Is a Book Review Just One Person’s Opinion?

“Readers are the best source for why a story works”

–Joey Hill

Are book reviews just opinions, like a preference for pastels, or bondage, or spicy food? Many authors seem to think so:

In an article for AAR written in 2000, Adele Ashworth writes:

“I think it’s safe to say that all authors care immensely about their readers, and write every single book in the hope of pleasing every single one of them. That isn’t possible, of course, when we’re talking about something subjective. … [E]verybody’s taste is different, including mine.”

And this from an Anon author in response to Ms. Ashworth:

“Here’s how I look at it: I get a review from Reviewer A, who reviews at a tough site that prides itself on telling it like it is, who I don’t know from Adam and, as far as I know, has no reason to suck up to me. She enjoys the book and says lovely things about it. I get a review from Reviewer B, who reviews at a tough site that prides itself on telling it like it is, who I don’t know from Adam and, as far as I know, has no nefarious plans to wreck my career. She hates the book and says unlovely things about it.

What transports Reviewer A into ecstasy absolutely incenses Reviewer B. What bugs the crap out of Reviewer B doesn’t even cause Reviewer A to bat an eyelash. Both are normal, intelligent people who believe they’re right and stand by their claim.

(Repeat this with Reader A and Reader B)

What does this ‘teach’ me, the author?

It teaches me that Reviewer A likes my book and Reviewer B doesn’t like my book.”

Gena Showalter writes (and at RtB):

“I realized that people simply have different tastes.”

Brenda Coulter writes:

“In general, a book review says more about the reviewer’s tastes than it does about the quality of a given book. On the surface, Janny’s comments might appear to be an indictment of my writing. But look closer and you’ll see that she’s really talking about herself. She’s telling us what she likes and does not like in a romance novel–and my book didn’t meet her standards.”

Author Ashley Ladd, while recognizing that there are unhelpful and helpful book reviews, agrees with her colleagues:

“As we keep telling each other and ourselves, book reviews are subjective.”

And here’s Angela James defending a Samhain author in a comment on a negative Dear Author review:

“…like everything, it’s subjective. You see from reviews that there are readers out there who love that book. It’s their feeling that it *is* in the foundation of a good story. But it’s probable that your perception of a good story and the reader who loves that book’s perception of a good story are widely varied. It doesn’t mean that either of you are right or wrong, just that you’re looking for different things in a book.”

Of course, authors are hardly alone in this view. Many romance reviewers feel just the same way. For example, you often see review sentences begin or end with “for me…” , or “to me…”.  Phrases like “it just didn’t work for me”, “I just don’t like choppy prose”, or “maybe you’ll have better luck” are common. On one of her first visits to my blog, Kristie(j) of Ramblings on Romance put this view very well:

“I consider what I do not so much a review as much as my thoughts on a book I’ve read. When I do, I want others to keep in mind it’s just my thoughts and if I didn’t really care for a book, it’s not that others might not like it. One person’s wall banger is another person’s keeper.”

What would it mean, exactly, for book reviews to be purely subjective? Well, it means that a review is just an opinion. What the review reflects is merely the way a reader feels about it. Even if a review is 1000 or more words, it boils down to a long winded “yuck!” or “yeah!”, very much like your reaction to a flavor of ice cream. KMont of Lurv a la Mode (and Phade mistress extraordinaire) expressly uses this metaphor:

“This is me, reclaiming the excitement of opening, absorbing and reporting back on an insanely tasty scoop of romance. Occasionally, we all come across a flavor that doesn’t quite sit well on the taste buds, and you’ll see some of that here too.”

I want to be as clear as possible about the specific claim I am targeting, because often these discussions deal with many interrelated issues at once. So here’s what this is NOT about: (1) whether some reviews are unprofessional, nasty, or insulting; (2) whether some reviewers are unqualified to judge a writer’s work; and (3) whether there are subjective aspects of any given review. Surely, all three claims are true.

Why do people think book reviews are merely subjective?

One argument in favor of the idea that reviews are purely subjective is implied by Anon author’s comment above. It’s the idea that because readers disagree with each other, there must not be any objective truth of the matter. Well, some people think the earth is flat, and others think pedophilia is a legitimate sexual preference. I don’t know about you, but in those cases the mere fact of disagreement is not enough to prove to me that no one can be right. It might turn out to be true that reviews really are mere opinions, but the fact of reader disagreement does not, by itself prove it.

