Get Your Objectivity Out of My Reviews

Posted 10 August, 2012 by Amanda / 40 Comments

Note: this post is an attempt to further explain my own reviewing style and is 100% my personal opinion.  I am not asking anyone to agree with me, and it is not a critique or attack on people who have different views.

Objectivity is a myth.  Or perhaps it would be better put like this: life is subjective.  To explain why I believe this, I want to first step away from books and reviews, and talk about culture.  When I studied culture as part of my Master’s degree, it became apparent that our culture shapes who we are and how we think (the same could be said for language; but language and culture are virtually inseparable).  With my upbringing in the US*, no matter how much I know about my students’ countries, it is impossible for me to comprehend what my students are going through.  I have studied traditional Muslim cultures, for example, and I understand how segregated they are, how the female/male dynamic is set up, and how these things can affect a student’s experience in an American school.  But my instincts and thoughts are American in nature, and book knowledge alone is not going to help me counteract that.  I can be understanding, yes.  But both what drives me and what I expect from people are dictated by the environment and society in which I grew up.  In other words, I can’t separate my culture from who I am and what I believe.  This means that no matter what I do or think, I am inherently biased by my American upbringing.

Even more than being American, my experiences as a person also influence how I view the world.  No matter what I do, I am biased in some way.  Bias here is not negative; it simply is.  Understanding that bias exists is the first step in diminishing its power.  How this pertains to how I approach book reviewing is quite simple: I can never be objective when reading a book.  I have too many biases to be objective.  What I can do, however, is identify my biases in my review to explain why I felt the way I did about a certain book.

If objectivity existed, each book would be good or bad, and everyone would agree on whether that book was good or bad.  But guess what: we don’t agree.  You don’t have to go very far to see that people disagree (often times vehemently and angrily) about what constitutes a good book.  Even professional critics disagree over various books.  Every field has disagreements over which theories are the correct ones.  If objectivity existed, there wouldn’t be disagreements, because objectively, there would only be one choice that makes logical sense.

My reviews are entirely my own subjective opinion.  There is no objectivity.  I do, however, explain why I think what I do.  This allows me to identify my biases and give my opinion context.  I dislike love triangles, for example, so if I dislike a book because it has one, I will state this clearly.  This tells people who do enjoy love triangles that it might be a book for them.  Explaining my opinion is not being objective.  It does, however, make it easier for the reader of my review to determine why I liked the book and whether the book might be for them.  As such, my books reviews are personal reactions and the reasons behind those reactions.  If I say that a book is good, it means that it was a good book for me and for a specific set of reasons.  Someone else may like the same book for different reasons, or hate the same book for the same reasons I loved the book.  And that is subjectivity at its finest.

*I grew up in the suburbs as part of a white, middle-class family.  This is NOT the only culture in the US, but it is the one that I had, and when I mention my “American” bias, it is the white, middle-class, suburban culture to which I refer.

Filed under: Discussion,

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40 Responses to “Get Your Objectivity Out of My Reviews”

  1.  “What I can do, however, is identify my biases in my review to explain why I felt the way I did about a certain book.” <—EXACTLY.

    I hate when I try to force myself to be objective. It strips away what makes me "me" and if we all try to be overly objective, we're painted into a corner.

    I shall be referring myself back to this post in the near future. It will give me the kick I need to be subjective instead of objective.

    Thanks for the inspiration!

    • I honestly do not think it’s possible to be objective. I think you can try to look beyond your biases to be “more objective” but I think it’s more important to identify your biases rather than pretend they don’t exist.

  2. “identify my biases and give my opinion context” – what a concept! Our entire blogging experience is subjective. Each and every part of our blog mirrors who we are. How boring would it be if we all had the same opinions and feelings about books? That is why I love diversity in all aspects of life. It keeps things interesting.

    • Our reading experience is subjective, too. We take all our likes, preferences, and our life experiences into each book we pick up. Books might be our escape, but that doesn’t mean our outside world stays out completely.

  3. I actually used to try to be objective in my reviews. What I learned was that not only were they not accurately conveying how I felt about the book, but they were also sounding impersonal.

    It honestly took me a while to change this, though. I was so sure that objectivity is key, that objectivity=professionalism. It was a tough thing to break.

