Subjectivity in reviews, obesity as satire and a pantomime witch

I wrote a short story recently and, as all writers should (and as I suspect that only some actually do), I sent the draft out to people for review and comment.

There was one sentence that I put in that I was unsure about. It felt a bit forced, a bit writery, but I quite liked it so I left it in, knowing that it didn’t matter because I’d come back to it later during editing and I could always refine or remove it at that stage. Out of interest (mine, not yours), it was something about a pantomime witch.

So I sent it out for review, and one reader came back and said “yeah, about that line, it doesn’t really work. It comes across as a bit clunky, a bit as though you’re trying too hard”. And I had to agree. Confirmation that I was trying too hard.

Then another reader came back, and he highlighted the exact same line (literally – he inserted a comment directly into the text in Word because we are living in the future) and inserted the comment “Brilliant! Love it!”.

So where does that leave me?

In the end I decided to change the line, because I felt that a reader confirming my own nagging doubts about it trumped another reader liking it, but it disguises a deeper issue: where fiction is concerned, the reader is never wrong.

By this I mean that the reader is never wrong in the sense that a piece of fiction is designed to prompt a personal emotional reaction, and that all personal emotional reactions are completely subjective to each individual. So if a reader likes a line that I’ve written then he’s right to like it, but if another reader dislikes it then he’s equally right to dislike it. Fiction is like food in that it can be neither “right” nor “wrong”, and in that although the ingredients, portion size and nutritional content may vary, if a consumer likes it then that’s all that matters.

That said, considering the worrying levels of obesity in the US/UK perhaps consumers should lay off the cheap processed junk and concentrate more on stuff that’s altogether better for you. [is this just a bald statement about diet or is it in fact a cunning satire on the state of publishing? YOU DECIDE]

Just look at Amazon. For any book that has more than around a dozen reviews, even accounting for stooges and enemies of the author there will be at least one five-star review and at least one one-star review. Think about that: two people read exactly the same thing, and one thinks it is absolutely fantastic whilst the other thinks it is utter rubbish. Personal opinion is so subjective that it almost makes me wonder whether reviews have any value whatsoever.


Of course, I don’t think that reviews have no value. They do. I just think that all reviews are limited by the reviewer, and that no one review or reviewer can be considered to be an absolute guide to quality. At best all you can say is that if a particular reviewer’s tastes seem to be sufficiently similar to your own then you are probably going to like what they like and dislike what they like…but even then there is no guarantee that your tastes will coincide on everything. We are each a unique amalgamation of genetics and experiences, meaning that no two people are identical…and meaning that no two personal tastes are identical. Some people will like something about a pantomime witch, for example. Others will not.

Those are my thoughts, anyway. If your tastes are fairly similar to mine then you’ll probably agree with them, and if they aren’t then you probably won’t.

All that really matters, though, is what you think.


3 thoughts on “Subjectivity in reviews, obesity as satire and a pantomime witch”

  1. Agree that no individual reviewer should be the arbiter of good taste, and that 'taste' is a subjective construct. That said, however, the subjective opinion of the few (possibly the 'one') doesn't provide a justification for dismissing the validity of expert review – or the publishing industry generally (assuming the metaphorical subtext to your comments regarding junk food) as part of that process of review.

    Your argument about giving the consumer what he wants is something of an oxymoron, because quite clearly a publishing industry that knows its market does precisely that, and wouldn't shoot itself in the foot by rejecting product that it could successfully market. Subjective opinion, of course, does have its place, but it can never have the credibility, in terms of marketing, of collective opinion – especially if that's collective EXPERT opinion – because one good review can't make a silk purse out of a sows ear.

    As far as Amazon 'reviews' go, I'm sure you're right when you say that every book that has a five star rating will also have a one star rating.. but would you buy a book that had one five star rating per 100 one star? Would you buy a computer game on that basis? Would you buy a house on that basis, or a tv or a car? Is all that really matters what YOU think (sorry, can't do italics, hence the caps), or do you now have to qualify it and consider the credentials of the 'YOU', and ask whether they have the necessary credentials to make an INFORMED evaluation?

  2. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo has an aggregated rating of four stars on Amazon. It has 500 five-star reviews. I had to read it as part of a book group and I thought it was awful. The collective opinion that the book is pretty good – and don't forget that collective opinion is just aggregated individual opinion – was wrong, as far as my tastes are concerned. So yes, as far as what I like to read goes, all that matters is what I think.

    What is “expert review”, and how does it differ from “non-expert” review? What is an “expert” when it comes to reading fiction?

    NB I wasn't dismissing the publishing industry generally.

  3. Let's not forget about collective opinion.

    From a historical perspective collective opinion didn't think much of John Keats or Vincent van Gogh. Collective opinion was very much in favour of Sir Walter Scott. Public taste in the 21st century has reversed the reputations of those individuals and their works. So if collective opinion is relative and dependent up time and place how can you trust it? Most people are still of the opinion that the universe was created by a man-like God. I am as distrustful of what the common herd thinks as I am of the raving loner.

    Expert opinion is also highly questionable. Who are the experts on literature that we can all trust? The publishing industry? The market? When it comes to flying in an aircraft I don't question the expertise of the pilot as my life depends upon him. When it comes to restaurants, films, books, tv programmes or anything of a cultural nature then who can claim to have the same authority as a pilot flying me across the ocean. Is it Mark Kermode? Andrew Graham-Dixon? Simon Cowell? Who? I'd like to know the names.

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