Why might authors be motivated to view reader reviews this way? I think there are some very worthy motivations, many of which are apparent in the posts I excerpted. Authors seem to view making the claim “it’s just one person’s opinion” as a prologue to doing other important things, like putting negative reviews in context, bucking each other up, acknowledging the very human desire to be liked by everyone, suggesting strategies for dealing with criticism, etc. But you can do all of those things without thinking it’s true that reviews are purely subjective.

Readers, too, often have very good motives: they may not want to close off dialogue and discussion, they may want to respect others’ opinions, they may want to signal that they themselves are open to revising their own view, and they may not want to hurt anyone (authors by reducing their book sales, or readers by influencing them away from a book they might in fact really like). But all of these goals can be achieved without assuming book reviews are merely subjective.

(Are there other less benign reasons? Surely. For some authors, it’s ego, a need to always be right, and unwillingness to take criticism. For readers, it might be fear of disagreement, lack of self-confidence, or the desire to be liked, or to get more ARCs.)

So, what’s the problem with thinking that reviews are purely subjective?

Well, for one thing, it is often not consistent with other beliefs we have. For example, author Jill Monroe writes (hopefully tongue in cheek)

“If they like my book, they are wise, savvy, hip and intelligent. If they don’t like my book, they’re obviously having a very bad day.”

And in a comment on Ms. Showalter’s RtB post, author Ann Wesley Hardin writes:

“Generally I just tell myself they didn’t get it. That’s what it boils down to anyway. Then it becomes frustration rather than hurt and frustration, while still uncomfortable, is a lot easier to deal with.”

Obviously, there is a logical inconsistency in thinking that all good reviews are about the book, but all bad reviews are about the reviewer.

But there are other inconsistencies as well. For one thing, most authors have critique partners and editors. What do they take these people to be doing if not trying to make the writing better in some objective sense (not just “my editor/crit partner personally liked it more” or “it will sell better”)? Further, many authors will acknowledge very candidly (because many of them are very honest, observant, and highly reflective about the writing process) that their earlier work is not as good as their latest. What do they mean? They can’t possibly mean “more people like it”. No, they mean it is better in an objective sense.

How about readers (many of whom are authors, of course!)? They are often inconsistent, too. Many reviewers are afraid that if they believe their review is more than an opinion, they are somehow being intolerant. But the opposite is true. It’s only when you say: “This isn’t about the book. I’m merely reporting my feelings” that you have removed your review from any possible criticism.  Think about it: if all you are doing is reporting your feelings, you cannot possibly be wrong.  And nothing shuts down dialogue and discussion faster.

And if it doesn’t shut it down, it makes our engagement in it nonsensical.  I can’t argue with you about your feelings, and I cannot make them different. So what, for example, are Janine, Laura, Talpianna, Mojo and the rest of us doing in our long discussion of Patricia Gaffney’s To Have and To Hold? Are we merely reporting our personal feelings about the book over and over and over with every comment? Clearly not. I just don’t see how reviewers can consistently think all they are doing is reporting their opinion yet at the same time write the kind of long, careful, well defended reviews you find on all the blogs on my blogroll.

And, to make this point in its broadest possible sense, if it’s all purely subjective, none of us in the romance community — readers, reviewers, bloggers, authors, etc. — has a leg to stand on when we try to argue that people who paint the genre with one dismissive brush are wrong. No, we say, some of it — a lot of it — is really, objectively, good.

Some caveats:

–Does this mean I think every review is valuable? Absolutely not. Some reviews really should be dismissed (tellingly, we often dismiss reviews because they are “biased”, a claim which presupposes the possibility of objectivity).

–Does it mean I think every reviewer is great? Nope. I’m a much worse reviewer than Kristi(j) or Katiebabs, or Janine, or Read for Pleasure, or Ana and Thea, or many, many others, in part because I don’t know the genre as well, and in part because I don’t have the requisite experience doing it, and for a host of other reasons my ego kindly requests you not to force me to recite.

