Feb 12, 2012

The Sunday Salon - On Objectivity, Again

The Sunday Salon.comOver the past few weeks, the most recent instalment of a recurring conversation about the legitimacy of blog reviews has been taking place in the bookish corner of the online world. Caroline posted a good overview of the debate over at her blog; this included a link to a post by author Maggie Stiefvater which differentiated between impressions posted on book blogs and professional reviews. Amy and Chris have also recently posted their thoughts on the word “review” and whether or not they use it to describe what they do as bloggers.

Anyone who’s been paying attention to the book blogging world for more than a few months is likely to have noticed that these conversations are cyclical. This doesn’t bother me, because I think they’re interesting and important to have – though sometimes I can’t help but wish they elaborated on each other instead of always covering more or less the same ground. Then again, that’s part of the nature of any discussion in a world that moves and grows as quickly as the book blogging world does. As more people join the community or become aware of book blogs, they go through the same process of making sense of their goals, positioning themselves, and asking questions about the process of writing about books on the Internet that some of us have gone through in the past. And this is a perfectly legitimate and enriching process.

I have written about this topic before, and two years later I find that I still mean most of what I said then. If anything, I’ve come to feel more comfortable with the term “review” than I did back then – I may not always use it in my head to refer to what I write, but I no longer vaguely feel like I might be misleading people if I allow the content of my posts to be known as reviews. Another thing I’ve become increasingly aware of is the fact that the structure, tone, and level of detail of my posts all vary greatly. Some of them include spoilers, some don’t. Some address past readers, some potential future ones. Some focus on a particular aspect of a book, others strive for a bird’s eye view. Some are detailed, others brief. And all of these are valid ways of writing about books.

As Liz B was saying on Twitter recently, the more academic definition of “review” Maggie Stiefvater uses in her post is legitimate, but it’s only one of many possible definitions. The term “review” keeps evolving, as language always evolves, and the main thing is to make sure that whichever definition we adopt isn’t used to delegitimize conversations about books that don’t follow the specific formula we favour. A good in-depth review can illuminate hidden corners of a book, and it can consequently transform your own reading. But some don’t even come close to doing that, and that’s okay too. Some reviews are two-line blurbs that give busy professionals like librarians an idea of whether or not they want to order copies of an upcoming title, for example. They serve a different purpose than a four thousand words essay, but there’s room in the world for both.

Maggie Stiefvater’s post had me thinking about the idea that objectivity is what distinguishes professional reviews from amateur ones. I’m particularly interested in trying to make sense of what exactly is understood by “objectivity” in this context – I don’t think it’s just one thing, even though people tend to assume it is. I’ll start by giving you an example of what the term means to me when applied to book reviews. Jodie’s recent post on Patrick Ness’ The Knife of Never Letting Go is a great illustration of what I have in mind. The post points out that the novel has a circular narrative structure, in which the protagonists are tossed into situations of danger they narrowly escape, only to have it happen again but with higher stakes in a crescendo that lasts until the last page.

Jodie’s description of this structure is an objective observation, in the sense that it’s a property of the novel. However, the effect it had on her (making her feel emotionally distanced from the story and manipulated) is not. It’s a reaction to this structure – valid, justified, but completely subjective and far from inevitable. I love the fact that Jodie’s post makes this distinction so clearly. Other readers (me, for example) reacted very differently to the narrative structure she describes: they didn’t feel at all emotionally distanced from the story or one bit manipulated. And that’s also a perfectly valid reaction. It’s not that we’re too dim to notice the trick that was being played on us; it’s that people are thankfully very different and react to the same narrative patterns in a myriad unpredictable ways. Even the same person can react differently at different times – and this is all part of what makes literature so rich. My favourite reviews are usually the ones that implicitly acknowledge that.

