stand as one piece of the public record that may influence those who trust your opinion. But don’t lose sight that your opinion is nothing more than your opinion. It may be informed. It may come from your vast experience. It may be right. But in the end, those who read your reviews still have to decide what to do about what they read.

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