–Does it mean I think there is no subjective component to a review? Absolutely not. For one thing, the way a book makes you feel is important (and how to cash out the relation between the pleasure and pain we get in fiction and our judgments of it is really difficult. How do we make sense of claims like “I know this book is crap, but it’s like crack. I just enjoy it so much!”). I think it’s important for reviewers to be as transparent about the patently subjective components of a review as they can (“I was abused as a child and I cannot tolerate books about child abuse.”, or “I am so sick of vampires and will retch if I read about another one.”) and I also recognize that it’s not always easy to separate out these parts, experientially or even conceptually.

I don’t think subjectivism about the value of art is correct, and so I don’t think it’s the right position to take on most reviews (some reviews, yes, like the “squees”, and the “die, author bitch, die”). But that leaves us with the next big question, which is: Ok, miss smarty pants, how do you propose to go about specifying the nature of the objectivity in literature? What are the right standards and how do we know we are applying them correctly? Those questions are so hard to answer that many people fall back on subjective (or cultural) relativism just because they are so darn tired from trying. So I am certainly not going to try it here in this already way too long post (although I promise to make the attempt one day if anyone is interested in my views on that. Anyone? Bueller?).

But I do think the attitude that a review, any review, regardless of the effort and ability that went into it, is merely one person’s opinion, does not reflect well on authors who hold it, is disrespectful of the reviewers, and is diminishing to a genre which wants to be taken seriously as literature. I hope I have adequately explained why.

Published in: on October 8, 2008 at 1:02 am  Comments (24)  
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  1. As a READER I have mixed feelings about reviews because, quite frankly, I haven’t found a reviewer yet I can really “trust” to have a similar taste to mine.

    What makes me uncomfortable as a READER is when a not-so-great review is posted somewhere and a bunch of people comment with, “Thanks for saving me the money, ’cause I’m so not gonna get that now.” I MUST assume that those people know that that reviewer’s taste is along theirs and they know that. If I didn’t assume that, I’d have to ascribe more power to the review-as-sales-killer than there probably is.

    I bought a book based on a really good review by a reviewer I trust and I damn near threw up on it (but didn’t because it was on my ereader). So right now, I don’t know whether to trust that reviewer or not as to making purchasing decisions.

    As a WRITER, I’m scared to death to get a bad review, but I know I will, so que sera sera. I MUST think, “Reviewer A didn’t like it but Reviewer B did, so I got Reviewer B and that’ll have to do.”

    The “good review” = “good book” versus “bad review” = “author is a bad person” is, I think, a component of being human and, worse, female. We do that to ourselves and each other all the time.

    And if it doesn’t shut it down, it makes our engagement in it nonsensical. I can’t argue with you about your feelings, and I cannot make them different. So what, for example, are Janine, Laura, Talpianna, Mojo and the rest of us doing in our long discussion of Patricia Gaffney’s To Have and To Hold? Are we merely reporting our personal feelings about the book over and over and over with every comment? Clearly not. I just don’t see how reviewers can consistently think all they are doing is reporting their opinion yet at the same time write the kind of long, careful, well defended reviews you find on all the blogs on my blogroll.

    This, I think, is a component of using the work and the review as a springboard for deeper conversations. To that extent, the work is kindling, the review is the match, and the conversation that proceeds from that is the essential heat to discuss concepts and principles. The book gets left behind in the discussion and I don’t think that’s a bad thing regardless of the quality of the work or of the review itself.

  2. My goodness, you’ve given me a lot to think about. Well said, well structured and some very valid points. You get down to the heart of the matter when you write: “But I do think the attitude that a review, any review, regardless of the effort and ability that went into it, is merely one person’s opinion, does not reflect well on authors who hold it, is disrespectful of the reviewers, and is diminishing to a genre which wants to be taken seriously as literature.” That really is the crux of the situation, isn’t it.

    As a reader I read reviews with an open mind. But I do that with any review – weather it is a review of a television show, a movie, a restaurant, or a book. I’m interested in what other people have to say and of course the way that they say it. When I read a book review – and I don’t care who writes it – it could be a professional reviewer, an author, or a reader – I want the review to have, what I call, ‘back-up’. It doesn’t have to be elaborate – in fact I prefer if it isn’t elaborate. But I do need justifications – what I call – the ‘why of’. Why did you like it,or why did you hate it. That’s very important to me. As a person who sometimes reviews books I find that is the most difficult thing to accomplish; and for me requires separating my emotions long enough to discuss the book intelligently. If I love a book, I have to pick apart why I loved it – what made me keep turning the pages? If I didn’t like a book,I have to dissect what didn’t work for me.