    • Professionalism comes into play with HOW you talk about your opinion, I think. If your whole review consists of, “OMG THIS BOOK WAS AWESOME YOU NEED TO READ IT, TOO!” that’s not professional. But if your review started off with something like, “This book had everything I look for in a book: well developed characters, a strong plot line, and engaging secondary characters” (or whatever it is about it that you liked) that is professional, especially if you go on to explain your thoughts.

  4. I feel like by default giving my opinion on a book is subjective. It’s MY opinion, and while I will sometimes acknowledge in my reviews that others may not feel the same way, I think it’s important that the review I’m giving is my honest opinion and not shaped or influenced by any outside factors. It would be so boring if everyone had the same thoughts, or ignored their personal preferences (everyone has them) in favor of trying to please both sides of the love it/hate it book argument. When I come to this blog, I want to know what you, Amanda, think about the book. Not what you think you should think about the book, or what other people think about the book, that would defeat the purpose entirely! I’m of the mind that your blog should be a reflection of you, and how would that be possible if you’re not comfortable being you and giving voice to your thoughts?

    • Yes! And opinions are, by their very nature, subjective. There’s no such thing as an “objective opinion.”

      I also think there’s a big difference between “This is a bad book,” and “This book didn’t work for me.” Does that make sense? The former sounds like an objective statement (even though it’s not) whereas the latter is a clear opinion.

  5. This is exactly the way I feel about objectivity and bias. I try to be aware of my biases, but I know that for every one I’m capable of acknowledging, there are a zillion that haven’t even reached my stratosphere. It’s like with statistics. Maybe you can’t argue with numbers, but you can look at the way the numbers were obtained, why they were collected in the first place, and how they were interpreted.

    With reviews, this article makes me think I should be more obvious about the fact that my reviews are my opinion. I think, for the most part, I assume that people know that. I wrote it, so of course it reflects what I think. I don’t think it would hurt to remind people, though.

    • I think it’s less about reminding people that “this is my opinion” and more taking care in how you phrase your review. Like the examples I used in my response to Jenny: “This is a bad book” and “This book didn’t work for me.” Both of these are opinions, but the latter looks and feels like an opinion, where the former could be misconstrued as something more objective when it’s not.

  6. The thing I love about book reviews is that a well written one can help you decide is the book in question is one that will appeal to you. If someone says that they didn’t like this book because of the excessive sexual situations, that’s usually a clue to *me* that I’ll like it. As you know.

    It’s all subjective. Things I like aren’t things that someone else will. I can’t handle books where an abused individual continually makes excuses for their abuser’s action – because I knew someone who did just that and it FLAYED me every time. However, I love blood and guts. Give me some viscera in a book and I’m a happy Kelly.

    You’re so right when you say that our experiences shape us. They make us look at the world (and books) in our own unique way. And that is wonderful.

    • Heh. Exactly! “This book didn’t work for me, as there was a lot of graphic sex.” And you’d be all, “I MUST HAVE THIS BOOK NOW!” And then I’d #GutterPass you.

      You and I approach writing reviews much the same way, I think. It’s just one of the many reasons why I wanted to have you as my associate reviewer!

  7. My reviews have changed quite a bit from when I started blogging back in 2009. Back then, it as more of a rehash of the book, with the odd personal thought tacked on the end — complete with the odd spoiler.

    Now, I try to explain my feelings about a book I read and review but am quite sure to express that these are only my feelings. If I write a review on a book I disliked, I know that there are plenty of people out there who will LOVE the book. In fact, the book I sent you is a prime example of this — everyone raved about it and I really didn’t like it. At all. But it was on your wishlist, so I had no qualms about sending it to you — you might love it, just like the other folks.

    What I really dislike it when I write a review outlining what I did and didn’t like in a book, being subjective, only to have people respond saying something like, “Well, obviously you don’t know good books because this is an AWESOME book.”

    *shakes head*

    I agree with Smash — I love that we’re all so different. If we all read the same books and had the same feelings for all of them, it just wouldn’t be any fun. I love discussing books with people, especially when the other person has differing opinions! If we all had the same opinion, it would be a very dull world.

      • I just had to go back and find the comment … it’s from my review of Shadowland, by Alyson Noel (posted a few years ago):

        “If you want to call it quits then you didn`t get the full effect of what this story line is really about, ,maybe you should re-read them and figure it out.”

        • First off, that’s just a rude comment. I hope you didn’t let it get to you.

