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Can You Critique a Book You Haven’t Read?

read-this-1I 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:

  1. Write something controversial / mediocre / polarizing / lurid, then
  2. 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.

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{ 31 comments… add one }
  • Kevin Lucia September 9, 2013, 7:55 AM

    critique: a detailed analysis and assessment of something, esp. a literary, philosophical, or political theory.

    Which would be hard to without reading it. You can offer your OPINION on something, based on other’s critiques, but I wouldn’t call it a critique unless you actually read it. Just my two cents.

    • Teddi Deppner September 9, 2013, 12:59 PM

      Exactly what I was going to say, Kevin.

      You can have an opinion on a book without reading, based on other information (reviews, others’ critiques, etc).

      But I would not consider myself qualified to critique a book without having read it. Which means there are some books that, alas (or hallelujah), I will never critique.

      I might even write a blog post about a book I haven’t read, but I would be careful to present it for what it is: an opinion. Or perhaps a critique of the sensation the book is making, or an analysis of the reviews I’ve read. However, I’m thinking it’s not likely I would blog about something I don’t recommend (unless a lot of my readers were somehow being misled or otherwise harmed by it and I felt I could help someone by warning them off).

    • Lyn Perry September 9, 2013, 1:04 PM

      Kevin is right. A critique implies an interaction with the text itself. I think one can nuance a response that takes into account other factors (like reviews of trusted friends, previous works by the author, etc.) but to say a book (whether fiction or non-fiction) is “thus and thus” is disingenuous , imo. No one should fault you, however, for not being interested in a work by saying something like: “based on what I’ve discerned so far I’d rather give it a miss.” We all have tastes and preferences that play a role on whether we’ll actually read something through to completion.

    • Katherine Coble September 12, 2013, 1:40 PM

      This. Saves me from typing it out. 🙂 Thanks, Kevin.

  • Randy Streu September 9, 2013, 7:56 AM

    Depends, I guess, on what you mean by “critique.”

    I don’t need to read 50 Shades of Porn to know I don’t need/want to read it. Or even to outright tell others it’s not a good idea for other Christians to do so. I can make that decision pretty much based on what others have said about it — even those who LIKE it. The testimony of those who HAVE done the work pretty much stands for itself.

    However, I also wouldn’t go to a review site (Amazon, Goodreads, etc), and make my opinion public other than on my personal blog, or to people I talk to. And it bothers me a LOT when others do.

    I guess this has something to do with cumulative nature of online user reviews. I won’t assign “stars” to something I haven’t read, because it’s decidedly unfair and frankly disingenuous. When it comes to critiquing something on a personal blog or whatever, even there I’m a touch leery, unless the critic makes it very clear at the outset that s/he hasn’t read the work in question, and outlines the reasons WHY s/he believes s/he doesn’t need to do so.

    Having said that, I’ve seen your concerns about the theology of The Shack — and have the same concerns. I also haven’t read it. But I thought you were fair in your expression of concern because, A, you were able to base it upon multiple reviews and synopses and, B, were clear that you had not read the work.

  • Janet September 9, 2013, 8:17 AM

    Dear Mike,
    both unbelievers and many Christians critique the Bible without ever having read it or studied it.

    So I can you can. ;-D

    In Christ,
    Janet

    • Janet September 9, 2013, 8:21 AM

      ps. in all serious, I think one must read the book first. And not only that, but be well read in general. I find some of the best critiques make use of other ideas, concepts and authors’ works to make a good comparison, and give a good analysis as to why it is or isn’t worth reading.

    • Janet September 9, 2013, 8:21 AM

      ps. in all seriousness, I think one must read the book first. And not only that, but be well read in general. I find some of the best critiques make use of other ideas, concepts and authors’ works to make a good comparison, and give a good analysis as to why it is or isn’t worth reading.

  • billgncs September 9, 2013, 8:19 AM

    I think you can state you won’t read something because you disagree with some premise, but to actually critize it you should read it or at least wade in a bit.

  • Kristen Stieffel September 9, 2013, 8:20 AM

    You have to make a decision based on something. You can’t read a whole book before you decide whether to read it. We make our decisions based on a variety of sources: articles, posts, correspondence and other people’s reviews. If you form an opinion based on those sources, you’re certainly free and even encouraged to share your decision-making process with others.

    But that’s not a “critique.” I realize I’m reducing this to the level of semantics. A “critique” or a “review” implies careful analysis of the work as a whole. That’s a different process than what we’re talking about.

    You can diss, slam, or disdain anything you wish to, and we can and should be skeptical about all sorts of things. But to call that a “critique” is a misuse of the word. It’s an opinion, it’s a decision, it’s a judgment, even, but it’s not a critique.

