Monday, July 11, 2011

Discussion: Are book reviews objective?

Wow, my first post in blogger's new template. What a thrill. 

I was going to type a review up on Friday, but I'm getting the exhaustion I felt in the first trimester back. I've heard that's fairly typical with one month left. Go, me. Anyway, we had our baby shower on Saturday. Sunday we spent the whole day organizing the gifts we received and cleaning out the baby's room, and buying some of the last things we needed (bottles, pacifiers, etc). It's nice to have the baby's room look like a baby's room rather than a dumping ground for stuff that has no home. Now all we need is the baby... 

I know all of that is beyond fascinating, so lets get on with the discussion, shall we? 

This week I've been thinking a lot about the purpose of book reviewers. It's interesting, because the more I look at the blogs on my google reader, the more I realize that there are generally two different kinds of book reviewers - the people who do it for fun, and the people who do it because they want something out of it (a job, attention, free books, a purpose for their free time, etc.). Neither one is any better or worse than the other, it's just interesting to note some of the motivations it seems as though certain book reviewers have. 

It makes me wonder what the role of book reviewers really is. Do you think many people who aren't somehow related to reviewing, writing or publishing actually read book review blogs when trying to decide on a book to read, or do you think most review blogs have an audience of individuals who run other review blogs? 

Another thing I realized is that some book reviewers are friends with some authors, which brings to mind the next, most obvious question: Do you think many book reviewers are objective as they should be when reviewing, or do you think objectivity doesn't really matter in this book blogging sphere? 

I should also note that I'm not trying to pick on anyone, nor am I trying to stir up some drama. I'm just asking questions about stuff I've been observing recently and I'm interesting in what YOU think about it. 

17 comments:

  1. I'm also going to note in a comment that I think I might really, REALLY hate blogger's new template. it took me about 40 minutes to get this to post, when it normally takes about a second. Then, I went to edit my typos and fantastic grammar issues and the stupid thing wouldn't post my fixes. Thus, you get what you get in this post and I apologize for it looking like a 13 year old wrote it.

    I should also note that I fall into the second group of bloggers I mentioned above, as I get something out of blogging. I do it for fun, but I mostly do it because I love feeling like I have a community of people who care about reading as much as I do.

    Other than that, I have no answers. Just questions....

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  2. I write book reviews because I like to read and I like to write. Sometimes I review books I got for free. Sometimes I get paid for it. Sometimes I just do it because I read the book, which I own, and I wanted to talk about it. I read book reviews normally AFTER I've read a book. It helps me to see the book from someone else's perspective and allows me to enter into a "conversation" with the person about the book. It provides enrichment for my reading experience.

    I don't care if I know the person or not, I write how I feel about the book. I try to write balanced reviews, though, with some positives even if I didn't like the book that much.

    The biggest thing I get out of blogging, writing, reviewing... is that sense of a "conversation" and a "community." :)

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  3. I haven't been book blogging very long, but I have thought about this occasionally. I started my book blog to have a place to talk about books, and to be able to have more interaction and conversation with other book lovers. I doubt I will ever get a job, or free books out of the deal.

    Which then means that the only books I review are books that I bought, (or that were occasionally given to me be friends). And since I only buy books that I already think I'm going to like, the majority of my reviews come out positive, because I read a book that I was already 90% sure that I was going to love.

    That doesn't end up seeming like it is very objective, in an overall sense, because then my blog comes across as the "Paula Abdul" of the book world, but it is what it is, I guess!
    ;o)

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  4. It's funny, but to comment on the objectivity thing. I've reviewed a few books for authors I've spoken with or twittered with ect. I always link them when I post the review so they can see it, and in a number of instances they were negative reviews, or at the very least middling ones. Same goes for books I got sent by PYR. Chris and I try to operate off a platform of complete honesty. If we don't like a book then we'll tell you why and whether the author reads the site be damned. I'd rather the readers of the site have a clear idea of what they are getting into with a book, than try to please the author with a good review.

    As to the first point, I believe that Chris and I mostly do this for fun. We've only ever gotten a few books for free/review, and mostly we just love geeking out about this stuff and talking about it.

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  5. I think all reviewers are subjective. You're bringing your own tastes to the book. What I enjoy about reading the blogs is finding those who like the sort of stuff I do to give me some new ideas or a heads up. It's also a good way to get a consensus when the next big thing gets universally bad reviews it saves me time.

