We Can Be Critical and Christian and Female All At The Same Time

I love reviewing books. I remember the first time I ever reviewed a book, and I was thrilled and happy beyond measure. Because when you review books, publishers send you review copies! And for someone like me, free books are almost always an unqualified GOOD.

I will allow as how it is sometimes fun to skewer a book, to make like the movie critics at the New Yorker magazine and just slam bad writing and sloppy thinking. That can definitely be a bit of guilty fun, but it’s like chewing bubblegum, whereas reading and reviewing really good books are like eating an excellent meal.

Sometimes, though, for various boring reasons, it ends up that you pretty much have to review a book that you didn’t think was great. And then here is how that goes:

ReviewStrip1At this point you sometimes don’t review the book. But if a book has been particularly important in a given segment of culture, or if you have already made an agreement that this book SHALL be reviewed, it has to happen:

reviewstrip2At this point you might feel awkward, but also hopeful because perhaps by filing your minority report about the book that’s already so popular and such a hot topic, you will spark a whole new conversation about a side of things no one has brought up before!

But then, this:

ReviewStrip3And this:

ReviewStrip4Well,  that last cell is a bit of hyperbole. I certainly have (and have had) many perfectly lovely and thoughtful conversations online. But for some reason, it’s exceptionally difficult to offer a critical perspective on books (or articles, or blog posts)–even in careful, guarded language–without being branded bitter, jealous, mean, angry, harsh, or, even worse, unChristian.

The less-than-sensational truth is that many people, me included, just like to think and write about books (and other things) and critique is just part of the deal. It certainly does not imply any sort of animus.

I suspect that it is harder for women than for men–we are accused of being ‘shrill,’ or called the word that should refer exclusively to female dogs, wolves, foxes, or otters (yes, foxes and otters too!), but, not being a man, I’m not certain on that it is in fact harder for us, though since I read about the fact that female movie critics hardly exist (sad, because splitting my time between reviewing books and movies would pretty much be my dream job) I’ve been wondering if it’s just harder for women to voice critique without getting slapped down with spiritual platitudes or accusations of bad motives.

What has your experience been like?

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About Rachel Marie Stone
  • http://abnormalanabaptist.wordpress.com Robert Martin

    For the most part, I’ve had the pleasure of blog reviewing books that I actually liked. While I’ve pushed back at points in those books, over all I was able to give them good reviews…

    …and then I ran into “Praying Circles Around Your Children”. On the surface, it seemed like a good book but then, as I read it… meh…

    Fortunately, my blog and my reviews aren’t as popular as all that so my little corner of the ‘net didn’t get hammered as badly… or at all… but I do empathize with what you’ve said. I received the book for free, and as much as the FTC says I need to give the disclaimer that I’m under no obligation to give a positive review, I still feel like I need to give at least SOME semblance of grace to the author simply because of the gift of a book (I have over 500 books in my personal library… yes, books are treasures to me). I guess as I start doing more and more reviews, I may get more push back… but for now, I guess I’m in my fuzzy little happy blogger world…

  • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

    People can always find some irrelevant attribute to lash out at. For a woman who writes a negative review, she might get labeled shrill. For a guy like me, I’ve been labeled the older white male who lives a life of privilege. Why people can’t engage on the merits is a mystery.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rachelmariestone Rachel Marie Stone

      True enough, Tim. I was thinking also that men get the “you must be sexist!” card played at them a lot.

      • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

        Yeah, I’ve received that too. The one that really gets me is when someone writes “It’s because you’re not a woman …”. Of course I’m not a woman, for crying out loud!

  • misscaramichele

    Rachel,

    I think that this is very true. I struggle with this and have become a lot pickier about the books I will review in public. The fact that the internet makes so much available (both critical and positive) is a mixed blessing. I love to write, and I am thankful that the internet allows me to deliver my writing so much more quickly to my audience, but it makes me feel vulnerable, and sometimes, if I’m writing with a lot of meaning, attacked.

