Subjective vs. Objective When Writing Reviews

Has this ever happened to you?

You pick up a book, or watch a movie or TV show that has received rave reviews, from friends, professional critics and internet posters–and you don’t like it.  At all.

You don’t get it.  You can’t understand what everyone else is flipping out over.

Of course, it happens to everyone.  The sitcom Seinfeld even devoted an episode to it when Elaine couldn’t understand why everyone else thought The English Patient was a great movie.

This happened to me again just the other day.  I was seeing rave reviews for Gillian Flynn‘s new book Gone Girl all over the place.  The blurb sounded interesting to me.  I had an extra Audible credit in my account and decided to download it.

It didn’t take long for me to realize I had made a mistake.  I just couldn’t get into it.

I gave it about three chapters, then quit.  I went to Amazon to see if there were negative reviews, and as with most popular books, there were more than a few.  (What is it about human beings that we so desperately want someone to validate what we feel?)  Only a few people  disliked it from the beginning of the story.  The others mostly complained about how they didn’t care for the twist ending.

After putting aside Gone Girl, I’ll admit I was in a bit of a snit, annoyed with the people who had given these glowing reviews and convinced me to spend an Audible credit on the book.  I gave a lot of thought to exactly what was bothering me about the book.

It turns out that most of what bothered me was connected to my own personal taste.

The first issue I had was it front-loads the story with a lot of exposition.

I stopped reading The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo after two chapters for the same reason.  I want to get right into the action, not hear about the characters’ life histories up to the point where the story begins. (In the case of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, it was also the economic history of Europe for the last thirty years.)

The other thing that put me off about Gone Girl was the writing style.  It’s a very descriptive, stylized form of prose writing.

I happen to prefer a leaner, plainer, more direct style of writing.  I don’t know why that is–maybe because I read a lot of writers like James M. Cain and Ross MacDonald when I was in my teens.  That may also be why I like stories to get right into the action.  It’s not that I can’t appreciate dense writing (heck, I love Thomas Hardy, you can’t get denser than that) but I want something to happen in the middle of it.

That’s the point–this is my personal preference.  Because I don’t like something doesn’t mean it has no value.  There are people who enjoy this style of writing.  There are people who love to read a lot of detail about the characters’ histories at the beginning of a story.

They’re not wrong.

They’re just not me.

The thing is, when people write reviews, sometimes they forget this.  Too often it boils down to “I loved it, so it’s a work of genius” or “I didn’t like it, so it’s a piece of crap.”

Clearly, Gillian Flynn is a talented writer.  Clearly, Stieg Larsson hit some kind of nerve with his Millennium series.  That’s a remarkable achievement.  I don’t have to read the books to admire how he grabbed the imaginations of so many people.

While our first response to a story is emotional, we should make an effort not to be entirely emotional when writing reviews.  We don’t have to pretend a book rocked our world when it didn’t.  It’s actually O.K. not to like something other people like.  But we should try to figure out why we didn’t care for a book–and whether those reasons are personal taste, rather than poor execution.  Every author deserves that much respect.

Oh, and for the record–I agree with Elaine.  I also didn’t love The English Patient.  However, unlike Elaine, I won’t try to convince everyone else they’re wrong because they liked it.

11 thoughts on “Subjective vs. Objective When Writing Reviews

  1. It is interesting that I just finished reading a blog about the reactions that people had to the negative reviews that appeared on-line for the new Batman movie. I find it interesting that you point out that people do see opinions about the quality of a work, Movie, Books or Music to name a few as validations of themselves even though they have no connection to the creation. But I think it is deeper than even that because I think it is the same reaction that you see when sports fans will get into a dispute about their favorite teams. People placing their own value based on an external factor that they have no control of.

    1. Yes, it does seem that some people take reviews very personally, and not just creators of the work. I’ll be honest, I was a little nervous about stating that I don’t like two extremely popular books (Gone Girl and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo). My mom’s a big fan of TGWTDT and she still likes me. 🙂

      1. I actually found myself falling into this today. I was reading a blog review of a favorite book of mine. The review was completely negative. I noticed that I became defensive of what this person had written.

  2. People do have different views on books, and yet that does not mean the book is either good or bad. I agree that It is all very subjective. As a writer and an avid reader myself, I prefer, just like you, that the author get to the story right away. I was interested in reading Gone Girl, but after seeing your review, I think I may defer it a bit. Although overall, I enjoyed Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I did find that it dragged and dragged in the beginning.
    People who read my novel, Murder in Trabuco Canyon, specifically commented on how it got to the point from the first chapter, and also that it was written in a simple and direct style. Since you seem to like that, maybe you might enjoy Murder in Trabuco Canyon too. If you happen to pick it up or read the sample, please let me know what you think.

  3. Hi thanks for visiting my blog. Just like you I find that too much discription and history etc distracts me. I prefer to get straight to the point and yes I write the same way. This is a lovely post, because I can relate to everything you said.

  4. You made such a good point here. I love books that have lots of exposition, because it makes me feel as if I’m falling into another world, right there on my couch. Just because you and I tend to like different types of books doesn’t mean one of us is right and one of us is wrong. Writing is an art form, and as a result, everyone will react differently to various forms of writing. Thanks for this great post.

  5. That’s a good point, about personal taste, and I dare say only a writer would notice that. We tend to set that aside as we’re reviewing a book, notice instead character strength, plot development and their ilk. I get annoyed at my writers group when they start a review with “This isn’t my genre, so…”

    I force myself to ignore my taste and think about the details when I write my reviews. Sometimes (not always) I find I like the book at the end.

    1. I worked as a reader for a film company years ago and it forced me to focus on objective criteria. Yet I still have those emotional reactions now and then. I wait a while before posting reviews now, so I’m more distanced from the initial reaction.

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