Monday, December 13, 2010

Negative Review



Every writer expects it. It's part of the human condition. Something I heard years ago has stuck with me through times like these: "I cannot expect to be universally loved and respected." And that's a phrase I've had to repeat like a mantra since reading a recent one-star review of my debut novel, Code Blue. The reviewer's complaint--it was a "Christian novel."


To fully understand my frustration, I have to remind you that Code Blue has been available as a free download as an ebook at both Amazon and Barnes and Noble for the past week (see note at the end of this post). Well, one person took advantage of the free download and then gave the book one star because the novel is "Christian fiction."

What is "Christian fiction" anyway? I went back and copied what I said in an interview on Writer Unboxed after the release of my first novel. I think it's as good a definition as I can give for my own version of "Christian fiction":  The primary difference I see is that (these novels) don’t have cursing or explicit sex, and portray a Christian worldview... The books portray characters that are flawed, as we all are, and who struggle with their relationships, both with God and their fellow man...What I’ve frequently said is that the only difference I really see is that these novels are written from a Christian worldview and don’t contain anything I’d hesitate for my mother, wife, or daughter to read.

In the discussion of the negative review, a couple of people suggested that they wouldn't have taken advantage of the free download if Code Blue had been labeled "Christian fiction." My question, in turn, is whether some novels should be labeled "Smutty fiction" or "Fiction containing lots of cursing." It just seems silly to me. If I don't like it, I stop reading. I do the same with a TV program I don't like. There's no mystery to discovering what a book's about. You can usually tell the nature of the book from the blurb (back of the book, or on the website of an online bookseller). Failing that, it's possible to thumb through the book (in a store) or read excerpts (online at Amazon). Why have labels?

Some people will want to read what I'm comfortable writing, some won't. But the question remains: Should Christian fiction carry a warning tag, so people who are uncomfortable reading it (and I wonder why that is...hmm) can avoid it? You tell me.

Note: This is your last day to get Code Blue, the first medical suspense novel in my Prescription For Trouble series, for your Nook at Barnes&Noble's website. The Amazon offer has apparently expired. If you or someone you know would like to take advantage of this offer, click this link and take advantage of the generosity of Abingdon Press in making it available. Thanks.

34 comments:

Katie Ganshert said...

I see this a lot! When a Christian novel becomes a free download, all of a sudden, people who don't typically buy it are reading it. Some of these people want nothing to do with Christian novels and give the book an awful review. This happened with Jim Rubbart's novel, Rooms. I read some of the poor reviews and almost all of them had to do with the Christian aspect of the novel. Same with Candance Calvert. So, take heart Richard, you're not alone!!

Timothy Fish said...

Maybe that's as good of an argument as any for us not to offer our books as free downloads. People have a tendency to click the buy button without actually reading the product description and then are upset when they discover it isn't something they actually wanted.

Richard Mabry said...

Katie, I noticed this happening with Jim and Candace, so I count myself in good company. But it brought up the suggestion that some folks (mainly those uncomfortable with Christian books) keep making: tag those books so we can avoid them.
Timothy, This is often a case of "It's free, I want it. Oh, no I don't.Why didn't they warn me?"
Thanks to you both for your comments.

Mike Duran said...

Richard, I wonder if this isn't a problem we've brought on ourselves. After all, Christians DO want certain things from their fiction and have defined an entire genre thus. So we shouldn't be surprised if readers bump into our worldview and react accordingly. Unless we tone down our "Christian content," I just don't think there's any way around this type of response. Because if we are less explicit about worldview, we can't rightly call it "Christian fiction." This is the conundrum we've created.

Mark said...

I've seen other negative reviews where people bought the actual book also without knowing it was Christian - I don't think it needs labels. People should research an author before they read a new one - if they did, they would discover they are a Christian fiction author, so it is the fault of the reader in my opinion.

Richard Mabry said...

Mike, Christian fiction means different things to different people. The informed reader will soon figure out which books fit into what slot on the spectrum and meet their needs, then simply avoid the others. In this case, the reader was put off by the fact that the characters' struggle with their own faith was portrayed. Wonder if I hit a nerve.
I liken this to buying jellies and jams. Some I like, some I don't. I'm free to choose, but sometimes I pay for one, get it home, and decide I don't like it. Do I rail against the maker? No, I don't buy it again. In this case, I think what got to me the most was the fact that this was a free download in the first place.