  • Jessica Thomas September 9, 2013, 11:19 AM

    That’s got to be the most annoying subtitle ever penned.

    • Randy Streu September 9, 2013, 11:38 AM

      It really is. I haven’t even read the synopsis and I want to slap the guy and tell him to shut his noise.

    • Janet September 9, 2013, 11:44 AM

      lol

      • Kat Heckenbach September 9, 2013, 1:09 PM

        Makes me think he’s using all those words in the subtitle for search engine optimization, so anyone searching for books on any of those topics will land on his :P.

        • Jessica Thomas September 9, 2013, 1:35 PM

          More likely he’s trying to please everyone and offend no one because ‘That’s what being a “loving” Christian is what it’s all about, eh?’

          But I’ve not read the book so that’s just my opinion. 😉

    • Robert H. Woodman September 9, 2013, 4:47 PM

      I haven’t read the book, but having read the subtitle, I’m unlikely to read the book. Does that constitute a valid critique? 🙂

      • Iola September 9, 2013, 6:33 PM

        It’s a valid critique of a paragraph masquerading as a subtitle.

        • Robert H. Woodman September 9, 2013, 7:28 PM

          😀

  • R. L. Copple September 9, 2013, 2:17 PM

    I’d add to the thoughts on the difference between a critique and offering an opinion/evaluation of whether to read a book, the following thoughts.

    I have done a critique based upon the first four or five chapters of a book I couldn’t finish. Of course, in that instance I wasn’t critiquing the whole book, just what I’d read. So I didn’t comment on overall plot and acknowledged the slight possibility that maybe it improves significantly in later chapters. But I do think it is possible to offer a critique on a segment, without reading the whole, sometimes.

    Also, there needs to be an acknowledgement that second hand sources can have it terribly wrong. Case in point: Harry Potter. The Onion ran a satirical piece on how Satanic groups and pagan religions were experiencing a surge of growth among kids and teens thanks to Harry Potter. Somehow this was picked up as if a serious article and its contents quoted (without knowing the source, obviously) by many reputable and trusted religious leaders as the motivation behind the anti-Harry Potter campaign. In that case, people’s trusted second hand sources failed them.

    Likewise, a couple of years ago, when the law allowing the Feds more power to censor internet piracy was being discussed, several accusations about the law were being thrown freely around by those against it. I finally went and read the bill myself. Discovered while there were valid concerns, about half of what had been said the law would do simply wasn’t true. IOW, bias is a big factor in second hand sources that can pass on untrue information simply because it supports their case.

    There are a lot of books and movies I’m not likely to ever read/watch. Like you, I don’t have time to read everything. My to-be-read pile has enough in it to keep my busy for some time. But, for instance, while I’ve heard that the Shack has some questionable theology in it, I’ve not read it. For myself, I’m unlikely to do so. If someone point-blank asked me my opinion on it, I would give it to them. But I’m unlikely to suggest to other people in a critique on my blog that they shouldn’t read it because so-and-so said it taught X, Y, and Z. I’d want to base a critique on an evaluation of the source data, so that I’m offering my own informed opinion on it, not paraphrasing second-hand sources, no matter how trustworthy they are perceived to be.

    But it is perfectly fine for me to base my own decision on whether to read something from such sources. We have to have some method to determine where we will spend our limited time.

  • janet September 10, 2013, 1:02 PM

    I agree on the validity of the difference between a critique and an opinion. I think either is valid if you state which you’re giving and why. If you haven’t read a book, you can certainly have an opinion and state it as such. I think if you wish to critique, you should have read the book.

    janet

  • janet September 10, 2013, 1:04 PM

    I agree that there’s a difference between a critique and an opinion. I think either is valid if you state which you’re giving and why. If you haven’t read a book, you can certainly have an opinion and state it as such. I think if you wish to critique, you should have read the book. I don’t ever plan to read “50 Shades of Grey” and could state why I won’t but can’t critique it unless I want to wade in the muck first. 🙂

    janet

  • Katherine Coble September 12, 2013, 1:49 PM

    I have a much-lampooned review of J.K. Rowling’s _A Casual Vacancy_ up on both Amazon and GoodReads. In it I clearly state how much of the book I read (not much) and how much I hated it (much much) and why I wouldn’t read any further. I then gave the book 1 star. Which means “hate it/ would not recommend”.

    I happen to think I’d be a less-credible reviewer if I sat all the way through a book I hated just to validate my 1-star for strangers.

    I think if you are upfront about how much you’ve read and why you are giving the rating you’re giving, then you’re golden. I guess I think that’s pretty much how you should review every book.