          Secondly, that’s what I hate about people thinking in terms of objectivity. If a book is A GOOD BOOK, then EVERYONE WILL LIKE IT (because OBJECTIVELY, IT’S GOOD), which means that if someone doesn’t like it, then they’re stupid or vindictive. Or…whatever. And that’s NOT the case at all. What happened to agreeing to disagree?

          • It was a while ago and I remember feeling hurt that someone said it. But I approved it anyway. I think I’ve grown a thicker skin since then.

            I *like* the fact that if I like a book and you don’t like a book that we can have a healthy discussion over it, all based on our experiences and likes and dislikes. I mean, if a friend of mine hated, say, the Mortal Instruments books (which I love), I’m not about to call them out on it and end a friendship. I really hate how the veil of the internet makes people mean.

  8. One more thing.

    I personally think — and this is based on my own experiences — that when a book bloggers starts taking in review books, they start to become a little more objective than subjective. This is what happened to me. I tried to take out my own personal feelings about a book, thinking that that would be the professional way to do things, but then I got bored with writing reviews and bored with reading. I wanted to feel ALL THE EMOTIONS and express them in my review.

    Like you said, there’s a way to be professional about it and I hope that I can continue to be myself, be professional, and still enjoy the books I read.

    • For this, I’m just going to quote what Jenny said above, because it captures how I feel pretty well:

      “When I come to this blog, I want to know what you, Amanda, think about the book. Not what you think you should think about the book, or what other people think about the book, that would defeat the purpose entirely! I’m of the mind that your blog should be a reflection of you, and how would that be possible if you’re not comfortable being you and giving voice to your thoughts?”

      I also don’t think it is POSSIBLE to fully remove your personal feelings about a book from your review. You are much, much better off explaining your opinion/bias than pretending you don’t have one.

      • Yes! So true! I have to remember that! This is exactly why I’m phasing myself out of getting so many review books. I buy books because I think they look interesting. When I start getting review books, sometimes it’s because other people think I’d think they’re interesting, which leads to quite a few blah reads. Then I feel obligated to write something about a book that I just didn’t care for. I know I’m not the only one who feels like this, like they have to try and be positive when something is crap.

        It’s like my old piano teacher told me — always try to say something nice first. Even if a book sucked, I want to say something nice (even if there’s nothing nice to say at all). After one little girl played a horrible piece to my piano teacher, he took a breath and said, “That’s a pretty bow you have in your hair.”

        Sometimes books are the same.

        The sad thing is that sometimes people don’t see you being subjective, which is what leads to all that Goodreads crap — WE ARE ALLOWED TO LIKE AND DISLIKE THINGS! I don’t like tomato juice. Is someone going to barge into my house and force it down my throat? Or follow me in the grocery store to make sure it goes in my cart? NO! But, I’m allowed to have my opinion. Just like I can try tomato juice and say I don’t like it, I can read a book and say I don’t like it. So long as I express my feelings as to the why’s and don’t attack anyone, it shouldn’t matter. And, like you said, then you’re seeing ME on the blog. I don’t want to change myself into something I’m not.

        I may have veered off topic a little … sorry for the novel!

        • Actually, I’m going to track you down and force you to drink tomato juice because EVERYONE LIKES TOMATO JUICE, KRISTILYN!

          Kidding. I hate tomato juice, too.

          I would actually go so far as to say that your opinion is “purer” when you buy a book for yourself. When you accept review requests (especially from the authors themselves) there is a certain level of obligation to write something nice about a book–whether you feel that obligation consciously or not is another matter–even if you didn’t like it.

  9. Good post. I’ve had the trouble of trying to decide how much of my own opinion I should put into reviews. I.E writing I loved this book because it scratched my itch of the love of epidemics, versus saying this book does a great job of portraying epidemics and is well written. yadda yadda. Like I might put that it is well written and portrays it well in the review too, but should I say why I personally liked it.

    I think I personally have to put that in because I can’t seem to not write reviews that way, maybe that makes me a bad book blogger. lol

    • Well, if writing about your opinion in book reviews makes you a bad blogger, then I am an AWFUL AND TERRIBLE blogger. My reviews are my reactions to the book. I say what I liked and didn’t like about a book and why that is–often times with examples. To me, it’s impossible to talk about a book without discussing my reaction to it.