    I'm just happy to browse and not blog myself :-)

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  6. I've been terrible about reviewing for oh....8 months now. When I was reviewing regularly, I gave my opinion of the book. I don't think book reviews should be objective because they are a review. It's not journalism. It's, "This is what I thought of the book." I like honest reviews. Not everyone has the same tastes in books so naturally it's kind of fun to find opposing viewpoints on books. Makes life more fun.

    I hope your last month is ok. I think it's going to be great when you finally see the little one. :)

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  7. I think that objectivity in reviewing is a farce, and in the case of pretty much all blog reviews, something that should be avoided at all costs. The greatest strength of blog reviews is that they are written by individuals - individuals who tend to be fans first rather than the trained literary types in it for profit (however small that was) who traditionally wrote reviews before the internet came along and turned the world upside down.

    I want reviews to have personality, I want the individual's perspective (albeit an intellegently and well-written perspective). It's all about personal taste and what works best for me may be what works least for someone else.

    Sure, there is the place for the more objective, critical style review that removes itself from the individual writing the review - but that is generally not what I'm after. And that is (usually) not the strength of bloggers.


    As for audience, the longer I've been a review blogger, the fewer reviews I actually read. And almost never before I've read the book before. Judging by daily visits and RSS feed subscriptions, many hundreds of people read my blog regularly. I find it hard to believe that any more than a vocal minority are fellow book bloggers.

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  8. Book reviews inherently can't be objective, because it's one person giving their subjective opinion of an art. You can never be objective with art, because there's no one criteria for what succeeds and fails. No book reviews are objective, no matter how prestigious the venue.

    As to motivations to review, it's a mix of many different things. I review because I love talking about books, and, if I didn't review, I'd still say all the same things, only to people that don't care. I do it because I love the idea of people reading my writing. Because I want a "home base" website of sorts to link my bibliography. Because I think genre blogs are fantastic, and spend so much of my time reading them, and always wanted to be a part of that community. But, and perhaps it's just because I'm weird, those things are what's fun for me. I have reasons, yes, but I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't enjoy it.

    Finally, a question: why does it matter (if/that) most readers are also reviewers? Are they somehow less of a reader, then? This reminds me of how I frequently see alarmists talk about how so many readers of short stories are writer. But why does the fact that I'd like to publish a story in F&SF or that I publish my own reviews somehow invalidate or detract from my enjoyment of the stories already published there or the other blogs I read?

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  9. I'm a writer and I never even knew about book blogs until I started writing a novel. I like them, but most don't review books I'm in to. I find a lot, at least so far, do YA or Paranormal and that's great, jut not my usual thing. I hope they're objective but it can be hard especially when you know the author's going to read the review.

    I do book recommendations on my blog because I find I'm not great at reviews but I'm good at gushing.

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  10. Nathaniel,

    I, personally, don't think it matters a bit whether or not most readers are reviewers or not. I just thought it was interesting to think about, for some reason. Sometimes I wonder about weird stuff, lol.

    On an aside, I'm LOVING all the perspectives I'm getting with this discussion. Thanks, guys. You're all making me think about stuff in a different way, which is what I'm after when I do these. I

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  11. I have a two part response to this discussion prompt. The first gives an objective answer to your titular question, "Are book reviews objective," along with an explanation. The second is to explain why I, who do not write formal book reviews or have a review blog, like read reviews.

    In short, no, book reviews are not objective. Unless a book review is based solely on grammar, spelling and puncutation, which have strictly defined rules, it cannot be objective. By definition, "objective" (adjective form) is "5. not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts; unbiased: an objective opinion." [Dictionary.com, unabridged - based on Random House Dictionary, Random House, 2011.]

    Reviews are personal critiques by critics and are by nature, subjective - "pertaining to or characteristic of an individual; personal; individual: a subjective evaluation."[same source]. That is what makes them useful! The flow of novel is bound by personal taste. What sails along for someone who adores flowery prose might drag for someone who wants action all the time. What feels like great character depth to one person, might feel like way too much boring information to another. Intricate plotting to one person can be confusion for another. How a person perceives a story is completely subjective to that person's experience and tastes.