To me, the objective part of a review is limited to this description of the properties of the novel (narrative structure in the example I used, but also voice, characterisation, dialogue, etc.); it doesn’t extent to the effect they have on a particular reader. However, a review that didn’t also include the latter would be of limited interest to me, because I want to know the subjective effect that a piece of writing had on a particular reader. Ideally, I like this to follow from a few objective observations, so that I, a different reader, can evaluate how likely I am to respond to the text in a similar way. I like being able to look at a review, even a negative one, and gather clues about whether or not the book would work for me. And I like these clues to be as independent from whether or not the novel worked for the reviewer as possible.

Of course, over time you get to know bloggers and come to trust their subjective evaluations too. You begin to notice whether your taste is similar to theirs, and in which ways, and whether they tend to value a piece of writing for the same reasons as you. Even people who love the same books, after all, can love them for very different reasons. I don’t know that professional reviews are all more likely to provide both objective textual evidence and subjective evaluations – I don’t have data to back up any opinion I might offer on this. I do know, though, that I read a fair share of book blogs that do it regularly, and I love them for it. (I also love several bloggers who structure their posts very differently. I like the diversity of voices and styles to be found among book bloggers; it’s what keeps me coming back.)

Thinking about this made me realise two things. First, that the term “review”, even if strictly limited to professional publications, encompasses a tremendous variety of pieces of writing, not all of which follow the same formula. Secondly, that the combination of objective observation and subjective evaluation means that it doesn’t very much matter whether a review is “balanced” in the sense that it counters any negative things it might say with positive ones. It doesn’t matter because readers will be able to follow the process through which the reviewer came to their evaluations, and depart from their final conclusions if they feel so inclined.

What worries me about the idea that objectivity is the main distinguishing factor between book bloggers and professional reviewers is the fact that it’s often accompanied by the belief that it’s the evaluative part of the professional review that is objective. Such a belief worries me because it can be used to encourage passivity and make readers cower before certain readings; it can be the first step in a path that leads to shame-faced genre readers, apologetic romance enthusiasts, the entire notion of “guilty pleasures”, and so on and so forth. I don’t want a literary culture that encourages readers to unquestioningly accept readings or judgements that come from the “right” sort of sources – the ones that are deemed authoritative enough. But the implications of putting too much stock in a single review are exactly this. I realise that this opens the door for a whole other discussion about the fact that not all readings are created equal – and I agree that they’re not, but with fifteen hundred “buts” stamped all over it because I’ve seen this phrase be misused far too many times. I’ve seen it become an appeal to authority, rather than a plea for thoughtful, well-argued reviews with textual support.

Before I end this post, I should clarify that I have limited knowledge of what really propelled the recent conversations about the legitimacy of blog reviews. I don’t often use GoodReads, and though I dip my toes in the YA community I’m not really a part of it. What Maggie Stiefvater says about personal attacks on authors is of course very regrettable. Having said all this, when we worry about blog reviews being taken seriously in the same way professional reviews are, there’s perhaps room to pause and ask some interesting questions about what we understand by “being taken seriously”, exactly. Do we want to be perceived as arbiters of taste, or do we want to use books as a point of departure for interesting conversations? Nobody can deny that the latter is already happening. And when we worry about the damage that can be caused by negative reviews, we should perhaps remember that reading is an active process, whether it’s a book or a review.


  1. Thanks for revisiting this. As always, I enjoy your thoughtful posts.

  2. I value all sources of reviews. I read print (including online versions of print) reviews and I read blog reviews. I also *write* print reviews and blog reviews. One very interesting difference is that most print reviews (I said "most" not "all") have word limits, whereas blog reviews do not.

    What does this mean for me? I often find myself writing two reviews for the same book -- one that captures the essence or most important (to me) parts of the book for a print/professional review and one that goes into depth for my blog review.

    The word limits makes writing a professional review much more difficult (for me, anyway) because there is absolutely no way you can touch on every point when you have word limit.

    But the idea that one type of review is more objective than another is not really true. Both types of reviews are one reader's opinion based on that reader's tastes and reading history. A professional review may be geared to a particular audience (librarians, readers of the New York Times, and so on) but most blog reviews are too (I doubt most bloggers are truly writing only for themselves).