  3. So I am certainly not going to try it here in this already way too long post (although I promise to make the attempt one day if anyone is interested in my views on that. Anyone? Bueller?).

    Me! Me! I’m interested!

    Ok, now I’ve stopped jumping up and down, waving my hand in the air and shouting “Me! Me!” as though I were still in primary school, maybe I can think of something useful to contribute to this discussion ;-)

    There are definitely some very objective things which can be pointed out in reviews e.g. spelling (although US and UK English spellings are different anyway), confused word choices (e.g. characters flaunting convention and flouting their eccentricity), continuity errors (how can the heroine have aged from 15 in the prologue when the hero last met her, to 21 when the hero next sees her, 10 years later?) etc. An author dismissing this sort of comment as “subjective” is just wrong (in my entirely objective opinion, of course).

    Some statements may report facts and the reviewer may then make a subjective judgement about those facts e.g. “the author spends 5 paragraphs describing the hero’s sin-dark hair, soulful eyes, stubbled chin and muscled chest every time the heroine sees him. I think this is excessive.”

    Then one gets into the more subjective e.g. “the hero and heroine felt like stereotypes and there was nothing to distinguish them from all the other tormented former spies who are now Dukes living a rakish life because their mothers/ex-fiancées were horrible to them, paired with feisty, innocent virgins.”

    And then there are the parts of reviews which MoJo describes as

    using the work and the review as a springboard for deeper conversations. To that extent, the work is kindling, the review is the match, and the conversation that proceeds from that is the essential heat to discuss concepts and principles. The book gets left behind in the discussion

    I’m not sure that the book always gets “left behind,” though that certainly can happen. More often, though, it feels to me as though when this sort of discussion takes place readers are dissecting the themes of the book in order to understand it better. The book wouldn’t be that book without those themes/concepts as its spine. In addition, though, the process of discussion is a way of exploring the basis for those emotional responses we have to the books we read, so we’re also discussing ourselves and our world-views, life experiences etc.

  4. I think it’s both – it IS one person’s opinion and that naturally will be subjective. But if it’s done well, then the ‘reviewer’ should be objective enough to give an unbiased outline of what the book is about; it’s good and bad points. For me the best kind of review is to be able to see beyond the reviewers personal thoughts on the book and be able to tell if it is one I would like or not like.
    A review like “this book is trash and I don’t know why anyone would want to waste their time with these characters” is utterly useless to me. As is “this book is one of the best books I’ve ever read in my life and everyone should read it!!!!!” (which *laughing* is kind of what I did in my last one)
    But
    I need details, what is so objectional about the character that the ‘reviewer’ can’t stand them, or what is so wonderful about the book (which hopefully *another grin* is what I did) that would make me want to read it.

  5. My first question is: what is the difference between an ‘amateur’ and a ‘professional’ reviewer? Salary? Working for a reputable literary journal, magazine etc? Advanced literary training? Love of the genre? There have been reports that Affaire de Coeur magazine based reviews on ads bought, not necessarily on the relative merits of the books in question. There are bloggers who prefer to give positive reviews in order not to hurt feelings. Why are reader bloggers presupposed to have less validity than others?

    Human beings are, generally speaking, clanninsh. We form groups based on a variety of similar interests, outlook or relationships. Outsiders are suspect. IMO, readers and writers in the romance community often seem to be on opposite sides. Which is too bad. I think all readers start a new book wanting to enjoy it. Romance bloggers come from a starting point of loving the genre. To assume that negative reviews are because we reader/reviewers ‘don’t get it’ is insulting.

    When I write about books on my site I aim to give enough details about why I liked or disliked the book & its overall impression on me. Basic plot structure. I don’t grade my reviews, I prefer to leave that to my reader. I aim for honesty and clarity and I only discuss the book, not the author. I don’t always hit my target. Sometimes I make mistakes, which I’m happy to correct. But I hope my love of reading is apparent in all of my posts.

  6. Kristie said:

    A review like “this book is trash and I don’t know why anyone would want to waste their time with these characters” is utterly useless to me.