    I read reviews, whether they are of books or movies or appliances in two ways. The first is the collective average rating. This can be numerically represented, as one can find on Amazon, or Internet Movie Data Base, or Consumer Reports. If I want to know about a specific item, I go to one of those types of sources and base my decision on which items got high ratings with a large number of reviewers. It's a majority rules process.

    The second is a more complex and often more satisfying process - it works well for movies and books. I read many reviews over time from specific reviewers and read the books (or watch the movies) they review and compare my subjective opinions to their subjective opinions. If I agree with a particular viewer more often than not, then I come to rely on the reviewer for good advice. That doesn't mean I never disagree with a review from a reviewer I've come to trust, but it does make it much more likely that I'll enjoy a book or film that person has reviewed.

    In summary, I would not want reviews to be "objective." That would make reviewing useless to anyone but the reviewer (the whole fun thing) AND the reviews would all be the same. How boring!

    - Julie

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  12. I'm going to side with Neth, objectivity is nice but its truly hard to be objective all the time. Our own pet peeves and choices also come in to play. For example I remember you didn't like PVB's The Desert Spear a whole lot but you gave your reasoning why and that was enough for readers(including me) to understand why you felt that way. I on the other hand had liked the book a lot and those reasons didn't bother me that much.

    It all comes down to each blogger's tastes. I guess what I want to say is that objectivity is a bit hard to define but so long as each and every one amongst us is being honest in their reviews, the readers wouldn't mind the conflicting reviews as hopefully none of us wants to be the next Harriet Klausner right?

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  13. I have not been a book blogger all that long. For the objectivity of a review to me I side with Neth as well. I like reviews that have substance to it. Not like you are just reading an expanded synopsis.

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  14. I think that book reviews are never objective. Not really. I think that there's little room for objectivity in book reviewing. A review is one reader's emotional, critical and analytical response to a book, as written down for personal reasons as well as the desire to share those thoughts. Objectivity does not belong in that field. However, honesty does. As long as you're not lying (or lying to yourself), you are just presenting your response to a book. Then it doesn't really matter if you know the author, or if you got the book for free or you're an amateur blogger or... whatever.

    As for who reads the reviews, I think that it's a mixture of other reviewers and readers. Seeing as every book blogger has slightly different tastes and a slightly different approach to literature, it's unsurprising that other bloggers would want to read more and more. Meanwhile, readers want to find reviews. I've often searched for books reviews of books before reading them, whether on sites like Amazon and Goodreads or on various blogs (even before I had a book blog).

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  15. There are two ways in which you can apply objectivity to book reviews. Certainly, we are not objective in reviewing a book, because we talk about how a book makes us feel. It's what makes a review interesting rather than a long, dull, book report.

    There is a second kind of objectivity, however, that relates to underlying motivation. Some people who receive ARCs or free books feel like if they leave a negative review, they won't continue to get freebies. Therefore, their objectivity is lost because, as Biblibio says, they are not being honest with themselves or their audience - they are not saying how the book made them feel, if it is at odds with their motivation to receive those freebies.

    When I claim to be unbiased when reviewing books, it doesn't apply to emotional objectivity - I do have bias in that regard. What I'm referring to is honesty - my review is not dependent upon receiving free stuff, and therefore you never have to worry that I pulled my punches to maintain a good relationship with a publisher or author.

    B.T.

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  16. Reviews for me were a reason for me to stop reading academic texts while at Uni, and to whittle down my growing bookshelves (I was great at buying books, not so hot at getting around to reading them). Since then it's expanded to being a part of a great community of like minded people (though I can't deny that the freebies are a nice plus).

    There is definitely a risk of subjectivity in reviewing, like hippogriff says, since some bloggers are afraid of losing status or freebies if they post a negative review (I think I was guilty of this at the very beginning).

    everyone has their own perspective and opinions of the book, so in that respect no one can be truly objective. My aim is first and foremost to write a fair account of my reading experience and possibly a recommendation for others to share in that.

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  17. Hi Sarah,
    I ran into your wonderful site thanks to google plus!
    Your post is very interesting.In my opinion,the more reviews one samples,the better picture he/she is likely to get of a book.
    As an example,a book like the checklist manifesto may be read in different ways by a doctor and a scientist with different conclusions.
    I review books and post poetry at my blog
    amedicosmind.blogspot.com
    Please visit and post your comments.

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