    I had a friend who posted a review on Goodreads and received a personal message from the author telling her that she had no business posting a negative review. Honestly, as a writer, I think that there is no greater challenge or responsibility than to write an honest review, even when it is negative. It’s a voice we don’t like when it’s said about us, but it is needed. Both in writing, and in life.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rachelmariestone Rachel Marie Stone

      Wow–an author told your friend she shouldn’t have posted a negative review on GOODREADS? That’s really sad. I don’t like negative criticism, either–don’t think anyone does, really–but as you say, it’s needed sometimes. (Though I like getting it better BEFORE something actually goes to press!) ;)

      • misscaramichele

        Agreed! Before going to press is wonderful. But I’d rather get it to press (after careful editing) than be James Joyce, revising and coming out with a new edition every year or so. Publication is no standard for perfection, but it is done, and I think that this is good, and nothing like what we are in life, and in Christ: always moving, always growing, never static. Thank goodness.

    • http://bookwi.se Adam Shields

      I have received negative comments from authors. And that pretty much guarantees that I will never read or review a book of theirs again. But I have had far more gracious comments from authors (both when I have positively and negatively reviewed a book). And gracious attention tends to move me to read future books, even when I didn’t like previous books.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rachelmariestone Rachel Marie Stone

        I feel the need to point out that I did address the (negative) review my book got at the Gospel Coalition. I tried very hard–and hope I succeeded!–to simply point out how I felt that it was unfair because it was, quite simply, factually erroneous.

      • misscaramichele

        Adam,

        I agree. Writing a book review shouldn’t be something that you do with fear. It should be done with care, and with feelings of responsibility, but not fear. (Rather like writing a book, actually) I have had some wonderful interactions with authors, both in writing reviews, and just writing letters (or emails). Those things make me more likely to give them another try if I’ve been disappointed.

        With my own writing, I’ve had to accept that everyone is not going to like my work, even if it is “good.” I am not everyone’s flavor of choice. This is humbling, but speaks to the truth that we all hold different offices in the body of Christ. Needed by all, but not always appreciated.

  • dad

    This made me think about the times when I am asked to opine about this or that famous celebrity preacher.

    There’s simply no easy way to tell someone that you believe their beloved guru to be an expensive but empty suit, propped up by ghostwriters: a crass shill peddling arrant nonsense, couched in platitudes, to Mencken’s booboisie.

    Not to put too fine a point on it…

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rachelmariestone Rachel Marie Stone

      Ah! I love the sound of bluntness in the morning. Sounds like…victory.

  • http://www.somuchshoutingsomuchlaughter.com/ suzannah | the smitten word

    yup. for some reason, a lot of people have zero sense that the discipline of criticism is about analysis. recently, i critiqued a Dove ad and the Fitch The Homeless campaign and more than a few strange accusations were leveled at me.

    there is a gendered element at play for sure, and i suspect that personality has a lot to do with it. some people just don’t care about something that my brain is wired for, and it’s easy to dismiss a passion for critique (often rooted in a desire to make things better) as nitpicking or hating. others will perceive any sort of conflict and disagreement as “attack.” i will die on the hill that differentiates the two most days:)

    you are on fire this week.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rachelmariestone Rachel Marie Stone

      I loved your critiques, Suzannah, especially the Fitch the Homeless, and was shocked at the very strange things people said to you in response to that. Maybe I should make a comic strip about it. ;)

      And, yes, you are very right that sometimes a person just doesn’t CARE about what we care about and notice. I didn’t like the viral post of the girl whose mother dressed her up as 5 different prominent women, and most commenters on that post (here & on FB) thought I was out to lunch. But in the end it is about analysis–unpicking how stuff works and what it implies–not simply about saying “this is bad/wrong/whatever.”

      peace.