Mark, you're right on target. Thanks for your comment.

Doris said...

Should Christian fiction carry a warning tag, so people who are uncomfortable reading it (and I wonder why that is...hmm)

It's snarky comments like this that make me avoid anything having to do with "Christian" fiction. Really, was that necessary?

Susan M. Baganz said...

If we have to call things "Christian fiction" instead of mystery, or historical. . . then shouldn't other authors have to put in "athiestic fiction" or "muslim fiction" or perhaps "satanic fiction?" Come on! I can avoid vampires because I know what they relate to - and you are right - if God and themes related to Scripture are a part of the story - then they should show up on the back cover blurb. It just goes to show that Christ is a stumbling block and always will be - but we who are His still need to be a witness in a hurting world and some may pick up that book and be challenged in a fresh way. You never know how the Holy Spirit will use it! Keep writing! And remember -it's not you they are rejecting - it's our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Given all He has taken for us - a little rejection on His behalf is a small price to pay. God bless!

Rena said...

What I’ve frequently said is that the only difference I really see is that these novels are written from a Christian worldview and don’t contain anything I’d hesitate for my mother, wife, or daughter to read.

A question. Why does this presumably male individual feel he has the right to dictate what his MOTHER or WIFE reads? (One hopes he doesn't decide what his daughter reads, if she's a legal adult.)

Richard Mabry said...

Doris, Didn't mean to be snarky. Really, I do wonder why they're uncomfortable. For example, I'm uncomfortable reading fiction by Stephen King because it's too scary. If I was offensive, I apologize.

Rena, I didn't say I wanted to dictate what my late mother or my daughter read. Matter of fact, my daughter's taste is her business, not mine.What I was trying to convey is that I write things that wouldn't be a source of embarrassment if another member of my family read it. But you caught me in a sexist remark and I could have said it better.

Susan, thanks for the encouragement. This is one of the downsides to putting our books out in front of the public. But I plan to continue doing it.

Heather Sunseri said...

Hi, Richard. I've thought about this a lot, as well - ever since I read a free download and saw some negative one star reviews also for the simple reason that it was a Christian book.

I think the idea of placing religious labels on books is such a complex issue. I have a group of friends who have said they don't read Christian fiction because they simply don't think the writing is good, yet they have given some free downloads a try recently and their attitude is starting to change. These are Christians who are beginning to look at Christian fiction differently. That's an good thing and sales numbers can only increase by this.

But I'm always hoping with the free downloads or with the hype of a book that you might get readers who don't like Christian fiction because they arent sure what they believe. Then my hope grows and changes to hoping that Christian book might inspire questions and the seeking of answers by an individual who might grow one step closer to Christ. And that is an awesome thing.

So, as I ramble here on your blog, I hope for every one-star review a Christian author gets, that same Christian author reaches a person's heart with the Christian worldview - plants that tiny mustard seed.

Richard Mabry said...

Thanks, Heather. There's a lot of sense in your "rambling," so keep coming back and commenting. All authors take a risk when we put our work in front of the public, but that's part of the deal I guess.

Thomas said...

Richard,
Unfortunately it seems that many of the people who react negatively to Christian fiction have a similar reaction to anything which carries the label "Christian." So it seems a one star review because something is Christian fiction is actually a one star review of Christianity itself. I can't imaging writing a review of a secular book and giving it a poor review simply because it is secular. Especially considering there are some outstanding secular writers out there.

And while it is true that the writing in much Christian fiction was really lousy at one time, that has changed drastically. And even so, it is still not the problem. Christians are not terribly popular in certain circles these days. Fortunately, God loves us all.

Regardless of what we write.

Thomas Smith
Author of Something Stirs (coming in 2011)

Richard Mabry said...

Thomas, I agree that Christian fiction has taken a distinct step forward in quality in the few years I've been involved with it, and some of the criticism leveled at it is no longer valid. Then again, there are some people who would give a bad review to anything that carries that tag, because--as you pointed out--what they're really rejecting is the author's faith, not his/her work. At least, I choose to look at it that way.
Thanks for your comment.

T. Anne said...

I see this as a common complaint in reviews for books that offer a Chrisitan worldview. I get the feeling these people actually feel duped somehow, and that makes me sad. I don't get outraged over subject matter that's covered in the books I read even if it makes me uncomfortable. There's always the option of putting down the book. However I think they'd rather have books with strong Christian themes categorized as their own genre, so they don't purchase them accidentally. I don't think all books with this worldview need to be put under the same umbrella. I write from a Christian worldview, but the CBA would never touch my work. To me this borders on censorship.

