Reading in a Vacuum – Objective versus Subjective Reviews

While my recent review of Joelle Charbonneau’s The Testing was a rather lukewarm one at best, I can’t deny that it certainly got me thinking. Not about the subject matter (I’ve thought about dystopias and young adult views on them plenty of times in the past; this is nothing new), but about the act of reading and forming opinions on novels. Specifically this: is it possible to review a book without making comparisons to other works?

At first glance, you may be thinking, “Sure it’s possible. I do it all the time! Unless I say that Book A was like Book B, or that Author X clearly takes inspiration for Author Y, then it’s totally possible to review without making comparisons.”

But it’s not what you say. It’s what you think.

The reason that The Testing brought this issue into sharp focus for me was because I couldn’t deny that it was a pretty good novel. The writing was decent, the pacing was good, the premise was interesting, and there was plenty of tension on the pages to keep a reader going. The biggest problem with it was that it’s all been done so many times before. Practically point-for-point, no less; it’s not exactly uncommon to hear reviewers say that this book was practically a wholesale rip-off of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy. It’s formulaic. It’s derivative. I felt that it brought absolutely nothing new to an already crowded genre. On its own, it was an okay book. But in context, it had a lot of problems, because in the context of its genre, the other books that surround it on the bookshelves, it was, at best, just another book like a whole load of others.

I don’t think it’s possible to read books without being influenced by them. Whether you liked a book or didn’t, it influenced you. Otherwise you wouldn’t have even formed an opinion. And when you read a lot of books, as reviewers are wont to do, you get a lot of influence going. You get a lot of experience with reading under your belt, and it affects how you view things. If your worldview can expand because of books, then so too can your ability to critically analyze books. The more experience you get, the better you can become.

Which is what leads me to believe that it’s impossible to read in a vacuum. It’s impossible to analyze and review a book without making comparisons to other books. Those comparisons are already stuck in your head, pathways forged by years or even decades of reading.

Had I not already read a bunch of YA dystopian novels, I probably would have thought that The Testing was an amazing book, full of intrigue and great tension and a really creative plot. It wouldn’t have seemed derivative at all, because I wouldn’t have read the stuff it was derived from.

And this is what I struggle with. Is it hypocritical to have enjoyed The Hunger Games when I didn’t really enjoy The Testing? Is timing that critical?

Well, yes. And no, I suppose. Maybe it’s not timing that’s so critical, but the experience that I mentioned before. For the same reasons that I can’t take a food I really like and eat it all the time, I can’t read the same kind of novel constantly without eventually feeling underwhelmed by the whole thing. The food may be well prepared, and even tasty, but after having eaten so much of it already, it starts to lose its appeal. And it doesn’t make me a hypocrite to say that even if that meal was good, it was considerably less good after eating a dozen similar meals so recently.

It’s for these reasons that I don’t think a review can be entirely objective. For one thing, there is no guide to opinions, nor to art. A lot of this stuff comes down to opinion. We can critique writing style, pacing, character development all we want, but those things, like whether something is “good” or “bad”, is largely a matter of opinion. One person’s good is another person’s mediocre, and a third person’s bad. And those opinions, subjective as they are, are formed by our experiences. Our love or hate of one book is influenced by our love or hate of other books. We cannot read in a vacuum. Otherwise, everything would be both the best and the worst thing we’d ever read, because we’d have no context for the material in our hands.

It’s for similar reasons that I look back at some of my early reviews and wonder just what I was thinking. Some books I read and rated 3 years ago may now not pass muster if I read them for the first time today, because my experience has grown, my literary world expanded, and my opinions refined and honed beyond what they were in the past. This is something I’ve seen other reviewers struggle with. It’s a rare person, I think, who doesn’t look back on their past critiques and wonder what they might think now. Would they rate something higher or lower? Would they even bother to read that book now, if now was the first time they came across it?

This is how we grow. We experience. And as reviewers of highly subjective material, we put our growth out for all the world to see every time we write a review. From one book to the next, we are not entirely the same person, because of what we experienced between the pages. It left its mark upon our minds, whether we consciously see it or not. And so when you’ve got so many similar imprints, it gets hard to pick out one from the other, to highlight one as being more special than the other, and a new one just blends in with the crowd for all that it’s a worthy mark in its own right.

I’m very curious as to how other people grapple with this dilemma. How they’ve grown due to their book-related experiences. How they handle knowing that their opinions have changed over the years. What they do when they run into a situation similar to my own when I read The Testing. Is it something most people ignore, forever ploughing onward, or do they often stop and look back and get amazed at just what has changed in them, and the way they view things, since they started reviewing. Comments and opinions very welcome here; I’d love to get a discussion going about the different experiences people have had in this regard!

6 comments on “Reading in a Vacuum – Objective versus Subjective Reviews

  1. I think you’re absolutely right. For me there’s always a question, not just of ‘have my thoughts and opinions changed’ but of ‘ have the ways I’m expressing them grown?’ I haven’t even been blogging for a full year yet but I’m already seeing big changes in the way I review books, regardless of the differences in the books themselves. I’m firmly in the ‘glad of this’ camp, where this is concerned; my main worry is that I’ll start to sound like I’m always turning out the same yammerings, warmed up over and over… ;)

    Part of that can be solved by diversity in what you read, but I do agree that it’s not possible to keep yourself from making comparisons – or if it is, would I want to? Personally, I wouldn’t. Without at least something to compare a book to, there’s no real standard you can hold it to, like you said, and if there’s no such standard then I don’t know what the point in reading to review would be, in the first place.

    • I have the same thoughts sometimes, regarding how my expression of my opinions has changed. I’ve been tempted to rewrite some of my older reviews to reflect this, but I keep getting stuck by the notion that it would be less than honest, because the review I wrote then is the review I wrote then, and would be different from the review I would write now, and it doesn’t seem fair somehow to try to rewrite history like that.

      Diversity totally helps! I used to be far more diverse in what I reviewed, down to the point where I even read and reviewed a mid-grade Amish morality tale on this blog. But over ime my focus narrowed and I stuck with fantasy and speculative fiction rather than just jumping all over the place. I think that’s actually helped a lot in terms of how I write and express what I think, because working with a narrower focus can really refine a person’s skills.

    • That’s kind of what I figure. I can’t imagine putting a book down and not being influenced by it in some way. I can even remember trying way too hard as a kid to read a book that was far beyond my level, and as a result basically read a book full of words instead of s book full of story. And even that still made an impact on me, because of the experience surrounding it! And even if all I came away with was a sense of frustration and the newfound ability to read and spell the word “choir” (and not mentally pronounce it as “chore”), then that’s still a change in me. 3+ years of attempting to read books critically so that I can review them thus has to have changed me even more!

  2. Pingback: Reviewer Subjectivity | Shadowhawk's Shade

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