    I wrote a review kind of like that here: http://moriahjovan.com/mojo/book-review-married-to-a-rock-star. Now, I had reasons for saying, “this sucked and you’re wasting your money,” but I thought they were valid reasons.

    That said, I’m not really a reviewer nor, after my five whole forays into it, do I care to be. It’s too much effort when all I personally need is thumbs-up or thumbs-down.

    bookwormom said:

    There are bloggers who prefer to give positive reviews in order not to hurt feelings.

    And then there are bloggers who only review books they liked, which should simply be stated up front. Whether they give a comparison list of books they read but didn’t review could be an indicator, I suppose, but the reviewer shouldn’t be obliged to do both.

    At the end of the day, I’ll seek a review if I had issues with a book (good or bad) to see if anybody else had the same reaction I did. I do NOT like reading reviews of books I want to read because then I feel like my view of the book is tainted and I’ll enjoy it or not based on someone else’s opinion. I can’t divorce myself from that, but I’m very new to the romance reader community and am only just now figuring that out.

  7. Laura, Marisa, Kristie(j), Mojo, Bookwormom — Thank you. You’re all saying things I agree with, so you must be right!

    All I’m trying to say in this post, agreeing with Kristie, is that while a book review is certainly partly a report of the reviewers’ feelings about a book, good ones are more than that: they offer criteria, “back up” as Marisa says, for their take on a book.

    I haven’t said yet what I personally think those criteria are or should be (I will try, Laura), and I think the deep conversations we get into that Mojo mentions are partly about defining those criteria (I think ethical evaluation of literature is acceptable, so I think rape in romance usually makes the romance less good, but others think ethical assessment has no place in assessment of art, so they disagree).

    I think even when we agree about criteria (maybe we ALL agree that purple prose is bad) but we can’t agree on whether a particular passage IS an example of purple prose: you say yes, I say no.

    I don’t think there are hard and fast answers to these questions “in the sky” or something, but when we have these discussions, we are working with objective criteria.

    I love to read a reader’s enthusiasm — Kristie’s recent “pimping” of a book she loves made me go out and buy it — but I don’t know Kristie, so the gushing alone would not have convinced me. Instead, I was led to do it by the combination of gushing, her reputation, and by all the good objective reasons she gave in her long review about why this particular book was so good.

    Maybe an analogy with my teaching evaluations will be helpful: sometimes students just hate me for any number of reasons that have nothing to do with me. I dismiss those evaluations just like the authors in the post dismiss some reviews. But other times, students make really good critical points. For me to say, “I have a PhD. I’ve been doing this for a decade. What do they know?” would be really wrong: I would be disrespecting them and shortchanging myself.

    Of course, I just wrote that not every student offers helpful feedback, whether positive or negative (“Jessica for President!”, which someone honest to gosh wrote once, is not helpful.). And this goes to Bookwormom’s point: which are the good reviews, and which aren’t? I don’t know how to answer that, but I don’t need to prove that all reviewers are good ones, just that it’s false that they are all mere opinions.

  8. Jessica- I hope you continue to post on this theme, I find the conversation thought provoking and enjoyable. :)

  9. MoJo: *laughing* I should have been more clear. There’s nothing wrong with saying that if you go on and explain why you feel that way about a book. I’ve read those kind myself – but very rarely thank goodness. I suppose I was thinking of those kinds of statements on some of the Amazon reviews(????) It’s helpful when someone says they can’t stand a book and explain why not.
    I read the review in question and I thought you did a great job in telling why you couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t either just from reading the review :)
    And as Jessica says – in my most recent review I knew I had to do more than just gush – though I did do a lot of that *g*. Just gushing alone doesn’t work for me either. Just as I need to know what makes a book so bad, I also need to know what makes a book so good.
    But as I mentioned – this book is very dark in places and for some readers, dark just isn’t what they look for in romance.
    So really – one can’t separate their subjectivity altogether when writing a review.

  10. Where is this gush? Linkage, please.

  11. Never mind. I found it. No, wait. It found me. Like one of those fruit gushers my kids like. ;)

  12. MoJo~ Here’s the link to Kristie’s post. I have to say, I’m planning to buy this one myself, based on her review.

  13. Thanks, bookwormom. I found it intriguing but I have to be in the right mood for that much heartbreak, so I’ll buy it but I can’t guarantee when I’ll read it. :D

  14. thanks for hooking Mojo Up, Bookwormom.