    Now CRITIQUE on the other hand, is different. You CANNOT discuss a theme or mood of a story if you haven’t finished it. A year ago I got into a conversation with someone who was insisting that the George RR Martin series _A Song Of Ice And Fire_ was without hope or redemption. That person made that decision after giving up partway through the first book. After reading fewer than a sixth of the material. You can’t have an unequivocal opinion of any work’s themes and structure if you haven’t read it. You just can’t. The way stories are structured works against that certainty.

    My dad’s favourite saying is “I don’t have to cut my arm off to know that it [cutting off an arm] hurts.” And that’s true. But if you don’t cut your arm off you can’t describe the feel of the saw as it moves through flesh, bone, flesh again. You can’t describe the feeling of the blood loss, the nausea as the pain blinds you. And that’s really what literary _critique_ is.

    • C.L. Dyck September 24, 2013, 4:55 PM

      “But if you don’t cut your arm off you can’t describe the feel of the saw as it moves through flesh, bone, flesh again. You can’t describe the feeling of the blood loss, the nausea as the pain blinds you.”

      I would modify that: That’s what doing critique on a book one dislikes is.

  • Heather Marsten September 15, 2013, 2:28 PM

    Critiquing a book you haven’t read may have the opposite effect intended. Before I got saved I was attending a local church at the time Harry Potter first came out. One of the members was in the pulpit critiquing the book – and I could tell she hadn’t read it, must have read a book that critiqued Harry Potter and parroted it. I had read the book and also had come from an occult background so I found the critique laughable.

    Fortunately I trusted the pastor and we talked a week later. He asked me what I thought about the critique. He knew of my occult background. I explained what was wrong with it. He then told me why he didn’t like the book. He said that Harry Potter does not have definite lines between good and bad, light and dark. That when the kids disobeyed their elders it was overlooked because the outcome was successful. That, unlike Lord of the Rings, one knew who was ethical and who wasn’t. That made sense to me.

    It is a hard call – to read a book or not. Once you read a book that is not godly you can’t forget the images evoked – so make your choices carefully. There are things you can’t unsee, or unread.

    • Steve D September 15, 2013, 5:15 PM

      “Once you read a book that is not godly you can’t forget the images evoked – so make your choices carefully. There are things you can’t unsee, or unread.”

      Oh please, there are tons of books that I have read over the years that I don’t even remember reading. It’s the truly exceptionally excellent books, I remember. Using your formula, there would be very few books that would pass your muster.

      • Heather Marsten September 15, 2013, 5:44 PM

        Steve, there are tons of books that are forgettable. The kinds I’m referring to may be specific to a person. While I’m finally healed of my past there was a time when I would be reading a novel and stumble on an unexpected scene that was too close to abuse that I received as a child. The images stuck in my mind even though I put the book aside. As time went by and I healed I am now able to read some of these things without a reaction. Granted that may be a specific case you don’t experience in your life, but it impacted me. And I am careful what I read – for example I doubt I would purchase or read 50 Shades of Grey. Then again, I wouldn’t critique it either because I haven’t read it.

        • Steve D September 15, 2013, 6:41 PM

          I wouldn’t read nor critique 50 Shades either. 🙂

  • Steve D September 15, 2013, 5:21 PM

    There is a term for those who would do a critique of a book/movie/concert/play/album and not interact with it: intellectually sloppy. If you don’t want to read it, then don’t mention it. Sometimes silence is much better than comment.

  • j November 14, 2013, 4:32 AM

    Am torn. I was going to say yes, you can because I completely dispise 50 shades without having read it in its entirity. But the reason I dislike it is because I know what happens and it essentially glorifies domestic abuse and paints the picture that ‘if you just keep showing him love eventually he’ll change’. I predicted that someone would get raped as a result of that book n sure enough few months later I read about a woman wanting to live out the fantasy n gettin raped. I also judge it for portraying those into kink as mentally ill (ie he was abused as a kid) where as the reality is actually that the more psychologically healthy participate in bdsm more often. So no you don’t.
    Having said that, the comminist manifesto I have read and reading it you gain a lot more insight. I used to think communism was automatically a bad thing, but no it’s got some good ideas. But the difference is, communist manifesto is an argument. U cannot decide whether someone is right or wrong without listening to their points. That’s the definition of closed mindedness – ie shutting your mind off to any alternative simply because it disagrees with what’s currently locked in your mind

  • Will Shetterly June 3, 2014, 7:39 PM

    You can proudly share your ignorance about something you don’t know anything about—ideologues do it all the time. But I wouldn’t call that critiquing.

  • Andy June 3, 2014, 9:49 PM

    I didn’t really read it, but this article was completely dumb.

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