    One difference is that professional reviews are subject to one or two editors before being printed. Thanks to this pause and second set of eyes before the piece is published, professional reviewers are generally saved from having their emotional outbursts made public.

    As always when I comment here, I tend to ramble and never really make any concise point. Sorry. But thanks (as always) for making me think.

  3. A wonderful post, as usual. I referred to the controversy briefly in my post today, and one of my thoughts was that a lot of professional reviews that are, as far as I can tell, universally referred to as reviews don't meet Stiefvater's criterion of being a "little academic paper." For me, that's enough to show that her definition is way too limiting. The personal insults she talks about are a problem, but I'd say that reviews relying on that kind of thing are just poor reviews.

    I often wonder, too, what people mean when they say that "proper reviews" are objective. My own belief is that complete objectivity is just about impossible to achieve, professional or not. And you make a good point that it was start saying certain types of reviewers are objective and others aren't, we could easily end up privileging their opinions and discounting others. However, someone (I think Tom of Amateur Reader) commented on one of my past posts about this issue that he sees objectivity as meaning nothing more than "supported by evidence," which I can get behind. Evidence can come from the book (and in the best reviews certainly will), but it can also take in the reviewers own life, preferences, and so on. The key for me is that the reactions are explained, and there are lots of ways to do that. Like you, I think the variety in the ways bloggers review is one of the joys of blogging.

    Your question about what it means to be taken seriously is a good one. I'm going to think about that some more.

  4. Great post. I wish that I could detail my response to every paragraph of your post, but to save time...just know that I was nodding my head along as I read. I think Beth's point, in the comments, that one way professional reviews are distinguished from blog reviews is that they go through an editing process. That's something that I tend to forget; as she says, it's not that professional reviewers are reacting objectively to a work, but that their emotional outbursts can be cleaned away before their review goes public. As far as the entire idea of objective reviews goes, of course it's impossible to write one, and anyone who claims professional reviewers do so is full of it. My favorite bloggers are the ones who, as you write, acknowledge implicitly that their response to, and review of, a book is one that's subjective. That is one of the things I like most about the book blogging community - that for the most part, people are open about how they come to their understanding of a certain book, and are interested in the opinions of people who have had different reading experiences.

  5. I never get too involved in these conversations because I don't consider myself to have a big enough readership to matter. I like that my friends will read what I recommend, and that is good enough for me. While blog reviews may be accused of being emotional or not completely objective, I've read articles that would indicate to me that there are factors at play in the professional world making their objectivity suspect as well. I know a professional reviewer or two that have a long list of authors who are personal friends, have stayed in their homes, have been wined and dined by publishers, etc. All of these reviews are written by human beings, therefore I believe there is less of a distinction than one would think.

  6. Lenore: Aw, thank you!

    Beth F: That's an excellent point about the editing process. While some emotional outburst are intentionally kept even after that (the recent Hatchet Job of the Year Award is a good example), I'm sure it makes a world of difference when it comes to the final tone of what gets published. Also, don't apologise for "rambling"! I always enjoy reading your thoughts.

    Teresa: I can get behind Tom's definition of objectivity too - that's a really great way to put it. But I worry that at least some of the time, that's not what's generally understood by objectivity, and that people get the idea that they should strive for an "objective" evaluation of a book. I think the best we can do is come up with a legitimate evaluation, in the sense that it's backed up by a careful, thoughtful reading of the text and an acknowledgement of our individual biases. That can never be the last word on a novel's worth, but that doesn't make it meaningless - quite the contrary.

    Ellen: I love that too - I think it's a crucial part of a rich literary culture, really. I'm so glad that as bloggers we contribute to that, even if in a small way.

    Sandy: Yes, great point about how we're all human. While I'd like to think most professionals are ethical (and most bloggers too), getting a paycheck doesn't automatically place anyome above sketchy behind the scenes doings.