    I just came across this relevant post by Limecello at TGTBTU on reviewing and objectivity. It deals with some overlapping issues, and I thought readers of this thread might be interested if they hadn’t seen it.

  15. Well, I have said before that reviews are opinions and I stand by that statement. Some of them are informed, well-thought out, well-presented opinions and some are not, but they are still only opinions.

    Yes, it’s true, that occasionally a reviewer can point out something that is objectively an error, like a misspelling or a grammatical error. Very, very rarely, you can find something even more major, like the continuity error I recently mentioned in a review (It was a scene in which characters who had already met in an earlier scene introduced themselves and said “Nice to meet you.”)

    But those instances are rare, especially for me since these days I often review ARCs, and therefore can’t mention the spelling errors since the hope is that they will not be there in the final copy of the printed book. And even when they happen, they are often not the issues readers most care about or want to know about in a review. These instances don’t comprise the bulk of what I read in book reviews and so there simply aren’t enough of them to convince me that reviews are objective rather than subjective.

    I think it’s entirely possible for two reviews of the same book to be informed, well-reasoned, and well-written and still disagree strongly about the book. That’s because different readers have different priorities for their criteria of what makes a book good.

    Take for example myself and my friend and fellow Dear Author reviewer Jayne. I happen to know from conversations with Jayne is that one of the things she most enjoys is a romance with an unusual plot or setting. If a book doesn’t at least have one or hopefully both of these things, it is very likely to disappoint her.

    As for me, while I enjoy a fresh plot and an unusual setting, the author’s use of language and the depth of the characterization are more important to my enjoyment of a book. Consequently I can even enjoy a book that has a setting which has been used many times and a plot that isn’t particularly unusual if the language feels fresh or better yet, lyrical, and if the characters feel fully fleshed and multidimensional.

    A book could be set on the Galpagos island and have a plot full of unexpected twists and turns, but if the language itself feels cliched and the characters seem flat, I will feel like I’ve read it all before and will not make it past chapter two.

    A book could have complicated, multidimensional characters and the writing could be sheer poetry, but if it’s set in Regency England and the setup is a very familiar one (say, pairing a bored and aimless rake with a virgin who becomes his mistress to save her family from starving), there’s a good chance Jayne wouldn’t be able to finish it.

    It’s not that Jayne likes cliched writing or that I like cliched setups, it is just that the degree to which these things bother each of us is different, and therefore so are our priorities. There are times when I think a book is pure genius and Jayne thinks it’s meh, and vice-versa.

    Who is right in these cases, Jayne or myself? The truth is that there is no objective right or wrong. Our reviews are reflections of our selves and our tastes. We are different people, so the grades we give to the same books are often different too.

    Which is why, though I agree that not all reviews are created equal, I still see even the best ones as subjective.

  16. Janine,

    Thanks for your comment! I agree that there is an ineliminably subjective element of reviews, and I agree that things like spelling are probably the most objective features on a sliding scale, but I also think there are a lot more objective elements besides the few you mention.

    Have you ever read a book and thought, “Hmm. I did not enjoy it at all, but I do agree that it is an excellent book.”

    What do you make of the status of the claim “but it is an excellent book.”?

  17. For one thing, most authors have critique partners and editors. What do they take these people to be doing if not trying to make the writing better in some objective sense (not just “my editor/crit partner personally liked it more” or “it will sell better”)?

    I can’t speak for other writers but for me, the process of having my writing critiqued is a very interesting exercise in trying to differentiate the criticism I agree with and can use from the criticism that I can’t use. I’ve taken a fair number of writing workshops and classes, so I’ve had my writing critiqued by many people, and what I find is that often the most helpful comments were those who came from people whose tastes and sensibilities were most similar to mine.

    Those writers and beta readers were more likely to understand what I was going for, whereas there have also been writers whose goals for their own writing are so different from my goals for mine that they could not understand my aims and used their own aims as guidelines, which resulted in critiques that tried to steer my writing in a direction that was not where I wanted it to go.

    Some writers will even say outright that they can’t evaluate a classmate’s writing because it’s in a genre they avoid since they don’t care for it.