  • http://dickensblog.typepad.com Gina

    Oh gosh, Rachel. This is my life, right here. Well captured. :-)

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rachelmariestone Rachel Marie Stone

      I thought of you, Gina. Shame on you for condemning sweet little Elsie Dinsmore. ;)

  • http://patheos.com/blogs/simchafisher/ Simcha Fisher

    Ohhhhhh, yes. Sorry, I know this is obnoxious, but I wrote about this, too:

    http://www.ncregister.com/blog/simcha-fisher/the-christian-critic

    People seem to forget that Western civilization would not have survived at all without the strenuous work of Christians who Thought Hard About Things. Being nice is not good enough!

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rachelmariestone Rachel Marie Stone

      Excellent point! So much of what makes western civ. lovely grew out of strenuous thinking, and, yes, disagreement. The existence of different expressions of Christianity is sometimes used as a charge against it, but is culture not richer for the contributions of Puritans, Catholics, Anabaptists, Quakers, Orthodox, and so on?

  • http://morganguyton.wordpress.com Morgan Guyton

    My favorite is “Did you contact famous author privately first per Matthew 18?” Easily the most ubiquitous asinine comment in the blogosphere.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rachelmariestone Rachel Marie Stone

      Isn’t it?

  • http://www.riverintowords.com karen

    I have a little dinky blog with a loyal, but small readership. So I figured if I were to write something critical about, say, a cinematic version of an extremely popular autobiographical gen-x Christian book, no one would notice. Ok, maybe some people would notice. In fairness, I had only seen a rough cut (a conference I attended was privileged with a screening), but I really felt a review was necessary. This was a book, after all, that people place next to their Bible in influence and which many, many people had already given over-the-top glowing reviews of (upon viewing the same screening). Therefore, I knew I had something different and valuable to contribute.

    The director ended up emailing me and asking me to remove the review until after the release of the final version of the film. He was respectful, kind and had a valid concern about a negative review of a not-yet-finished piece. So I agreed. But still… I was bummed that the one thing I felt strongly enough to share and critique (based upon my love for and knowledge of the book) was taken down. By me. If I had been a man, he probably still would have asked him to remove the review. But I’m not sure, if I had been a man, if I would have acquiesced so easily. Which is really on me.

    Which is why, more recently, I gave One Thousand Gifts a more than fair review. Don’t want all of female Christendom all over me. :)

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rachelmariestone Rachel Marie Stone

      Yeah, I had most of female American Christendom all over me for my review of 1000 Gifts. Oh well. And now I am curious about your review of that film… ;)

      • Kristin

        I didn’t know you reviewed 1000 Gifts! Will you give me a link?

      • Kristin

        Never mind – found it! After all these years, you’d think “Google search” would come more readily to the brain. ;-)

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rachelmariestone Rachel Marie Stone

          Haha! Yes. Google. And I hate that I issued the minority report on that one. Was just saying what I thought. Had NO IDEA how popular it already was…

  • http://twitter.com/sarahbessey Sarah Bessey (@sarahbessey)

    “Where dreams of thoughtful Christian discourse go to die.” DEAD. So funny. Great post, as always, RMS.

  • http://simplycharity.blogspot.com sundowniest

    Must-bite-tongue. I come from the background where it was expected that if you have something to say, or write, it should be well-thought through–and then you should articulate it clearly and concisely. I no longer review for authors because many Christians no longer read good books (Those that do usually read theology).

    I will review honestly for this reason: time. Time is our most valuable gift–if the author needs a different vocation, he needs to know it sooner rather than later and readers have only so much time to read. If you want to make a Christian argument, I think in terms of stewardship of time.

    As for feeling badly about being too harsh, perhaps we need to see this as a job rather than the end-all in life. Criticism may hurt, but it might also spur us on. Some of my radical turning points were when someone chewed me out and I woke me up. I quit playing the nice game and began to prefer the company of truth-tellers.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rachelmariestone Rachel Marie Stone

      I really like the idea of stewardship of time in relationship to reviewing!

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