Richard Mabry said...

T Anne--I appreciate your comment. Your own blog post today on looking inside books at the sites of online booksellers is pertinent to this subject.
Thanks for dropping by.

Bonnie R. Paulson said...

Dr. Mabry!

You go! I downloaded it and can't wait to read it. I will be honest and say I've never had the opportunity to pick up a Christian novel - oh, wait, does the Bible count - no, that's probably nonfiction, right? But anyway, if the storyline is there, who cares? I've never noticed any bad reviews about the Diary of Anne Frank being bad because it's a Jewish book.
Love your blog!

Richard Mabry said...

Thanks, Bonnie. Truthfully, before I became involved in writing them I had very little first-hand knowledge of Christian novels, but now I know there are some pretty good ones out there. Hope you enjoy Code Blue and the rest of the Prescription For Trouble series.

Michelle Sutton said...

You know, I've stopped reading the ones that say something obvious like it I had known it was Christian I wouldn't have gotten it. However, when they add that they are Christians and they still say that I find them particularly odd, especially if they diss the author. I usually read those. Some people are just rude and I think they like to be rude. But I always check their other reviews and usually they love stuff that is clearly not from a Christian worldview. I just got a review for one of my books where the writer said it was too secular for her tastes and like girl porn (it was a romance and there was nothing pornographic about it) and this was on a Christian site. You just never know. One thing people loved about the book was that it was realistic. Oh well.

Richard Mabry said...

Thanks, Michelle. You have more willpower than I if you can stop reading reviews. I know there are athletes, actors, and authors who say they pay no attention to reviews. I'm not one of them, unfortunately.
Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Always good to hear from you.

Catherine West said...

What an interesting discussion. I think that unfortunately it's one of those topics you'll just go round and round on. I've struggled for a while with the whole 'Christian fiction' thing. I believe there is a market for it but I also don't want to alienate any readers by sticking a label on what I write. So I'm on the fence. I think it's a very personal decision and one that needs much prayer. I'd want to ask the reader that wrote that comment though, did they enjoy the story anyway?
I downloaded Code Blue last week and I'm looking forward to reading it.

Richard Mabry said...

Cathy, I appreciate your comment. Our work is labeled Christian fiction primarily by the fact that we choose to solicit its publication by houses associated with the CBA (Christian Booksellers Association). Beyond that, we have nothing to do with the labels except writing books that fit into that ever-expanding universe. I've become comfortable with my writing style and content, and if some readers don't enjoy it, I understand. There are books, movies, and TV programs I don't enjoy either, while my friends rave about them. Different strokes, and all that.
As for whether the one-star reviewer liked the book, they lambasted it because it was Christian fiction and made no further comment.
Hope you enjoy Code Blue and its siblings in the Prescription For Trouble series. And congratulations on your entry into the "published author" category.

David A. Bedford said...

Hang in there! We need more books any serious reader of any age can read. A fixation with sex is as unoriginal as you can get.

Please see my related comments pertaining to JK Rowling on my blog. Thanks!

Richard Mabry said...

Thanks, David. Always nice to get the support of a fellow Texan and near-neighbor. Appreciate the comment.

Elise M Stone said...

First of all I want to tell you that I was ecstatic when I serendipitously ran across the free download of Code Blue yesterday. I became aware of your books because I follow Rachelle Gardner's blog and I've wanted to read one of your books for a while. It has now joined about 50 other TBR books on my Nook.

I wouldn't sweat the negative review of your book because it's Christian. I've seen lots of one star reviews on Amazon for things having nothing to do with the quality of the book itself. I just put in Gone with the Wind as a test and there's a one star review because there's a page missing. The poster blames Amazon for this error, not being knowledgeable enough to realize it's the publisher's problem. The other one star review labeled GWTW as racist and a political tract.

On the other hand, I do understand the emotional reaction to getting a book with a Christian worldview and being annoyed. I spent decades away from Christianity and hated it when my mother kept preaching at me as she tried to get me to go back to my faith. Christianity is an emotionally charged topic. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

To some degree, we do need labels or categories for the books that we choose to read. It helps us to make the choice. There's a related discussion on J.A. Konrath's blog at http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/ regarding Amazon pulling a bunch of books with erotic incest themes. Wouldn't you want these labeled so you would know whether to download them or not?

