The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

Five stars?

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Drop into some Amazon site or an equivalent at some point and have a look at the reviews for fairly substantial books by reasonably substantial authors of a fairly solidly evangelical stripe. Or look at the endorsements on some of the slim volumes and weighty tomes that issue ceaselessly from the presses of more or less evangelical publishing houses.

I had cause to look at some reviews recently, and I still contribute my own from time to time. I also check out various new books and even get asked to consider writing an endorsement from time to time. I confess to being concerned by a lack of properly critical engagement that borders on the lazy on the one hand and the dishonest on the other.

With regard to reviews, it is far from unusual to see the fanboy reviews in which, because Author Smith has written it, it gets a five star review because … well, how could it get anything else? Either that, or some other book gets an absolute slamming because it is written by Author Jones, and it goes without saying that Author Jones produces nothing but unmitigated tripe. Has anyone stopped actually to engage with Authors Smith and Jones and to consider and assess their assumptions, reasonings, and conclusions? Another class of laziness is seen in those middling reviews in which the reviewer seems disappointed to discover that the book was not the one which he had been expecting, and still less the far better one he clearly would have written had a cruel world not deprived him of the opportunity. Really? How about judging the book on its merits and intentions, or would that require stepping away from pre-judgments and presumptions and necessitating a little careful and critical participation?

One is tempted to conclude that if this is the vox populi, then it really needs to get its act together before it makes a future pronouncement. I am not suggesting that every reviewer needs to be an expert, as if every response must be a genuine peer review, but such contributions really help no one and offer no valuable insights. I recognise, too, that most reviewers review because moved to do so by a strong reaction, which tends to skew the system. However, when so many ordinary books are awarded five stars or the equivalent, it devalues the whole rating system, and robs one of the ability to recognise the rare but genuinely outstanding title.

If anything, the situation is even worse when it comes to endorsements. Given the amount of written applause generated by some blokes, it would not be surprising to read in a future biography that Pastor Brown had dedicated the year 2015 to the perusal of unpublished manuscripts, while Professor Green was grateful to be offered a sabbatical for the same purpose in 2013. I know that a lot of the top men know and appreciate and esteem one another, and that there is some kind of pecking order to differentiate those of us who lie in the gutter gazing at the stars. In some respects, I don’t have a beef with that, especially with regard to rightfully earned credibility and genuine relationship.

However, whether it comes from the top of the tree or slightly further down among the branches, it is disconcerting to read of decidedly average books that they are destined to be instant classics, read for years to come. Really? How often has that actually been the case? Will some of these instant classic really be recognised as such in fifty or one hundred years time? We open the pages of a treatise which we have been guaranteed will revolutionise our spiritual life (such a claim should always provoke the raised eyebrow). We find ourselves confronted with recycled mundanities or eccentric novelties communicated in a decidedly flat fashion or with self-important extravagance. Perhaps more troubling is the kind of professional puff that announces a triumph of insight and a model of precision on the back of something that is anything but. One is tempted to ask, “Has Endorser McKay actually read this dangerously vague and evasive tosh?” One begins to fear that Endorser MacDuff may be a little too close to Author McTavish to give a properly thoughtful and careful endorsement, or that McTavish saw fit to hint to MacDuff that favours in kind were available in return for something generous. I have seen evangelical cheeses of the largest sort give two thumbs up to volumes which border on the suspect and even flirt with the heretical, though whether by accident or design cannot be discerned thanks to the ineptitude of the apparently “brilliantly perspicuous” writer in question. The good stuff may benefit from a few honest and reliable voices underlining its value. Derivative and diluted drivel is not worthy of entering the arena to the kind of fanfare reserved for an unusually unrestrained Wrestlemania. I have wondered how this strange state of affairs has come about, and whether or not anyone cares that said big cheese seems to have lost or suspended his alleged capacity for spiritual discernment.

I appreciate that an endorsement is not a review, but neither is it a hearty pat on the back for trying hard and failing. It is a commendation intended to demonstrate to the reading public that the book in their hands or on their screen is indeed worthy of their investment and attention. Surely all the more reason for endorsers, especially those who name the name of Christ, only to give their stamp of approval to those volumes that they have properly read, and then to do so only in terms that they could properly explain if asked to do so? When endorsements prove to be nothing more than overcooked soufflés, they provide neither flavour nor sustenance for those who hope to be nourished by them.

It would be grand if 2016 would prove to be the year of the thoughtful review and the sincere endorsement. For those of us who seek them, write them, or read and use them, surely honesty and integrity, fairness and openness, ought to be appreciated above all? Sure, they may not be as dashing or glowing as the vacuities we presently endure, but at least they will be true and substantial. So here’s to crisp and clear endorsements that carry weight, and to truthfully appreciative four star and necessarily stinging two star reviews! Here’s to a bit more honesty and integrity! May we cultivate a spirit of generous but genuinely critical engagement that serves authors and readers well, promotes the health of God’s kingdom, and reflects a desire for righteousness even in the smallest things.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 21 December 2015 at 09:30

Posted in General

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