  7. I agree with one of the points you made that one reason for following particular bloggers is that you appreciate their perspective that are in fact based on their own interests or biases. For example, you are always going to be looking at the gender relationships in a book. I often get too emotionally involved to do that, so I love that I will find that perspective on your blog. Another blogger always comments on how the story makes her feel as a parent. One of my favorite bloggers NEVER agrees with me on books, so I love following her to see what she *didn't* like and thinking about our different reactions. Yesterday I read a writer saying that well, nobody reads blogs except other bloggers so blogs don't matter (professionally) but I think it would be a big mistake for writers to ignore hoi polloi. Sure, it's tough to see interpretations of your baby that you think are wrong and unfair or unappreciative, but perhaps it will help you clarify yourself in the future. At the very least, it will help you see why you aren't connecting to readers the way you want, or to understand the different *ways* in which you connect to readers. If I were a writer, therefore, I think I would be more interested the *more* "unprofessional" the reviews were, rather than the other way around.

  8. oops, a small p.s.

    (1) I didn't just mean I agree with only ONE of your points, but just wanted to comment on the one! :--)

    (2) horrible grammar in my comment, sorry!

  9. Great points, Ana, and I agree with you on all counts. It's really not as easy to categorize reviews or reactions as some would like to make it. I am of the mind that professional reviews will never be totally objective and neither should they be. Candace made some great points about professional reviews vs. reviews of a more personal nature on blogs.

    Great discussion! Thanks for diving in. :)

  10. I'm not sure any review can be completely objective. We're influenced by so many things, some we don't even realize consciously. I like Tom's definition of objective, that's a good one.

  11. It's interesting, because I've read some "professional" reviews in, say, the New York Times or Salon, where the reviewers seem to have it in for the author. I've come away thinking that they are possibly jealous or angry for some reason, because the reviews are so scathing that it goes beyond the pale of "this books failed for me, and here's why."

    And it's interesting that yes, noticing how an author has structured a narrative and discussing that structure make a review more objective...and more to the point, all authors are conscious of structure. Every author is manipulating the reader. That's why they choose this word and not that word, why they give specific characters certain traits, why the murder happens in chapter 9 instead of chapter 12...but I suppose if we all talked about books that way, we might feel they lose some of their magic. We don't want the curtain drawn back for us--we want to believe that the story was delivered whole to the author, who then delivered it to us, but it doesn't work that way. So much of reading is about suspending disbelief--that's what makes a wonderful book so breathtaking. It pulls us out of ourselves. As bloggers, I think that's the stuff many of us enjoy discussing.

  12. When I write about a book, I title my post "Review:[Insert book title here]. After some of these discussions, I've thought of changing my title to Bookish Thoughts or something like that, but then I decided it really doesn't matter what I call it, the content's the same.

  13. Personally, I would love to be an "arbiter of taste." But, I know that's not going to happen. I do still hope to be a 'point of departure for interesting conversations.' That's probably a major reason why I spent so much time on my reviews. Yes, I'll go to the grave calling them reviews.

    I think the presence of an editor is a good point of difference between amateur and professional. I'm sure I would benefit from an editor, and there have been times when I sent a post to a blogger friend for feedback before putting it out there in the world. Without benefit of a human editor, I use time instead by letting all of my posts sit for at least three days time prior to publication. That way I can think about what I've said before I officially 'say' it.

    Lastly, I want to comment on Tom's definition. Tom, as always, as useful food for thought, but I'm not sure the presence of textual evidence supports the notion of objectivity. It's good to have it, but textual evidence can be easily manipulated to match the reviewer's bias.

  14. This is why I love your face so hard.

  15. Thanks for the links, Nymeth.
    My post had a slightly different approach as what was on my mind were essentially so-called negative reviews but it ended in a discussion on reviews per se.
    I really agree with you when you say that there are so many different approaches and they are all valid. I also like a combination of objective and subjective.
    I like variety and want to write in different styles, give a good idea of the book and then say clearly, this is how I perceived it.
    I'm personally not bothered whether I write a review or something else.

  16. Great post. As always, you've left me with more to think about on this topic.

  17. I enjoyed reading this post and I'm going to visit the discussions that you have linked to in it. I was actually debating posting about this same subject of blog reviews a couple months ago, but I've had trouble organizing my thoughts.