I thought the juxtaposition of your experience with that one was very interesting. Although at opposite ends of the spectrum, they are about the same thing, in my opinion.

Richard Mabry said...

Elise, I appreciate your thoughtful comment. I hope you eventually reach the bottom of that TBR pile and enjoy Code Blue. If you do, check out the other books in the Prescription For Trouble series (Medical Error is also available as an e-book, although not free).
Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I guess I can tolerate being in the same class with Margaret Mitchell so far as one-star reviews. I'll try to remember that.
Come back often, and leave a comment any time.

Carol J. Garvin said...

I think I'm a fence-sitter when it comes to labeling. I like to know if a particular book is a mystery, for instance, or sci-fi, or vampires, because I love a good mystery but don't care to read the latter two genres at all. Years ago I stopped reading Christian fiction because much of what I encountered was poorly written. Now I'm back. In fact, I'm even writing it. If I were published I don't know that I'd want readers to feel they've been duped into picking up my books if they're not the genre that is expected.

But when I'm buying, I figure the onus is on me to read the blurbs carefully before I hand over my money. If the blurbs don't hint at the genre and I end up with something I wouldn't otherwise have chosen I might be unhappy, so I can understand why that reviewer might have reacted negatively (tho' I see no need to post a review at all in that case). There is nothing in Code Blue's blurb to suggest either Christian fiction or your Christian worldview.

But if someone is doing their homework there are clues: in your bio it mentions you've written "inspirational pieces", and on the title page Abingdon's byline, "a novel approach to faith" offers a hint. And if anyone knows their publishers they'd know what Abingdon publishes anyway. The trouble is, many purchasers buy a book on impulse. They aren't doing research first. So I think it's reasonable for them to expect the front and back covers to give them a clear impression of what the books are about.

That's my lengthy two-bits' worth, anyway. :)

Richard Mabry said...

Carol, Always glad when you drop by with a comment, even a lengthy one. Much as it pained me, I went back and read the reviews that went up after Code Blue was offered as a free download, and it's interesting that the one-star review mentioned my writing talent but bashed the subject matter.

Would a "Christian fiction" label have helped? Not necessary if the buyer reads the reviews first.

Are labels a good or bad thing? The jury's still out.

Am I crushed? No, I go back to what I said in the first place--I cannot expect to be universally loved and respected. I believe there's a readership for the book, and I'll continue to write for them.

Anonymous said...

I just downloaded Code Blue for my Kindle and cannot put the story down. May God continue blessing you and your writing. Can't wait for your next book!

Richard Mabry said...

Anonymous--What a wonderful Christmas gift you've given me with your nice comment. Thanks so much. Hope you enjoy Medical Error (out now) and the rest of the Prescription for Trouble series.
Merry Christmas.

Anonymous said...

I just downloaded Code Blue for my Kindle and cannot put the story down. May God continue blessing you and your writing. Can't wait for your next book!

Richard Mabry said...

Elise, I appreciate your thoughtful comment. I hope you eventually reach the bottom of that TBR pile and enjoy Code Blue. If you do, check out the other books in the Prescription For Trouble series (Medical Error is also available as an e-book, although not free).
Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I guess I can tolerate being in the same class with Margaret Mitchell so far as one-star reviews. I'll try to remember that.
Come back often, and leave a comment any time.

Mark said...

I've seen other negative reviews where people bought the actual book also without knowing it was Christian - I don't think it needs labels. People should research an author before they read a new one - if they did, they would discover they are a Christian fiction author, so it is the fault of the reader in my opinion.

Thomas said...

Richard,
Unfortunately it seems that many of the people who react negatively to Christian fiction have a similar reaction to anything which carries the label "Christian." So it seems a one star review because something is Christian fiction is actually a one star review of Christianity itself. I can't imaging writing a review of a secular book and giving it a poor review simply because it is secular. Especially considering there are some outstanding secular writers out there.

And while it is true that the writing in much Christian fiction was really lousy at one time, that has changed drastically. And even so, it is still not the problem. Christians are not terribly popular in certain circles these days. Fortunately, God loves us all.

Regardless of what we write.

Thomas Smith
Author of Something Stirs (coming in 2011)