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