  18. I heart's this post, Ana! I've been staying away from this whole issues because Maggie Stefvater's conclusions made me feel soooo insecure as a person who writes about books, even though it really shouldn't have. I didn't feel like I could address it without unfortunately going off at an author who was just airing their views and had a good point about personal attacks, because it just had the unfortunate consequence of tapping all my soft underbelly.

    And thanks so much for totally getting what I was trying to do with that post you linked to. I could have written a review that was closer to total objectivity (like you I think pure objectivity is a myth, unless you avoid analysis, which eh, empirical approach to writing aout books, eh) about that book (and the same for my recent review of Great House) as there's plenty cool structure, characterisation etc to talk about with both books, but when I have such a strong reaction against, or for something I want to talk about that recation as well. Otherwise it feels like the review isn't true to me, or is selective and misleading...that's just me though, obviously, not telling anyone how to write their own reviews! I just think, I'm the only person who can write about the way a book makes me feel, so that's what I try to do in between the pure descriptions of what I see in a book. Personal account are important, says the part of me fascinated by social history.

  19. Since a few people have chimed in with a discussion of Tom's definition of objectivity, I went and found the comment, just so people can see it in context (and to make sure I didn't misremember). Anyone interested can see it here.

  20. Really I think it all comes down to what people want to get out of their own blogging and what people seek from the blogs that they read. I prefer to always to read a bit more subjective posts with a little bit of objectivity. Sometimes it feels like we have this same conversation over and over doesn't it? And we'll probably continue to have it.

  21. I hate "objectivity" because it's usually an illusion. I hated the years I spent writing formal papers in undergrad and then grad English programs where the convention was to use the royal "we" as in "we see in this passage from A Passage to India that..." Did you see what Lev Grossman had to say in Time on this subject? http://entertainment.time.com/2012/02/08/beyond-good-and-awful-literary-value-in-the-age-of-the-amazon-review/

  22. I want to second what Chris said. I don't believe any review can be truly objective. That said, thanks for your well thought out post:)

  23. I would adore being an arbiter of taste! Maybe I should start one of those "Hot or Not?" columns. ;)

    Objectivity in reviews is such a load of hogwash. I find it so ironic that people engaged in a creative endeavor want their work judged by a set of quantifiable standards that don't even exist, instead of the emotion they inspire in their readers. Even if they admit there aren't any objective standards by which books can be judged, they want to create them! (Lev Grossman) Sorry, puppies, but there's no such thing. Art isn't that easy. Or maybe we should reduce novels to nothing but abstract concepts that you need 100 years' worth of literary context to understand? Then NO ONE WILL READ except for academics and bunch of snobby insiders. Awesome plan.

  24. I love your discussions about these issues, Ana, just because they seem to grasp all the important points! I have a huge problem with the idea of objectivity in reviews just because I think of reading (especially fiction) as a very subjective activity. Plus you can't really objectively criticise a piece of fiction without taking it apart and thus giving away the plot. But then my attitude probably reflects the kind of reviews I enjoy reading which tend to discuss emotional responses. After all, reading isn't just about learning about the world but also making you feel things.

  25. I think your comment about getting to know the blogger's taste and trusting it when you're found someone with similar taste is so true. When I read and write reviews I always remember that personal taste and experience will inevitably color the interpretation of the book. I understand authors frustration with reviews that they think are objective, but reading isn't an objective experience. I think other readers are intelligent enough to know that while they are reading reviews.