  10. I’m always amazed when people are surprised that someone disagrees with them because you’re so very right–objectivity is a myth. Someone’s going to feel differently than me. And, even if they feel the same, they feel that way differently than I do–they may love it or hate it but they don’t love or hate it in the same way I do.

    I’m joining you as an awful and terrible blogger, since my reviews are chock-full of my opinion. We’re not paid to review objectively (ha–not paid at all!) so why not infuse it with my personality, right?

    Fabu post!

    • I honestly don’t think that no personal opinion = objectivity. Because you have to have standards to judge a book by. Whose standards are they? Choosing one set of standards over another is a bias in itself. And having bias means you aren’t objective.

      Best to just tell it like you see it and go with it. We’ll be awful and terrible bloggers together.

      • Very true! And I’m with you in my bias, having grown up in a white, middle class family in the suburbs. Additional experiences also add to, changed, and (hopefully) broadened my perspective (as they do with everyone as they grow up). For example, for the past 11 years, I’ve worked in a very urban, Title I (lower income), predominantly African-American school in the South, which is pretty much the opposite of my upbringing. This makes my Libra sensibilities very happy, as it brings a bit more balance to my worldview (I think, anyway). Has this made me a better blogger? Maybe. Maybe not.

        Whatever. We’ll just keep tellin’ it how we see it, right? Awful, terrible bloggers unite!

        • Being an English teacher to international students (primarily Saudi, Chinese, and African) has changed a lot of my worldview. Or, at the very least, I’ve learned that people are greatly influenced by their culture. And that is something I’ve applied to life in general.

          I think there is something to be said about people who are able to see things from someone else’s perspective. I think it gives us that, “Well, I don’t agree with you, but I see where you’re coming from” idea that we need more of. I suppose even an “I respect your right to have an opinion that’s different from mine,” would be good. Sadly, I think we’re missing that last one.

  11. Ah, the Observer’s Paradox…perhaps the number one dilemma of social scientists everywhere! lol

    The best anyone can do is to be aware of their individual biases and to make those known, if necessary. For reviews, though? A review is, in its nature, the reviewer’s opinion. And you’re right, a person’s opinion cannot be objective.

    Good post! Seems to have sparked some good discussion. :)

    • Yes! THAT! Oh, the Observer’s Paradox. I feel like I’m in grad school all over again. >.< I was worried about this post, actually. But I am happy to see that it created the kind of discussion it did.

  12. Great post! I have had agents tell me that reading is subjective- because it is true. There are books that appeal to different people. My co-author and I love a lot of the same books, but there are books I love- that she hates and vise versa. It is important to say why we liked or didn’t like a book- so that others can take in the information and help them decide if they want to read it. I enjoyed this post!!

  13. Great post. I never really thought about it before but I totally agree. I think a big part of a great review for me is why someone did or didn’t like a book. As the love triangle you mentioned, it may not work for you because you don’t like that sort of thing. But, for me, who doesn’t mind it, it may be the best book I’ve read.

  14. Excellente! When I taught AP World History, bias/point-of-view was so important. The major essay the Document Based Question required you to analyze the bias of 10 documents, answer the prompt and identify an appropriate missing POV. It was really hard for sophomores to wrap their brain around it, because the only important POV is theirs.

    Great points on Reviews. 1) people need to get over not agreeing on books. I think it is part of the political/religious discourse (or lack of) that you have to agree with me or I hate you. 2) explaining your bias helps me as a reader understand you as a reviewer & make an objective decision based on what I like.

    “it just is” well said.

    • YES! Amy, I totally agree with you on #1. It’s that mentality that gets us into so much trouble.

      I’m also glad to know that high school students are being challenged to think about different POVs.

  15. Though I admit that I love to read the reviews that are mostly “this book is bad and here’s why” I could never write them. I’m not a black-or-white person. I think the best reviews can analyze all of the different moving parts and explain which of those generated the most response from the reader. I love seeing which parts of a book connected with different types of readers. I read reviews to see the differences in opinion, not just a rating.

    • I’ve always been a “This book didn’t work for me, and these are the reasons why” rather than “This book is bad and here’s why.” I think there are just so MANY reasons a reader can love or hate a book that as one person, I can only speak to my own experience. You know?

  16. What a great discussion!

    I don’t think there is a way to be totally objective we just have to much we bring into each book we read. We can try to be fair but that is about it :)