Back in 2006, in a post entitled In Praise of Bad Reviews, I lamented the echo chamber that is the Christian review circuit. It is hard for a Christian author, especially a non-established, small name author, to get professional reviews. Before you go off, let me clarify: Certainly, “amateur” reviewers can offer quality reviews. They just don’t carry the clout, academic pedigree, and/or breadth of influence that more established reviewers or review sites carry. That’s what I’m talking about.
Anyway, in that post I offered three reasons why I think Christian reviewers contribute to an insular industry. It was my first real shot across the bow of the Christian fiction industry. Those three reasons why Christian reviewers rarely give “bad reviews” were:
- There’s a fundamental confusion about love and approval; somehow, we think that a negative review is unloving.
- Christians are so eager to see the Gospel / Christian fiction advanced that we’re willing to wink at mediocre presentations of it.
- Most Christian reviewers are trying to break into/stay in the industry they’re reviewing.
The longer I’m involved in the Christian fiction industry, interact with other writers, follow blogs, and trends, the more I’m convinced there’s a sort of “literary incest” that keeps the Christian industry “healthy.” Much of that has to with do with the market, who’s reading Christian fiction (as it’s currently constituted) and who’s providing that fare.
From one perspective, the Christian fiction industry is doing fine. Even in our down economy, Christian books are selling. However, that take can be a little misleading, especially if you’re an author. Here’s the dirty truth (which is what you’re waiting for, right?). Christian fiction is doing fine… if you belong to one of two groups:
- If you write Women’s Fiction
- If you’re an established Christian author
This is not to suggest that new authors can’t break into the Christian clubhouse. In order to do so, however, they have to play by the existing rules. So if you write Crime, Horror, Sci-fi, Men’s Fiction, Espionage, Literary Fiction, Epic Fantasy, the Christian fiction industry IS NOT a friendly harbor. Which is probably why I was asked (and several other male authors I know) to consider writing Women’s Fiction.
So is the Christian fiction industry doing fine? Yes and no. If you write what’s selling in Christian fiction circles, the way they want it written, then yes. If you write something else, well, have fun.
But I’m beginning to think that one of the big reasons for this “clubhouse” feel to the Christian fiction industry is #3 above: Most Christian reviewers are trying to break into/stay in the industry they’re reviewing. Which is why the reviews typically feel cursory, they’re typically positive, and they don’t get outside the Christian fiction community. In fact, they’re not intended to. Which feeds the cycle and keeps the Christian fiction industry “healthy” (see above).
If this is true, then blog tours and amateur review sites can’t help but contribute to the echo chamber effect within our community. Their goal is not to make Christian fiction better, critically analyze it, or really give an honest review. Instead, they want to 1.) Affirm the product and 2.) keep their foot in the door. And — this is important — genres that are NOT in the Christian fiction wheelhouse (i.e., Women’s Fiction and Historical Romance) typically have a hard time finding traction whatsoever. It takes sci-fi / literary / crime readers to get the genre. So how can Christian reviewers whose literary diet is 80% Women’s Fiction ever hope to really “sell” readers on Christian horror?
Yet the cycle is repeated.
This weird relationship between reviewers, writers, and publishers looks something like this:
- You give me a free book.
- I skim said book.
- I write a short, but positive review.
- Rinse and repeat.
Often, what’s unspoken in that symbiosis is the agreement from the reviewer, to the publisher and other authors:
- To the Publisher: I favorably review your book so when I write MY book you will look favorably upon it.
- To Other Authors: I favorably review your book so when I write MY book you will look favorably upon it.
I’ll scratch your book, if you’ll scratch mine.
I read a review of my latest novel recently that seemed so far and above others. (Yes, I read reviews of my novels.) It wasn’t uncritical, it wasn’t a puff piece. There were some “negative” observations which I found astute and helpful. But in the end, it was the feeling that the reviewer didn’t skim but took genuine time and care with my novel that encouraged me. And that’s what I find lacking in so many Christian reviews.
Probably because they have a stack of novels to finish for their next blog tour.
Perhaps all of this goes back to me wishing that Christian fiction would expand its borders, leave the clubhouse, puncture the echo chamber, take more risks, and topple some sacred cows. I mean, aren’t we just talking to ourselves? But as long as we’re convinced the Christian fiction industry is healthy, we’ll keep seeing great Christian authors who can’t find their place, go elsewhere.
And the cycle will continue.