  26. Awesome post, Ana! I liked very much the way you have explained what could be the objective and subjective elements in a review. One of the best explanations that I have ever read :)

    I read Maggie Stiefvater’s essay. I liked the essay and found Stiefvater’s point of view interesting and could empathize with her. However, I didn’t agree with some of the things she says in her essay. For example, she says that a review comes out only in journals and these reviews are prized by writers and a blog post is not a review. I find that writers court bloggers and despise journal reviewers on one hand and on the other hand when they don’t get positive reviews from bloggers, they make comments like this. Maggie also says that a blog post is different from a book review. She implies that a post is subjective and a review is objective. Though I agree with her that a blog post is subjective (for the record, I will say that all my book reviews are subjective and passionate and they express my opinion on a book and they are all biased and they reflect the way I have grown up and the way I have been culturally conditioned), I don’t agree with her that a journal or a magazine review is objective. I have seen book reviews in ‘The New York Times’ or in other leading papers, magazines and journals which are extremely biased and which merely reflect the reviewer’s opinion on things. (For example, British historian Norman Davies wrote a masterful history of Europe called ‘Europe : A History’. It is one of the best history books I have ever read and one of the best books on the subject, in my opinion. His book was totally ripped apart by Theodore Rabb in the New York Times. The review was totally biased and just reflected the reviewer’s opinions on things. A more even-handed review of the book by Anne Applebaum appeared in the New Criterion, which less people read.)

    So, my own take is that reviews give an idea of what a book is about. But reviews are always passionate, biased and subjective and reflect the reviewer’s point of view. I feel that authors should take reviews with a pinch of salt and with a sense of humour.

    Thanks for this wonderful post. I loved reading it.

  27. I admit that Maggie lost me when she wrote blogger "reviews" instead of just blogger reviews. When people put words in quotes like that, it is as though they are inserting the word ALLEGEDLY in a snarky way into the subtext of the conversation. I hate it. I don't call my posts reviews any more because I fell for this ridiculous differentiation of what a review is and what a post is.

    And I agree with you- if I want objectivity about a book, I will read the plot summary. I am not sure how a review can be so objective. For instance, if you end up not recommending a book in a review, then is that not subjective? Regardless of how much textual support you throw behind it to support your stance? When professional reviewers review plays and musicals, for instance, aren't they doing so in order to help you decide whether or not to go see the show? Just as book reviewers are trying to help you decide whether or not to read a book? I don't see what this great gulf between "reviewers" and "bloggers" is (snarky ALLEGEDLY done on purpose), and I feel the only people who keep making the distinction are the people who have the most at stake from the narrowing gap between the two.

  28. Jill: First of all, don't worry - I always find 200 mistakes on my comments the second after I post them :P I love how you worded that. It really is the individual bias (or, to use the less loaded term you used, perspective) that draws me to different bloggers. I know that they'll approach books from an angle I'd never approach them from, but I get a glimpse of what seeing them through their eyes is like. And *that's* what makes blogs so interesting to me.

    Andi: I completely agree with you and Candance. I had never stopped to think about the word limits and other format limitations that professional publications might enforce. I appreciate professional reviews, but I like the freedom that blog posts give us.

    Chris: Agreed!

    Priscilla: I've definitely noticed that as well in all sorts of different publications. I think it's naive to think that professionals will be, well, professional 100% of the time. I see what you mean about how drawing the curtain back can break the magic, but I don't think that *always* happens. It's possible to combine a more structural analysis with fan love. But of course, no one should ever feel like they *have* to do both for their review to be worth something.

    Kathy: Exactly. What we call them doesn't really make that much of a difference.

    C.B. James: I remember one of my literature profs discussing that in class once when she introduced the concept of cogency in critical responses. Yes, people can decontextualise textual evidence, and without reading the books for ourselves we'll never known if they're doing it. What complicates things furhter is that doing so isn't really a matter of intentional dishonestly - people might simply not realise they've missed important contextual clues. So yes, textual support still doesn't make for fullproof objectivity, but it's probably the best we can do.

    raych: ♥

    Caroline: I really loved the discussion in the comments to your post - it helped me formulate my ideas on this better. I don't care about labels much either, but like Liz B was saying on Twittet they begin to bother me when people use them to say "this is not what you're writing".

    Amy: I'm glad to have helped :)

  29. So the question that arises for me is this one: why don't you see bloggers often writing the classical literary review that Ms S refers to? Without the constraint of editorial expectation, it seems to me like people don't generally choose to write this type of review. Blogging produces writing that suits a writers predilections, and rewards writing that fills a market need. But I do wonder if that means it doesn't fill other needs that constraints impel us to fill. So I see both as valuable.