    When it comes to catching grammatical or spelling errors almost any well-read reader can be helpful, so there’s no such thing as a completely useless critique, but there are certainly critiques that have as many unhelpful comments as helpful ones.

    And then there are the times when even the best of crit partners have a difference of opinion. I am incredibly fortunate in my crit partners Sherry Thomas and Meredith Duran. I think they are both extraordinarily talented writers and insightful critiquers, yet in their most recent critiques of my my current manuscript, there was a paragraph one of them loved and the other suggested I cut. Is one of them right and the other wrong? Or is it simply a matter of taste?

    IMO even when it comes to critiqing, at least once a writer has some technical proficiency, it really comes down to subjective opinion. Yes, writers are trying to make their writing stronger and better when they ask for feedback on their manuscripts, but even then, what they are hoping for is that the end result will be better according to their own standards, not standards that conflict with theirs.

    We can all improve as writers, yes, but that improvement process is intertwined with our own subjective tastes. When writers start trying to please everyone indiscriminately, the writing usually suffers.

    To produce good writing, I have to set a high bar for myself, and for me that bar comes from a vision of what I hope that work will be. That vision is subjective, and it is based on having read books I have loved in the past, and chances are that people who don’t love those books won’t love what I produce, either. No writing is universally loved, and there is no universal agreement on what is great. So even when we try to improve, it is always along a subjective trajectory.

  18. Have you ever read a book and thought, “Hmm. I did not enjoy it at all, but I do agree that it is an excellent book.”

    What do you make of the status of the claim “but it is an excellent book.”?

    This is an embarrassing admission because it may point to some arrogance, but the only times what you are describing has ever happened to me were with books whose aims were to frighten or disturb or discomfit the reader. Books like J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbaraians or Golding’s Lord of the Flies. I found them very bleak, but I believe they were intended to be. I could not precisely enjoy them because they weren’t meant to be enjoyed, but I did recognize their quality.

    But it has never happened to me with a romance, that I couldn’t enjoy it at all yet thought it an excellent book. I’ve had it happen, very recently, that I found a book beautifully crafted in terms of its language, but the characterization did not ring true to me, so I could not consider it a good book. I recognized that in many ways it was stronger than most books in the genre, but its weakenesses were glaring enough that I could not give it a favorable review, even though I understood why many other readers had loved it.

    But that is not the same as what you are describing. With romances, because their aim is to be enjoyable, and because I am analytical, I am almost always able to analyze my own reactions and pinpoint why I don’t enjoy the ones I don’t enjoy. And when I pinpoint why the book did not work for me, I see that as a weakness, and therefore I can’t see the book as excellent.

  19. Hey Janine,

    I love the insight you provide into the writing process. And your first comment brings in the importance of a writer having her own voice, which is an angle I hadn’t thought of.

    I think my comment about critique partners is compatible with all of your points. When you say you don’t take everyone’s advice, b/c you have to be true to your vision for the work, I would see that as you knowing that not all advice is good advice and that only good advice will make the work better.

    The claim that there is objective value in literature is different form the claim that every book has to instantiate the same set of values to be good. Something may work for someone else’s book but not yours. Objectivity doesn’t mean one universal set of qualities or standards. Just like people can be good in all sorts of ways (one is generous, one is brave, one is kind) so can books. But those people are really, objectively, those things, just as the books are.

    What you jokingly refer to as possible arrogance, I see as your conviction that you have a pretty good idea of what is good in romantic fiction, and whether you are a reader or are a writer taking criticisms, you can separate the wheat from the chaff. You are saying that in romance, but perhaps not in other genres, your subjective taste maps pretty well onto objective excellence. And that would no surprise me at all in your case.

    Is that arrogant? Is it arrogant to think you know something about a genre you have been reading for years and are a writer and critique partner in? Not in my opinion. It’s just knowing what you know. And it’s not arrogant as long as you recognize all of the subjective elements that make the reader-author encounter so rich and fruitful, and so personal, which you clearly do.

  20. This is such a great post, Jessica. I agree with much of what you and the other commenters have stated here regarding the subjectivity of book reviewing. I may be simply repeating what others have already stated, but I thought I’d still offer my thoughts on the topic as well.

