I publicly expressed some concerns about the theology of a recently released book. I was contacted by the Contributor / Editor and we exchanged some private messages in which he challenged me to read and review the book, even offering to send me a free copy. I declined saying I’d read enough articles and posts from the author, not to mention exchanged some private correspondence, to know where he was coming from. The Contributor / Editor responded “How can you criticize the book without having read it?”
If you’re a reader / reviewer, you’re bound to have that plaint leveled at you at some point. It looks like this:
“You can’t legitimately critique a book until you’ve read it!”
But is this true? I mean…
- Must I read Fifty Shades of Grey before I can critique it?
- Must I read The DaVinci Code before I can diss it?
- Must I read The Shack before I can be skeptical of it?
- Must I read the Twilight series before I can slam it?
In theory, an author can dismiss any criticism as invalid if the reviewer has NOT read the book. Which is, sort of, a built-in way to guarantee readers. You know, invalidate any critique if the critique comes from someone who only has second-hand knowledge of your book.
That formula looks like this:
- Write something controversial / mediocre / polarizing / lurid, then
- Dismiss critiques from anyone who hasn’t read it.
This way, even those who “legitimately” critique your book paid for it. Win goes to… the author!
Of course, the rules probably change from fiction to non-fiction. I expressed disinterest in the aforementioned book by my Contributor / Editor friend based on theology. Had the book been fiction, I would’ve had a harder time legitimizing such concerns. I mean, I needn’t read The Communist Manifesto to disdain its contents. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is another story.
So is there more leeway to critique a non-fiction book you haven’t read than a fiction book you haven’t read? I mean, ideas are ideas (see The Communist Manifesto). Fiction, on the other hand, does not always wear its idealogy on its sleeve. What The Road “means” is not quite as obvious as what the author of A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I am a missional, evangelical, post/protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, catholic, green, incarnational, depressed-yet hopeful, emergent, unfinished Christian means.
Perhaps this is why fair, decent, critical, objective reviewers are so important to the reader. After all, I can’t read everything. Trusting a reviewer to tell me when something is well-written, slow, compelling, confusing, graphic, or predictable, contains weird theology, twists facts, or makes important points, is an important part of forming my own critique. Of course, until I actually read The Twilight series, my critique will always be incomplete. But having read enough trusted reviewers who HAVE read the Twilight series, I’m confident enough that my critique is not without foundation.
For the record, I am not averse to reading authors I disagree with. Nor am I unwilling to read outside my taste in genre. I also try to be as informed about a book, its author and the general reviews of the book, as possible. Does this make my critique of a book I haven’t read any more valid? Probably not. But it also doesn’t make it wrong.