  30. Thoughtful, measured, and insightful post! These conversations are cyclical aren;t they? And just when you think the blogger v. professional argument has finally run its course, here it comes back again. But I agree with you that these conversations can be very useful. This one in particular always asks us to evaluate just exactly what we are about, something, I think, that is never a waste of time to ponder.

  31. I love what you say about reading being a process and one's reactions being valid and how isn't it great that we have different tastes and reactions to books. That's so incredibly true.

    Pretty much you said it all, so really, I only am commenting to say fantastic post. Definitely gave me some food for thought!

  32. Love this post and all of the points that you make. My main thought with all of this (maybe some day I'll write my own post instead of just commenting on all the various discussions, heh) is that no one goes into a book or reads a book entirely objectively. EVERYONE, 'professional' reviewers included, go in with their world-view, their background, their prejudices, their stereotypes. Yes we may point out things like sexism, homophobia, racism, etc in books but why is that considered a negative review and thus bad? These are important things to be discussed. All I can say is thank goodness for the variety of readings and personal experiences we bloggers bring to reviews!

    That being said - personal attacks - whether at authors or reviewers, are just ridiculous. We don't need to call each other names because we don't like a book or a review. We're more mature than that... aren't we? ;)

  33. This was a very thoughtful post, Ana - and I appreciate the links you provided as well. I always find these kinds of conversations interesting.

    Ever since book bloggers became a force in the publishing industry, their legitimacy, it seems, has been questioned - do they really write reviews? Are they professional? Do they merit the kind of attention that publishers are giving them? Initially, I think, this was fueled by the professional reviewers whose territory was suddenly infringed upon...but now we also see it from some authors who get a less than glowing response from a blogger.

    I think it is important to recognize that we (book bloggers) are very different from print and professional reviewers. Blogs are designed to stimulate a conversation. Most bloggers write posts to get people talking about the books - there is usually a back and forth interaction between bloggers and readers. The whole thing is designed to be looser, more subjective, more engaging. When has anyone ever emailed a print reviewer to discuss their analysis of a book? Um - probably never.

    Personally, I prefer the blog reviews - they feel more meaningful to me. But the bottom line is there is room for BOTH the professional review and a blog review, an academic analysis (which actually some blogger do) and a more subjective assessment.

  34. Bookish Hobbit: I look forward to reading your post if you get around to finishing it. People always have different perspectives on this and I'm always interested in what they are.

    Jodie: I know exactly what you mean about not trusting yourself to respond to something because it taps into all your insecurities. Stefvater's post didn't have that effect on me, but there have been many conversations over the years that did exactly that. And I loooved your TKONLG post even though our responses were so different. Nobody should feel obliged to write "fair" reviews that devote equal time to all the positive and negative aspects of a book - sometimes it's a relatively small thing that grabs our attention, and discussing that at length is completely legitimate. Also, I love you for discussing the issues you had with the book without pulling a "I'm smarter than the rest of you for responding to this the way I did" card. Not that you ever would, because you're you :D

    Teresa: Thank you for that!

    Trish: Yes, exactly. Different blogs fullfill different goals and respond to different kind of reader preferences, and that's part of what makes it fun.

    Jeanne: Hahaha, the royal "we". I'm not a a big fan either :P Thank you for the link to the Grossman article! I hadn't seen it before.

    Gavin: I agree :)

  35. "The term “review” keeps evolving, as language always evolves, and the main thing is to make sure that whichever definition we adopt isn’t used to delegitimize conversations about books that don’t follow the specific formula we favour."

    I loved this statement in your post. That's all. :)

  36. Heidenkind: Go for it ;) Have you read What Good are the Arts by John Carey? He has A LOT to say about art being conceived of as something you can only unpack through abstract concepts. This isn't to say that an education can't help you get MORE out of art and literature, but it's not requirement for a meaningful experience with an artistic object. As for Grossman's article, I didn't think he was so much asking for universal criteria by which art should be judged to be created, but for people to make an effort to articulate the criteria that they personally use. We value art and literature for different reasons, and that's fine, but I do think it could be useful to have some insight into what a person (of award panel) means when they say "this book is great". Of course, my favourite reviews already show me that implicitly. Still, I can see the argument for overt articulation too.