    I love to read romance, YA, and fantasy fiction and review books on my personal blog for fun. I personally find it difficult to write a purely objective book review on a fictional book. I try to be as objective as possible, but it’s almost impossible for me to remove my personal response to a story from my assessment of its quality. Obviously a book has to be written well as far as it’s structure, character and plot development, grammar, conflict resolution, et cetera, but after that, how much I enjoy a book is often personal preference.

    In any case, I think a reviewer should always include an explanation of what they did or didn’t like about the book, so I at least can determine whether or not those reasons are enough to stop or encourage me to read the book for myself.

    I recently reviewed a book on my blog that moved me so strongly because of personal experiences and I knew it would be impossible for me to be objective in a review. I wrote the review anyway but made sure that it was clear in the beginning of my post that I knew I couldn’t be completely objective. I figure someone could still get something out of my review regardless, so I went with it.

    Again, very interesting topic, Jessica. Thanks for posting it!

  21. Jessica,

    I read your excellent post but really just skimmed the other comments (sorry, meaty discussion but I’m running out of free time today :).

    You’ve hit upon the true challenge for a reviewer. How to acknowledge your own triggers (I love the unintended pregnancies, I’m so embarrassed to admit) but still write an opinion that is of some worth in describing the book to someone else. How to balance and reveal your own subjective responses while still dealing with the objective strengths and weaknesses of the work. I haven’t seen it laid out quite so clearly anywhere else. Thanks.

  22. What you jokingly refer to as possible arrogance, I see as your conviction that you have a pretty good idea of what is good in romantic fiction, and whether you are a reader or are a writer taking criticisms, you can separate the wheat from the chaff.

    Yes, but I do this according to a set of criteria formed personal likes and dislikes that are at least somewhat subjective.

    You are saying that in romance, but perhaps not in other genres, your subjective taste maps pretty well onto objective excellence. And that would no surprise me at all in your case.

    You make me blush. But no, I think what I am saying is that it feels to me as though my subjective tastes map onto objective excellence. But how am I to know that that is actually the case? I think it would be arrogant to believe that.

    Is that arrogant? Is it arrogant to think you know something about a genre you have been reading for years and are a writer and critique partner in? Not in my opinion. It’s just knowing what you know.

    Oh, I know I know something about the genre. But that to me is not the same as thinking my preference for books is more than an informed, thought-out opinion.

    And it’s not arrogant as long as you recognize all of the subjective elements that make the reader-author encounter so rich and fruitful, and so personal, which you clearly do.

    But here I come to the crux of this issue… those subjective elements are such a strong part of the mix in reviewing that it’s not uncommon to have two equally qualified reviewers disagree strongly (We often do it with our dueling reviews at DA).

    So yeah, there’s a part of me that feels strongly that I recognize the wheat from the chaff. And that part can be very useful in reviewing as well as in the writing process. But I think that were I to allow myself to forget that so much of what we each consider good is subjective, it really would make me pretty insufferable, and I might be more closed minded when it came to seeing the strengths and weaknesses of each book. I hold onto my humility because it, too, serves an important purpose.

  23. Very interesting article! I have a hard time with reviews in general because while I sometimes like a reviewer’s opinion if it is well written and thoughtful, I also like to make up my own mind. That’s why I tend to look for overviews of books, or very short summaries. If those aren’t sufficient, I will look for additional information about the book.

    But you’re right when you say that a review depends largely on the reviewer’s reading taste; there are some people who will just not like a book no matter how good it is. I know that I’ve read some supposedly ‘amazing’ books but couldn’t stand them. I think that everyone (even the most professional reviewer) can get like this at times. Though it is my firm belief that a good reviewer can provide a review that is not entirely opinion (meaing it is grounded in fact as strives to be somewhat objective)

    Thanks so much for the great post!

  24. Janine said:

    But I think that were I to allow myself to forget that so much of what we each consider good is subjective, it really would make me pretty insufferable, and I might be more closed minded when it came to seeing the strengths and weaknesses of each book. I hold onto my humility because it, too, serves an important purpose.

    I agree completely. It’s one thing to believe, as I do, that there are objective standards out there (with differing interpretations, etc.) but another to think you know them all. Humility is not only an endearing and valuable moral attitude in and of itself, it’s likely to enhance your objective judgments.


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