    Sakura: I usually like a mix of emotional response and taking things apart, but the wonderful thing about blogs is that they DO offer both - and often in the same review.

    Melissa: "I think other readers are intelligent enough to know that while they are reading reviews." YES! This. It bugs me that so many of these conversations assume that they aren't.

    Vishy: It sounds like we had a similar response to the essay. I love your point about cultural conditioning, by the way. No one is above it, and I think admitting this leads to far more useful conversations than pretending it isn't true. Thank *you* for the very thoughtful comment, as always :)

    Aarti: Hahaha. I'm not a fan of the "scare quotes" either :P And yeah, when someone makes a judgement call about whether others should make time for (and invest money on) a particular book, album, play, etc, there's no way that's not subjective. We can think that the review makes a persuasive argument, but it's not the last word. If that was the case, books/movies/plays wouldn't regularly get completely contradictory reviews in different professional publications.

    Jason: That's an interesting question. I really, really wish there were some numbers out there about this - the exact percentage of reviews that fit this definition in newspapers and in book blogs. Because my impression (which could of course be wrong) is that these days that type of review mostly happens in academic journals. Anyway, I do see both as valuable too, and I particularly value blogs that respond to readers' needs, rather than the needs of marketing departments.

  37. Ana, as usual this is a perfectly written, insightful post about a situation that I feel we've all revisited again and again. Sometimes I feel that I walk away from professional reviews without ever really knowing what the author's opinion is, perhaps in their effort to appear objective they forget that part of any review is a subjective opinion. Yes, I expect a professional review to back up their subjective opinion, and I'd like all book bloggers to do that, too. Stiefvater made it very clear that objective reviews still carry an opinion, but one that is based on a close reading, not emotions. Is that really how "professional" reviewers approach it? I don't know what the answer is. I think there's a time and a place for all reviews, but I'm not sure that the semantics really matter in the end. Does the distinction between review and reaction truly matter? Is there really that much of a difference? Is the purpose of distinguishing them to say one is better than the other? I don't know. It's a conversation that we can keep having simply because there aren't really answers, just those pesky subjective opinions.

  38. Stefanie: There's always another round, even when you think it's all been said! But yes, I find them useful exactly because they encourage us to make sense of what we want to do with our blogs.

    April: Thank you so much!

    Amy: I'd love to hear a post from you on this! I completely agree that personal attacks just cross a line, but I do worry that people who aren't involved in blogging will largely overestimate how often they happen by far because of posts like Stiefvater’s.

    Wendy: I really like what you say about stimulating conversation. That's what I find the most rewarding about blogging. Maybe some critics do get letters from their readers, but even so, it's not an immediate, back and forth exchange of the same kind blog comments provide.

    Christy: Thank you! I'm glad you like it.

    Lu: "I don't know what the answer is. I think there's a time and a place for all reviews, but I'm not sure that the semantics really matter in the end." Yes, exactly. I don't think they matter all that much either. I'm interested in these conversations because they help us make sense of our goals and reveal assumptions about what bloggers do or what people believe they "should" do. But at the end of the day, I don't care if someone calls their writing a "review" or not - I care that it's engaging and interesting and that it does whatever it is that it set out to do.

  39. Great post, Ana.

    I have to say, that I don't think I have ever read a "professional" review that wasn't subjective. I'd also have to reiterate, that a truly objective review, if there really is such a thing, would be incredibly boring and no one would read it.

    I feel like I've come into this discussion at the end, so forgive me for missing the point, but I've always thought that any reader who has developed an articulate, thoughtful response to a book and writes that out in words, has written a review. Is that not what we teach kids in English over the years?? I was a bit surprised by Stiefvater's somewhat snobbish definition! But I haven't read her post.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.